Commentary Magazine


Topic: Hatikvah

Who Says “Hatikvah” Isn’t for Everybody?

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.

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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.

 

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Standing Respectfully But Staying Mute

It’s worth wondering whether the non-controversy over the decision by an Israeli Supreme Court justice to not sing “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem, last week is worth the space of a full article. But Ethan Bronner’s fair-minded and sober treatment of the issue recently in the New York Times does highlight something very important: the way in which Israel and Israelis usually successfully navigate the fault lines that do exist in a state both Jewish and democratic.

The justice in question, Salim Joubran, is a Christian Arab, and the first Arab appointed to a permanent seat on Israel’s highest court. In a publicly televised ceremony marking the retirement of the current chief justice and the installation of the next, Joubran stood but did not sing the words to the national anthem, which includes within it a reference to a “yearning Jewish soul” and focuses quite explicitly on the long Jewish dream to return to political independence in the Land of Israel.

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It’s worth wondering whether the non-controversy over the decision by an Israeli Supreme Court justice to not sing “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem, last week is worth the space of a full article. But Ethan Bronner’s fair-minded and sober treatment of the issue recently in the New York Times does highlight something very important: the way in which Israel and Israelis usually successfully navigate the fault lines that do exist in a state both Jewish and democratic.

The justice in question, Salim Joubran, is a Christian Arab, and the first Arab appointed to a permanent seat on Israel’s highest court. In a publicly televised ceremony marking the retirement of the current chief justice and the installation of the next, Joubran stood but did not sing the words to the national anthem, which includes within it a reference to a “yearning Jewish soul” and focuses quite explicitly on the long Jewish dream to return to political independence in the Land of Israel.

Bronner found intemperate voices on both the right and left who sharpened their swords over the non-event, with Haaretz seeing it as another opportunity to impugn the Jewish character of the state as inherently discriminatory. Yet Bronner also wrote, “Most Israeli Jews, however, seemed to feel comfortable with Justice Joubran’s approach — standing respectfully but staying mute.” In other words, they seem to know instinctively that it is appropriate for a democracy to align its identity with that of the majority of its citizens, but that it must also make allowances for those who do not share that identity.

For his part, Joubran – who holds a position in Israeli society he is likely to find thankless far too often -  seemed to hit the right balance in his approach. There is no use denying that identification with the lyrics of “Hatikvah” may be impossible for fair reasons for non-Jewish citizens of Israel. But it is not too much for that state – on a cultural level – to ask that all its citizens and its public officials in particular still show the anthem appropriate respect, which standing in silence certainly does.

Where Bronner and Noah Kleiger, the Israeli commentator he quotes, go wrong is in their depiction of the Israeli case as unique. Kleiger may think that “Any British or French citizen – regardless of whether he is Muslim, Buddhist, Christian or Jewish – can utter the words ‘God Save the Queen’ without a problem, because these words are suitable for everyone,” but he should ask atheists (or even those not quite comfortable with the idea that the Queen’s role as head of the British state and the Anglican church is God-given) whether or not they feel the same. Like the Israeli anthem, the British one makes specific claims about the identity of the British state, and it is an identity not shared by all British citizens. As in Israel, none of it makes the country any less free or democratic.

So if you’ve taken a moment to consider the extremely minor affair of Salim Joubran and the singing of “Hatikvah,” use it to consider well the way in which Israel continues to do a fine job of living up to its billing that it is both Jewish and democratic, regardless of what the critics have to say.

 

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