Culture, Israel

Don't just rewrite 'Hatikvah.' Go further.

Hey, y’all. It’s been a while. I’ve been busy having a real job instead of blogging here or at my personal blog. Anyway, this has been crossposted to my new blog at davidamwilensky.com, which you should all go check out.

I tip my hat to Philologos, the pseudonymous author of the Forward’s language column, for two reasons:

  1. In a recent column, he cited a column he wrote in 1998 about an incident in which an Arab Israeli member of the national soccer team declined to sing “Hatikvah,” the Israeli national anthem. In ’98, he wrote that it sucks for Arab Israelis and that he understood their reluctance to sing it. But in ’98 he concluded that there was no way around it. In this more recent column, he admits that he was wrong and….
  2. In this one he reacts to the recent silence of Salim Joubran during the singing of the Israeli national anthem, “Hatikvah,” by going further than the other commentaries I’ve read on the incident; Philologos went so far as to make specific suggestions about how the song could be changed.

So bravo to you, Philologos for admitting you were wrong and for making some nicely conceived suggestions for rectifying the problem of “Hatikvah.”
And with that, let me explain why he’s still wrong this time. As identified by Philologos, the basic problem with “Hatikvah” is contained in this rhetorical: “How, really, can one expect an Israeli Arab to sing about a Jew’s soul stirring for his country?” But I’d go one step further: How can one expect a group with an equally valid claim on the land to sing a national anthem that is a clearly not just an Israeli song, but a Jewish song?
He concludes that “Hativkah” should not “be abandoned for another anthem, or sung to the same tune with new words” because “there’s not point in accommodating the feelings of Arabs by trampling on the feelings of Jews.” Again, I’d go even further, but we’ll come back to that. First, Philologos’ specific problems with “Hatikvah”:

  1. the word yehudi (Jew) in the first stanza;
  2. the word tziyon (Zion), also in the fist stanza — he points out that this word is uncomfortably close to tziyonut (Zionism), but I’d add that it’s also a term fraught with Jewish religious symbolism);
  3. in the second stanza, “That leaves us with… no Arab ever having yearned 2,000 years for Palestine”;
  4. and another appearance of the word tziyon, also in the second stanza.

If we accept his premise that the song should stay, receiving only minor textual alterations, these four are indeed the chief problems. I’d add a fifth: The geographical perspective of the song is distinctly western, since it refers to Israel as “the margins of the east.” That sweeps the Arab perspective under the rug and takes the perspective of Israel’s various African and Middle Eastern Jewish minorities right along with it.
In other words, the problem is not a few words, but the entire origin of the song. It is not an Israeli song, but a Jewish song. And it’s not simply Jewish, but Ashkenazi. I had never noticed the syllabic emphasis before, but Philologos points out that even in contemporary Israel the emphasis falls on the penultimate syllable as if the singers all spoke Ashkenazi Hebrew. (The pronunciation and syllabic emphasis of Sephardi Hebrew is the way Hebrew is spoken in Israeli society today.)
To solve the four problems he identifies, Philologos proposes these solutions, all of which he convincingly argues will fit the existing melody just fine (though he doesn’t go into whether they would fit into the existing Arabic lyrics, which seems to be a glaring omission):

  1. Replace yehudi  with yisra’eli (Israeli).
  2. Replace the first instance of tziyon (as le’tziyon) with le’artzeinu.
  3. Restore the original words written by poet Naphtali Herz Imber for the penultimate line so that “hatikvah hanoshana” (“Our ancient hope”) re-replaces “hatikvah bat shnot alpayim” (“Our 2,000-year-old hope.”)
  4. And restore the original words for the last line of the second stanza so that “b’ir ba David, David chana” (“In the city in which David, in which David encamped”) re-replaces “be’eretz tziyon ve’yerushalayim.”

For reasons that aren’t unclear, when he unveils his complete revised version of the second stanza at the end of the column, he has made on additional change. In the current version “lihiyot am chofshi be’artzeinu” (“To be a free people in our land”) replaces the original line, “lashuv le’eretz avoteinu” (“To return to the land of our fathers.”) Philologos restores avoteinu from the original so that (including the original and the current with strikethroughs) he ends up with:

Od lo avda tikvateinu
Hatikvah hanoshana bat shnot alpayim hanoshana
Lashuv le’eretz avoteinu Lihiyot am chofshi be’artzeinu be’eretz avoteinu
B’ir ba David, David chana Be’eretz tziyon ve’yerushalayim B’ir ba David, David chana

So replace yehudi with yisra’eli — fine. But the rest of his suggestions leave something to be desired. The situation doesn’t call for a of generic recognition of Arab Israelis and Jewish Israelis. To rewrite this song so that each word is equally appropriate for both groups leaves both dissatisfied, exactly the problem that Philologos worries about when he talks about “accommodating the feelings of Arabs by trampling on the feelings of Jews.” Instead, revise to song so that it recognizes the two peoples on equal footing.
For example, tziyon doesn’t have to get the boot entirely. But why not acknowledge both Arab and Jewish terms for the land? “Tziyon veQuds,” maybe? (I have no idea if that makes any sense, nor do I have a strong sense of all of the implications of Quds for all parties is, but you see my point.)
Philologos suggests that one virtue of restoring the line about David is that “David, after all, belongs to Christian and Muslim traditions too.” Indeed, but he does not belong to the Christian and Muslim imaginations the way he does to the Jewish imagination. Further, he is the first Jew to conquer the city of Jerusalem. If he is to be the only individual to make an appearance in the song, perhaps he’s not the best choice. However, what if the song cited Jerusalem as the city where David encamped and the city to which Mohamed journeyed or the city where he ascended?
Perhaps these suggestions — Philologos’ and mine — are flights of fancy, but every proposed improvement to the situation in Israel and Palestine sounds fanciful these days. My truest, loftiest hope for Israel’s national anthem is even more fanciful: Do away with it altogether, this Jewish song, with it’s European tune, pronounced in a dead accent no one truly speaks in anymore. Get an Israeli song, something that recognizes the distinct and different yearnings of these two peoples, something with a mix of Hebrew and Arabic lyrics (or at least teach everyone both versions, like the Canadians).

14 thoughts on “Don't just rewrite 'Hatikvah.' Go further.

  1. But if you include David and Mohammed, you’re leaving the Christians out, and I’m having a really hard time envisioning Israel with an anthem referring to where Jesus walked.

  2. I agree that Hatikvah is a mess for lots of reasons; as a Jewish music teacher I’ve managed to get out of teaching or singing it by inviting others to sing while I accompany them (I know the day is coming when I won’t get away with this ploy and I have NO idea how to deal with that).
    It’s useful to remember that the purpose of a national anthem is to foster and promote nationalism.
    Any national anthem that so clearly states that country’s party line is going to be perceived as a mess by those who take issue with nationalism in general. Don’t be surprised or horrified when a national anthem does the job so clearly and so well. And a re-write won’t undo decades of damage or lessen the reality of fervent nationalism. Based on everything else that’s happening right now, I think that this national anthem, troublesome as it is, is really the least of Israel’s worries.

  3. Must be terrible to be a British-American and have to listen to ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ all the time. No wonder Simon Cowell is the way he is. Personally I think that’s what really killed Christopher Hitchens.
    Yes, I think we should change the US national Anthem.
    I think we should set up a contest to find the most inocuous song ever written and have that as the US national anthem.

  4. Um…last I checked Israel was still a Jewish state? Why should they take out references to an ancient hope to return to the Land of Israel, Zion and being Jewish. I am pretty sure Israel exists today because of that hope – a Jewish hope. And pardon me, but I am not aware that the Arab citizens of Israel have yearned for national self determination in similar ways that Jewish Israelis have. What, you think that all of them will pack up and move to Palestine whenever it is finally created (may it be soon and in our day)? Do other countries have to change their national anthem to accommodate growing minority populations? In 50 years should America include a line in Spanish or change the language of the anthem to Spanish so that we all can sing it or make reference to crossing borders for freedom and opportunity? How absurd! Arab Israelis have a different narrative that should be appreciated, studied and respected. But with all due respect they are not the target audience of the creation or continued existence of the State of Israel apart from being citizens of course. Philologos’ suggestions show no understanding of Jewish history nor Arab history in the same land.
    Sorry for the rant but this makes me really angry. If you don’t like Hatikvah don’t sing it. But don’t think that these kinds of changes are going to make Arabs happy or feel more welcome in Israel. Beth is right – if you have a problem with nationalism in general you’re going to have a problem with any expression of that that excludes minority popluations. That’s not the function of national anthems.

  5. @Uri Allen.
    On the flip side, this is why we need to admit that Israel was never a democracy in the tradition of the modern liberal Western democracy.
    It was–and aspires to be–an ethnocentric society that attempts to incorporate many characteristics of liberal Western democracy (such as respect for minorities.)
    That’s not the same as America and Britain. The fundamental law of the country–the Law of Return–by nature discriminates in the favor of Jews.
    That’s fine with me, but we should as admit as such.

  6. @Uri-
    other (western, democratic) nations are not built upon the principle of ethnic exclusion… the lyrics of the national anthem of, for example, the US speaks about a common appreciation for the victorious battle of Ft McHenry in the War of 1812. it’s a love song to the flag which represents to most americans the ideals of freedom which the war of 1812 were supposedly fought over. (you know me well enough to know how hard it was for me to write that). The US national anthem is relevant to any individual who becomes a citizen of the nation and respects its flag and the history of wars it fought in the name of those values.
    On the other side, Israel’s national anthem is a completely exclusionary expression of the Jewish yearning for a return to our homeland. Well, that does not necessarily reflect the desires of all of Israel’s tax-paying, voting citizens. Like J1 said, it’s a discriminatory, ethno-centric nation in its founding principles. those who want to change its national anthem also seem to want it to hold democratic values.

  7. @William Burns: I thought about that, actually. But my sense is that there isn’t a significant contingent of Christians who are disenfranchised because they are Christians. (Though there are some who are disenfranchised because they’re also Arabs.)
    @beth: There is no doubt that you’re right that “Hatikvah” is small potatoes compared to… well… everything else. This post was mostly just an exercise in picking over details for me.
    @Uri Allen:
    “I am not aware that the Arab citizens of Israel have yearned for national self determination in similar ways that Jewish Israelis have.”
    Certainly neither Palestinians nor Arab Israelis have yearned for quite so long, but the yearning of Palestinians for a state is as strong now as the Jewish yearning for a state was in the years before independence. And I imagine the yearning of Arab Israelis to be treated as equal citizens is a pretty strong yearning as well.
    “What, you think that all of them will pack up and move to Palestine whenever it is finally created (may it be soon and in our day)?”
    All of them, no. (Did all of us move to Israel when it was created?) But some of them have lived in crappy conditions in Jordan long enough to want out.
    “In 50 years should America include a line in Spanish or change the language of the anthem to Spanish so that we all can sing it or make reference to crossing borders for freedom and opportunity? How absurd!”
    I agree that it would be odd to sprinkle some Spanish into “The Star Spangled Banner,” but there’s already a Spanish version of it sung in Spanish classes all over the country. But the US anthem is different for (at least) three reasons:
    1. We most often encounter it at sporting events, while Israelis encounter it regularly throughout their mandatory military service.
    2. The US does not have an official language.
    3. Our national anthem is not about the history of a particular ethnic subset of our population, nor is it about anything that preceded America. It’s about the flag, a symbol of all Americans that lacks a particular ethnic or pre-American cultural significance.

  8. Obviously, none of what is being suggested above will ever happen. As a thought exercise, however, what is being proposed is about the most counter-productive way of encouraging the 95% of Israeli Jews for whom the Jewish symbolism of the state matters to NOT work towards enfranchising the Arab Israeli population. Whatever well-intentioned person writes idiotic proposals like this may as well be campaigning door to door on behalf of Avigdor Lieberman and Yisrael Beteinu.
    You don’t encourage pluralism, coexistance and minority rights by launching an assault on the private and public passions of an overwhelming majority of the population. This lack of thinking through the outcome of your advocacy is why the Israeli left is in tatters.
    Israeli Jews will not work towards embracing and normalizing the country’s Arab population when they feel their lives, values and identities under threat; they’ll do it when they know they’ve won, conclusively and totally. When Israel’s Arab population is ready to embrace the country’s Jewish character, it will no longer be asked to do so. Only then will minority rights and the Arab narrative be celebrated – when they are no longer of consequence.
    Until then, proposals like these are just feeding a spiraling culture war that can only end one way – a victory for, shall we say, unpleasant manifestations of nationalism, which none of us would prefer.

  9. this is why we need to admit that Israel was never a democracy in the tradition of the modern liberal Western democracy.
    It was–and aspires to be–an ethnocentric society that attempts to incorporate many characteristics of liberal Western democracy (such as respect for minorities.)
    That’s not the same as America and Britain. The fundamental law of the country–the Law of Return–by nature discriminates in the favor of Jews.

    Jonathan1, you’re playing my song! 🙂

  10. I, for one, would be proud to zing the “The Star Spanglish Banner.”
    As an aside, I bought a CD last year of recordings taken from phonograph (possibly cylinder even) of recordings of early 20th century Iraqi Jewish musicians (apparently that’s redundant). Among the songs was an early recording of “Hatiqwah” sung with the original lyrics and with the Iraqi Hebrew pronuciation. Either version should be perfectly acceptable. No rewrite is necessary.

  11. @Jonathan1,
    Israel might not be an American-style Democracy, but it is very much in line with the European model of Democracy i.e. that of a Nation-State centred around one ethnic group.
    The Law of Return is not unique to Israel, a great number of states have equivalent immigration laws that favor one group of non-citizens over another group of non-citizens:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Right_of_return

  12. It’s too bad that many people speak their mind and determine their mind on matters they do not understand. Israel is a Jewish state as Arabs’ states are Arabs’. Second Israel is a fine democracy in any sense, just like the U.S., Britain and France are democracies. Israel is the first Jewish state, and is therefore called a ‘Jewish state’, just as France is called a ‘French state’ and the UK is a “British state” or “the State of the British”. It is un-understandable confusing to claim that Israel is not a democracy because she is a Jewish state? So, why you call France a democracy and yet she is the state of the French people? People show their ignorance by claiming that a “Jewish state” means a Jewish religious state. It is much far from truth, neglecting to know the nature of the state of Israel that was created by Zionist movements, which means secular parties among Jews. Israel gives free choice for each citizen and inhabitant to freely practice its own religion. The “Law of Return” is not a religion law but a nationally law. The state defines “who is a Jew” differently than the rabbinical clergy, based on sociologic and national values specified to rescue people that are threatened and persecuted at their birthplaces just because their neighbors think them to be Jewish (Law of return – one of a person’s third generation being Jewish, enabling the person to claim for immediate Israeli citizenship, but he won’t consider a Jew by the religious authorities).
    Israeli Arabs are equal citizens under any Israeli definition and test. They serve as supreme judges, Knesset members, they serve in the army (those who volunteer) and in the police, and they are doctors, farmers, lawyers, teachers and more. The basic problem yet is that Israeli Arabs have conflict that their state fights their people. As far as peace is not achieved they will always feel the same.

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