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.