Israeli Anthem Doesn't Speak to All Citizens

Some lawmakers suggest a revision, citing lyrics that Arabs say don't relate to them; but for many Jews, tinkering with it is anathema.

By Henry Chu

Los Angeles Times

August 10, 2005

JERUSALEM — On the field during matches, former soccer star Rifaat "Jimmy" Tourk was completely in his element, dribbling, passing and scoring with a nimble grace befitting a member of Israel's national team.

It was before a game, when the Israeli national anthem was played, that Tourk suddenly felt awkward and out of place.

"As long as deep in the heart, the soul of a Jew yearns," his teammates would sing, "and forward to the East the eye looks for Zion, our hope is not lost."

Tourk, 50, is a native-born Israeli. He was a member of this country's official soccer squad for 10 years. Today, he's deputy mayor of Tel Aviv.

What he isn't is Jewish. One of Israel's more than 1 million citizens of Arab descent, Tourk couldn't join in singing an anthem that he believed didn't represent him.

"I couldn't relate to it, because it doesn't relate to me," he said. "The anthem doesn't recognize me, and the feeling is mutual."

To answer such concerns, a group of Israeli lawmakers this month broached the idea of tinkering with the anthem, "Hatikva" ("The Hope"), to make it more inclusive. But that has only threatened to inflame passions even more in a land already riven along ethnic lines and worn down by nearly five years of grinding conflict.

The controversy touches directly on the tension surrounding Israel's character as a Jewish and a democratic state — and whether both values can always hold, or whether one must trump the other in some cases.

For many Jewish Israelis, who remain the vast majority of the population, the thought of modifying their much-beloved "Hatikva" is anathema. The only song to be sung on Independence Day as well as Remembrance Day, Israel's Memorial Day, the anthem limns the centuries-old longing of Jews "to be a free people in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem," as the lyrics put it.

Even what might seem a mild alteration, such as the suggestion that "the soul of a Jew" be changed to "the soul of an Israeli," crosses a red line.

"In two words: Absolutely not," Gideon Saar, a member of parliament, told the committee debating the issue. "I wouldn't make any change in 'Hatikva.' It's compromising on the identity of the country."

But that identity has become more complex since Israel's founding in 1948. Today, nearly 20% of Israelis are non-Jews. Most of those, like Tourk, are of Arab descent, citizens who feel that the song excludes them.

A truly democratic society, critics say, should not make religious or ethnic distinctions in its national hymn.

"The anthem needs to be replaced, since it's not relevant anymore and it's not reflecting the current situation in the country," said Nahum Biger, a professor of business management in Haifa, a coastal city where Arab and Jewish Israelis have long lived side by side in relative peace.

"When the lyrics were written, there was no Palestinian problem, and the words reflected the beginning of the Zionist movement," said Biger, who is Jewish. "Times have changed."

Actually, so have the lyrics of "Hatikva" over the years, even though the current version has assumed such totemic, almost scriptural status that to suggest a change is, as one writer recently noted, tantamount to sacrilege.

The words are often ascribed to a poem by Jewish writer Naftali Herz Imber at the end of the 19th century. But today's eight-line anthem, sung to a mournful minor-key melody based on a Moldavian-Romanian folk tune, bears only passing resemblance to Imber's original nine-verse opus, "Tikvatenu" ("Our Hope").

Over the quarter-century after the poem's publication in 1886, the budding Zionist movement adapted the lyrics to suit evolving notions of nationalism. The line, "to be a free people in our land," for example, was substituted for the original, to "live in the land of our fathers."

In its present form, "Hatikva" was the Israeli national anthem from the founding of the state but was established as such by law only last November, in legislation that went relatively unnoticed. Now, any change to the song would also have to come about through legislation, a difficult prospect.

Proposals include tacking on another verse in Arabic or composing a separate, more neutral anthem for those who object to "Hatikva."

"I wouldn't mind adding a verse to the anthem, but I'm against any change in the wording," said Amitai Amir, a 35-year-old Tel Aviv architect. "The line 'the soul of a Jew yearns' is part of the identity of this country."

A separate anthem could provide a viable alternative for Israeli Arabs who tend to keep silent when the national anthem is sung, and get called disloyal for it. Recently, a young Israeli Arab finalist on a popular TV reality show looking for future leaders lost the contest in part because she sat down when "Hatikva" was played, an incident that became the program's most talked-about moment.

Supporters of amending or supplementing the anthem contend that it would mark a maturing of the Jewish state, not a repudiation of it, just as the United States, though founded by English Puritans, honors no specific race or religion in "The Star-Spangled Banner."

"Look, minorities everywhere sing their national anthem with pride. Chinese in America, Africans in Europe — almost everyone sings the anthem because they feel it represents them as citizens," said Tourk, the first Israeli Arab to play on the national soccer team, from 1976 to 1986. "The Israeli anthem, though, is a Jewish anthem and doesn't really represent anyone else."

Even if Israel modified "Hatikva," Jewish symbols and imagery would remain woven into the fabric of the state — literally, in the case of the national flag, with its Star of David in the center.

"Perhaps we will all achieve true freedom when we acquire the self-confidence to step back and alter our anthem to allow all Israelis to identify with it equally," Jeremy Maissel, a teacher of Jewish-Zionist education, wrote in the Jerusalem Post, "when all of us can sing it with pride."

Times staff writers Shlomi Simhi in Tel Aviv and Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.