Hope Merits More Than an Anthem

So why not sing, loud and clear: "As long as deep in the heart / The soul of an Israeli yearns / And toward the East / An eye looks to Jerusalem (Al-Quds, if need be)?

The Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee was discussing, in the context of the preliminary session dealing with "a constitution by broad consensus," the possibility of changing words, or maybe even entire lines, of Israel's national anthem.

The problem is that the words of "Hatikva" ("Hope") state that "the soul of a Jew yearns," while there are many Israeli Arab citizens, Muslims and Christians, whose eye looks to Jerusalem with no less yearning.

Shahar Ilan reported in Haaretz ("An anthem for all nations," July 7) that chair of the Shinui faction, MK Reshef Chayne, suggested singing "the soul of an Israeli" instead, which will not harm the song.

The committee chair, MK Michael Eitan (one of the hard-core nationalist camp Likud members), while not proposing a practical solution, said "if we add another line, so that even an Arab citizen will be able to say `the Jewish soul,' but will feel that his own soul is also included in the enterprise that belongs to all of us, we have to be proud if we succeed."

The chair of the Likud faction, MK Gideon Saar, was adamant that any change in the anthem's words is a compromise on an issue concerning the state's identity. Arab representatives have not been asked about the subject, as yet.

An anthem (in non-English languages, the word hymn is often used) is usually performed spontaneously by large nonprofessional choirs at the end of solemn or festive occasions, like a mass rally. The words and melodies are communal choices and creations that become widely accepted traditions. Singing them on national holidays became a broadly accepted custom around the mid-19th century, and some nations committed the text and tune to written law.

According to an exhaustively informative essay by Eliahu Hacohen, Naftali Hertz Imber published a book of poems entitled "Habarkai" in 1886. It included a longish poem called "Tikvateinu" ("Our Hope"), which he improvised during public readings over nine years. The poem had nine stanzas, each followed by a recurring refrain opening with the words "our hope is not yet lost," clearly inspired by the Polish national anthem.

Shmuel Cohen, a musician in Rishon Letzion, was the man who in 1887, using the melody of a Romanian-Moldavian folk song, started singing only the first stanza of Imber's poem and the refrain. It spread like wildfire, and was sung spontaneously in Zionist meetings all over Europe.

Imber's original version of the refrain was: "Our hope is not yet lost / The age-old hope / To return to the land of our fathers / To the land where David dwelt." But in 1905 the Hebrew teacher I.L. Matmon Cohen rewrote the refrain, changing it to: "Our hope is not yet lost / The hope of two thousand years / To be a free people in our land / The land of Zion and Jerusalem" - the version we sing today.

By the way, the first English version of "Hatikva" was penned by Israel Zangwill.

In 1933, the 18th Zionist Congress accepted a resolution that the blue-and-white flag is the flag of the Zionist organization, and "Hatikva" is the national anthem of the Jewish people. With the establishment of Israel (not "Zion") as the Jewish state on May 15, 1948, "Hatikva" was sung spontaneously and naturally, as a matter of fact. But the Law of the Flag and Crest of 1949 does not say a word about the national anthem.

Only on November 10, 2004, four years after the October 2000 shooting of 13 Israeli Arabs and the Orr Committee hearings, was the Law of the Flag and Crest amended to include the national anthem, "Hatikva," every word of it spelled out in the book of laws - an arrogant slap on the smarting cheek of a distinct minority, delivered by a self-righteous majority.

Israel is not the first nation that has to address the issue of its national anthem: "Das Lied der Deutschen" with its first line "Deutschland, Deutschland ueber alles" was written in the 19th century by Heinrich Hoffman von Fallersleben, when there were still 30 different German monarchs, and became the anthem of the Third Reich. Its singing was naturally outlawed by the Allies after World War II. But in 1952, it once again became the national anthem of West Germany - with the same melody, but with only one stanza of the original being sanctioned by law, the third, hailing the unity, justice and freedom of the German fatherland. It is now the national anthem of united Germany. Today there is no law about it.

The Soviets were singing "The International" since the 1917 Revolution. In 1944, Sergei Mikhalkov was ordered to write a new national anthem praising the inspiration of Lenin and the leadership of Stalin, to a tune by Alexandrov - which was originally the anthem of the Bolshevik party. Since 1956, Stalin's fall from grace, the anthem was never sung. Only orchestral performances of it were allowed. In a new version of the words written in 1977, both inspiration and leadership were credited to Lenin only. In 2000, the same Mikhalkov (born in 1913) wrote brand-new communist verses to fit the same old tune.

Since 1997, South Africa's national anthem has included one verse from the anthem of apartheid times, and then, changing keys in mid-anthem, switches to the ANC anthem. The words are in a mix of four of the country's 11 official languages. Apparently, they figured an anthem should not be a problem.

So why not sing, loud and clear: "As long as deep in the heart / The soul of an Israeli yearns / And toward the East / An eye looks to Jerusalem (Al-Quds, if need be) / Our hope is not yet lost / The hope of two thousand years / To be a free people in our land / The state of Israel, Jerusalem."

Some minor musical fixes are needed - to prolong a note here, to add a note there. It was never great poetry, anyway. A hope for public life of equal rights and opportunities to all people, regardless of ethnicity, race, religion, genes and prejudice, merits much more than squabbling over words in an anthem.