"Hatikva," Israel's national anthem, is about to have a bumper year with the country's upcoming 60th anniversary celebrations - and if Israel is lucky, with the 2008 Summer Olympics as well. For Jews anywhere, singing "Hatikva" fills our hearts with pride and emotion. However, the 100-year-old "Hatikva" is no longer just the spiritual anthem of the Jews. It is the national anthem of Israel - and Israel today includes over one million Arab citizens.
"Hatikva," as is, has been a problem for Israel's Arab citizens. When the Israeli national soccer team competes overseas and "Hatikva" is played, Arab Israeli players who are representing Israel stand silent. Israeli television cameras zoom in on those silent lips, highlighting a problem that resurfaces daily with school choirs, ribbon-cutting ceremonies, sporting events and official visits. Can we possibly imagine an Arab citizen, however loyal and dedicated to Israel, singing with pride and joy the words "as long as deep in the heart a Jewish soul beats" and "our 2,000-year-old hope of being a free nation in our land?"
Israel should not change "Hatikva." The words carry deep meaning, boast a rich history and stir emotion. What we can do is learn from the experience of Canada. Like Israel, Canada is also home to at least two significant groups, the English and the French, with two official languages and lots of historical baggage.
"O Canada," the Canadian national anthem, was originally written in French in the nineteenth century, as a French-Canadian song. The French lyrics start with "O Canada, land of our forefathers" and continue with "your hand that knows how to carry the sword, can also carry the cross." The cross here is evoked as a Catholic symbol of peace for French Canadians, whose forefathers settled New France in the seventeenth century.
When "O Canada" became a popular anthem across Canada, the original text did not suit English-speaking Canadians. Not only were the lyrics in French, but these English-speaking Canadians were descendants of recent immigrants, many of whom were not Catholic or even Christian. So, how did Canada handle this challenge?
First, there was a simple translation of the French lyrics into English, but that did not get very far, for obvious reasons. New anthems in English were written over the years. Finally, in 1980, 100 years after the anthem was first written in French, an English version gained popularity and was legislated as the official version in the National Anthem Act. Today's "O Canada" in English is not a translation of the French. It is an "all Canadian" song that any Canadian, regardless of ethnic origin or religious conviction, can proudly sing. It talks about "true patriot love in all thy sons command." There are no "forefathers" and no "cross" to be found.
It seems to be working quite well. When Canadian hockey teams play in the United States, games always begin with "O Canada." The English-speaking Canadians sing in English, the French-speaking Canadians sing in French. Anybody can sing either of the two official versions or even mix them. Many Canadians today are not aware of the history of their national anthem, nor do they feel a need to look up the lyrics in the "other language." Twenty-eight years later, it has become a non-issue.
By comparison, our "Hatikva" is currently written in only one of Israel's two official languages and features lyrics that suits only one part of Israel's citizenry, the Jews. As in Canada, it would be unrealistic to expect a single text in a single language to express the hopes of all citizens in an ethnically and religiously diverse country. Moreover, many would argue that the division between English and French speakers in Canada does not run quite as deep as the division between Jews and Arabs in Israel. "Hatikva" is ingrained and entrenched and it makes no sense to translate those words into Arabic. But just as all Canadians share the music of "O Canada," all Israelis can share the music of "Hatikva." The music is the bridge that unites.
The original version, with Hebrew lyrics, remains unaltered.
For the Arabic lyrics, Israel can commission a contest among Arabic speakers and poets. The mission would be to put together text to which any Israeli citizen who speaks Arabic can relate. This is a tall order. On one hand, "Hatikva's" music, in a minor key, lends itself to lyrics in Arabic, and these lyrics can express hope. It can be called "Al Amal," the hope, thus carrying the same meaning as "Hatikva," yet this hope needs to be "universal Israeli." If "Al Amal" is to throw all the Jews into the sea, it is unlikely to resonate well with Arabic-speaking Jews. It needs to be an anthem of hope, an anthem that any Israeli citizen can sing in Arabic, whether they are Jewish, Christian or Muslim, for as long as they can sing - and best of all if they just received an Olympic gold medal.
The writer is a Canadian-Israeli lawyer who works in high-tech
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