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Evil Spirits Lurking in Israel's National Anthem

'Pagan worship of place': Canadian-Israeli poet Ricky Rapoport Friesem questions 'Hatikva'.

Vivian Eden
Vivian Eden
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Evil spirits. Miniature by Mehmed Siyah-Kalem, 15t century Turkestan, Iran. Ottoman Palace Library, Istanbul.Credit: Courtesy
Vivian Eden
Vivian Eden

Hatikva - Israel's National Anthem ("The Hope")

(A response to the lyrics of our national anthem, August 12, 2015)

Ricky Rapoport Friesem

As long as the Jewish spirit dwells deep in our hearts
Yes. A Jewish spirit still dwells in my heart, but today there are those who dispute my very Jewishness. Evil spirits have taken over this land

And our eyes turn to the East, to Zion
Now the eyes of the whole world turn to the East, to Zion to us. And what they see is madness

Our hope, our two thousand-year-old hope, is not in vain
How I want to believe that this is true! With the fulfillment of our dreams has come the destruction of our souls

To live as a free people in our land
And we struggle under the burden of what we have wrought and our spirit is not free

The land of Zion and Jerusalem
And the pagan worship of place threatens to destroy the preeminence of life itself.

©Ricky Rapoport Friesem

Hatikva has become the fiercely defended fiefdom of Israel’s farthest right, at least as represented in the Knesset.

Earlier this summer, Yisrael Beiteinu MK Robert Ilatov was appointed to the committee for the selection of judges. An important qualification is singing the national anthem including the phrase “the soul of a Jew yearns" (nefesh yehudi homiya),  he says, which would effectively keep Arabs out of the judiciary.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not demur, but his Likud colleague, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said he would be content with non-Jews just rising politely and standing silent during the anthem.

In another part of the parliamentary jungle, in the run-up to the last election Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Shlomo Cohen called Hatikva a “stupid” song because God is not mentioned in it.

Here, Ricky Rapoport Friesem, a Canadian-born poet, filmmaker, and the former head of the Weizmann Institute's public relations department, who has lived in Israel since 1972 and has published four collections of poetry in English and a volume of her poems translated into Hebrew, listens to the words of Hatikva. In italics, she ponders their current relevance.

Naphtali Herz Imber.

“Dispute my very Jewishness” refers to claims by the ultra-Orthodox, the Chief Rabbinate and Education Minister Naftali Bennett to ownership of the only true Judaism.  “Evil spirits” and “madness” presage disaster.

“The pagan worship of place” could refer to the settlement project’s valorization of the Land of Israel over the state of Israel and to the way supposed holy sites have become flashpoints of extreme tension.

If this parsing seems blasphemous, remember that Hatikva is not holy writ. The words are based on a longer poem by Naphtali Herz Imber, a dissolute writer born in 1856 in Zlochiv (now in western Ukraine).

Imber was in Palestine between 1882 and 1896, as secretary to the eccentric Scottish Christian mystic and philo-Semite Laurence Oliphant. He returned to Europe and then went to the United States, where he moved a round a lot. In Chicago he married Amanda Katie Davidson, whom Israel Zangwill described as “a Christian crank.” They divorced within a year.

Imber died in New York in 1909, a penniless alcoholic but beloved by the city’s Jewish population and was reinterred in 1953 at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem.

Hatikva became the First Zionist Congress anthem in 1897 in Basel; an abbreviated, edited version was officially designated Israel’s national anthem in 2004.

Ricky Rapoport Friesem. Credit: Asher Friesem

*Try this at home: Compare the anthem you know to an earlier version of Hatikva sung in Ashkenazi Hebrew by Al Jolson.