This week in The Forward, the usually superb Philologos sadly decided to give a bit of his intellectual heft to a topic that is becoming a bit of a meme for leftist Jewish writers of late: the supposedly discriminatory nature of Israel’s national anthem,”Hatikvah.” But these attacks on “Hatikvah” are themselves assaults on the liberal democratic values these writers claim to be upholding.
Philologos isn’t as sloppy as others and knows instinctively it would be unjust to throw out or rearrange “Hatikvah” so thoroughly that it would mean “accommodating the feelings of Arabs by trampling on the feelings of Jews.” Showing his poetic chops, he claims to have discovered a solution by substituting a few choice words that allegedly don’t change the song’s fundamental meaning for Jews but would nevertheless placate the Arab minority allegedly harmed by the song’s Jewish character.
So “yehudi” (Jew) becomes “yisraeli” (Israeli) since “in traditional rabbinic Hebrew it means “Jew” just like “yehudi.” Jews would then still get to sing about an eye looking east, it would just be to “artzenu” (our land) instead of Zion, “which is a bit too close to ‘Zionism.’” The final resounding call of the anthem to be “a free people in our land, the Land of Zion and Jerusalem” gets tossed in favor of an earlier version which didn’t mention Zion and Jerusalem, instead noting “the city of David,” as Muslims and Christians see David as a part of their traditions as well.
Allegedly having resolved any problems to what should be the satisfaction of Jews and Arabs, both Muslim and Christian, we now have an anthem that all of Israel’s people can share (anyone who doesn’t hold by an Abrahamic faith apparently doesn’t count.) Since “the country’s future depends” on “the successful integration of Israeli Arabs into Israeli life” and it is “unacceptable to have an anthem that can’t be sung by 20 percent of a population,” this is something Israel should do.
This proposal is indicative of more errors in thinking than present space allows. Most troubling is Philologos’ unstated assumption that a state’s identity must perfectly match that of all its citizens.
The dominance of the liberal democratic order in international affairs that we all benefit so greatly from is largely based on the principle of the self-determination of peoples. This principle can only be expressed when all those peoples determining their own destinies get to really do it, which for probably every single one who has been given the opportunity means aligning the identity of their independent state with the people’s own historical identity and heritage, while also making plain the special relationship between that state and its diaspora.
Believing in the right of peoples to determine their political destinies free of the meddling of outside powers means they and they alone truly get to decide what the symbols of their state will look like. Twenty years after the glorious collapse of the Soviet empire, one of the most important ways that we know Poland is truly free is that its people have made the state truly Polish, as they define it. History has shown well that the future health of these states depends foremost on their ability to retain the symbols of their heritage.
So it is with Israel, to no greater or lesser extent. The rights of minorities in states like Israel or Poland who do not share the national identities of the majority must of course be protected for the states to be truly democratic. But that does not mean they must alter their national symbols in order to do so. For the Jewish people, there really is no substitute for Zion and Jerusalem (whatever the original wording of “Hatikvah”), and they have no need to change their anthem to placate those who unjustly see something problematic in the word given over to their national liberation movement, Zionism.
To ask they do otherwise is to assault the very principle of self-determination all peoples enjoy. To stand for “Hatikvah” as it is presently worded is therefore to stand not just for the rights of the Jewish people, but for the rights of all peoples to determine their own fates.