Four years ago, I was standing in the lobby of the auditorium of a Russian holiday resort, two hours from Moscow, chatting with some colleagues. Suddenly I heard a familiar tune, broke off the conversation in mid-sentence, and rushed inside to stand to attention and sing "Hatikva" with the crowd.
Instinctively, I felt at that moment there was something historically poignant about playing the Israeli national anthem in a land where, for decades, even the study of Hebrew could get you carted off to Siberia - which was what had happened to Yosef Begun, a childhood hero of mine, who I had seen an hour earlier, sitting at ease, drinking tea with admiring youngsters around him.
Looking back, it was a faintly ridiculous ceremony. Why did some of the organizers of the first Limmud (Jewish learning festival ) to take place in Russia think this was an appropriate venue for another country's national anthem? But it moved me at the time. Which I can't say every time they play "Hatikva" at yet another lousy Hapoel Jerusalem basketball match.
National symbols rarely make much sense and much too often tend to be fetishized. The archaic embodiments of ancient traditions and aspirations are treated differently in every country, with customs that often seem bizarre to a cynical onlooker. When we research their history, we usually come up with some embarrassing details. "Hatikva" does not really bear scrutiny. Theodor Herzl rejected it in 1898 as the anthem of the Zionist movement and it was sung in 1903 at the Sixth Zionist Congress, mainly in defiance of his proposal of the "Uganda Plan." The Russian delegates, who were the main opposition to a temporary homeland in Africa, led the singing, emphasizing the lines at the end of each paragraph mentioning Zion and Jerusalem.
The original version was written in 1878 by Naftali Herz Imber, a Hebrew teacher and failed poet. A known drunkard, Imber emigrated to Palestine in 1882 but failed to find gainful employment and left after five years for Britain and then the United States. He died in New York at the age of 53, bitter and penniless. Shmuel Cohen's melody is basically a version of a Moldavian folk tune. It was sung on Friday May 14 at the old Tel Aviv Museum after the Declaration of Independence was signed, and ever since. There are many reasons to change it. It is historically irrelevant as it expresses the yearning to rebuild a national home, which has already been established. Written in masculine form, and mentioning "a Jewish soul," it is not inclusive of women or Israeli Arabs. Religious groups have opposed it from before the state's foundation for the lack of any mention of God, and the presumption of exalting a text not originating in the Bible. There is even a claim that since it was written originally in an Ashkenazic pronunciation and meter, it is unrepresentative of the Jews from Arab lands.
All these objections totally miss the point of a national anthem. You don't have to believe in the words of "Hatikva," anymore than an atheist republican Briton has to believe that God should actually save the Queen or a French pacifist identify with the bloodcurdling lyrics of "La Marseillaise." An anthem that didn't annoy anyone and excluded no minority group, gender and sexual persuasion would be an anodyne and boring dirge which would mean nothing to everyone.
A national anthem is a rather absurd concept that we have to have, and we can enjoy and even respect it, as long as we don't fetishize it. Those calling for a change to the Jewish bit of "Hatikva" are doing just that. They are fighting a worthy battle, for the real equality of rights and opportunities of Israeli Arabs and their integration into society, but changing "Hatikva" would be an empty gesture that would not only achieve nothing for that cause, it would only give raise to holdout groups who would sanctify the old version.
But just as changing the words of an anthem is making too much out of it, so is ramming it down our throats and that is what Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar doesn't seem to grasp. His latest idea, to have kindergarten children start each week with a raising of the flag and rendering of "Hatikva," is exactly the kind of initiative that takes the anthem out of its proper context, and makes it into something it isn't.
Singing "Hatikva" every week may be popular with the Likud Central Committee, but it is the wrong way to go about engendering a healthy and balanced sense of patriotism. It doesn't matter that other countries such as the United States have similar customs. Those customs evolved over many decades, as has the young Israeli democracy of the last 63 years. There is no lack of patriotic and nationalist education in the Israeli school system, spoon-feeding more of it to infants will have the opposite effect.
As will the new Boycott Law, an issue very similar to "Hatikva." I would like Israel's occupation of the West Bank to end tomorrow if possible, but I think boycotting goods produced on the settlements should be an individual consumer decision. In many cases it is an empty gesture, as most Jewish factories in the West Bank are just across the Green Line and could well be part of the settlement blocs that will eventually be part of Israel. But that is only my opinion.
The only effect of the undemocratic law will be to force people to choose sides. Just as forcing children to sing "Hatikva" will have an adverse and polarizing affect, so will forbidding the boycott of settlement products. Boycott and prohibition are both blunt instruments, human beings are much more nuanced. So is patriotism.
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