At the University of Haifa's Law Faculty, participants at this year's graduation ceremony did not sing "Hatikva." The same thing happened at some ceremonies in past years. Other academic institutions in Israel staged graduation ceremonies without singing the anthem. This time, however, a controversy flared. Public discourse in Israel has changed the rules.
Whoever thinks this is about a post-Zionist act to omit the national anthem does not know what he or she is talking about. Ceremony organizers chose to close the event on a light note, and decided that the anthem would not suit the tone. As background to this decision, there was also a civil-humanitarian calculation: Arab students (18% of the faculty's student population ) and their family members do not need to stand up and pay homage to "a Jewish heart, still yearns" on a day of celebration, during an event whose essence is professional-social, not national. Needless to say, the faculty would never consider omitting the anthem during Holocaust Day and Independence Day ceremonies.
Not all faculty members supported the decision. Some students also protested. The faculty, these critics complained, brought harm to the sensibilities of the Jewish majority. Their appeal stimulated an impressive, respectable discussion between students and lecturers, one which continues. Yet beyond the walls of the faculty were some occurrences that cause despair.
The Im Tirtzu movement demanded that the dean, Prof. Niva Elkin-Koren, apologize in public. Im Tirtzu operates in a Jesuit fashion: Its method of denunciation and delegitimization, of suppressing freedom of expression, is antithetical to the spirit of Herzliyan Zionism. Meanwhile, in newspapers and on the internet there was a flood of castigation and just a few drops of fair-minded discussion.
This witch-hunt season is directed not only against real or imagined "anti-Zionists," but also against persons believed to be substandard Zionists. It is waged against those who sing the anthem in too low a voice, and against those who have not ironed the flag of Israel that flies from the porch. How strange it is that precisely those who demand that no concession be made of the land of the patriarchs are so willingly precipitous when it comes to giving up on entire sections of Israel society, and to transform them from fellow citizens and comrades to traitors slated for expulsion.
Regrettably, I believe, the University of Haifa's administration hastily issued a sweeping denunciation of the law faculty, without trying to speak to its heads. To my surprise, the university's administration prohibited the faculty's dean from giving interviews. Yet strangest is the difference in the formulation of the official announcement, as tailored for local consumption and for overseas. The Hebrew statement referred to the University of Haifa as a "Zionist university in a Jewish, democratic state." The English version of this statement was more circumspect, and referred to a university in the "Jewish-democratic state of Israel." Who is the bad adviser who reasoned that nobody would notice such internal self-censorship?
The university is a strange historical creature: It is always part of civic culture, sometimes it is funded publicly, never is it subordinate to the government. A university's connection to the nation, to a city and to a culture is conceivable, as a supplement to its primary commitment to the universal search for truth. Yet a university cannot take on an ideological hue, even if the ideology in question constituted the driving force in a people's rebirth. Thus I myself, as a Zionist, do not want to teach at a "Zionist university." For me it suffices to teach proudly at an Israeli university, in a Jewish, democratic state in the Hebrew language.
In my eyes, Hatikva is the most moving, personal and delicate anthem that any state in the world has chosen as its own. When it gets taken out of the sphere of rhetorical escalation, we can go back and discuss its place. We can clarify whether Arab citizens of Israel ought to be provided with a version of the anthem they can be proud of, and which reflects the yearning of their hearts. We can designate the ceremonies in which the playing of the anthem ought to be obligatory, and identify events where its singing could be voluntary. Yet such a discussion is less urgent than the burning need to deal with the violence, rank insensitivity and cowardice that erodes public discourse in Israel today.