National anthems have become a controversial issue in a number of countries. In France, far-right politicians accused immigrant athletes of not knowing how to sing the anthem. During the last U.S. presidential campaign, Barack Obama was accused of not putting his hand over his heart while the "Star-Spangled Banner" played. And in Israel, MK Shelly Yachimovich (Labor) attacked MK Dov Khenin (Hadash), claiming he does not know "Hatikva."

Social norms require citizens to behave properly while the anthem is being played, but no one can know what is going through their mind at the time, and what their true feelings are.

Bar-Ilan University researchers have tried to answer this question - what do people think about when they hear their national anthem? In the first of three experiments, Dr. Avi Gilboa and Dr. Ehud Bodner of the university's Department of Music played Hatikva to 350 Israelis from different backgrounds. The subjects were then asked to describe the associations that came to mind. In addition, they also listened to three other songs. The results were published last month in the journal Psychology of Music.

The results show that even in 2009, "The anthem evoked more national associations than any other song, and that this was a shared tendency despite the subcultural divergences." This was true for a clear majority of Israelis. Of the test subjects, 91% said they think about the Jewish people or that "the song belongs to all of us" when hearing the anthem, and 79% reported they felt patriotism and pride.

But the results were not the same for everyone: The second experiment included more members of "marginal groups" in Israeli society, and they appeared to regard the anthem more negatively than mainstream Israelis. This experiment included Russian immigrants and ultra-Orthodox.

Youths also registered lower than average levels of patriotic associations. Gilboa said this surprised them, as young people usually are more nationalistic than older people. He said there were several possible explanations, such as youthful rebellion against symbols of authority, in particular the national anthem.

The third experiment showed that when associations relating to the anthem were compared to those relating to other national symbols such as the flag and the national emblem, the flag - but not the emblem, in this case the seven-branched menorah - evoked similar results. Many subjects said that when they saw the menorah, they thought of their passports or identity cards, both of which bear that emblem.