A Political Football

By Philologos

Published March 12, 2012.
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Originally published in the Forward September 18, 1998.

A soccer game and Israel’s national anthem are the subjects of this week’s column.

The game, which I watched on TV, took place recently in Vienna between Austria and Israel as part of the European Championship qualifying matches, and ended in a 1-1 draw. Before the opening whistle the national anthems were played as usual. This time, though, something caught my attention, although it was hardly surprising. When “Hatikvah” was struck up, the entire Israeli team sang the words to it, some vigorously and others barely moving their lips, except for one person — Walid B’deir, an Arab midfielder, who then went and played his heart out for his team.

Indeed, an Arab can hardly be expected to sing the words of an anthem the opening lines of which go, with the music:

Kol-od-ba-le-vav pni_____ma, Ne-fesh y’-hu-di ho-mi-ya.

Or in English translation:

As long as deep within his heart
The soul of a Jew continues to stir…

The anamoly of close to 20% of Israel’s citizens being unable to sing the national anthem of their country is of course symptomatic of a much broader problem, that of the place of an Arab minority in a Jewish state. But unlike the broad problem, this one would seem to be easily soluble, since all that needs to be done is to change the word “Jew,” yehudi, in “Hatikva”’s second line to yisra’eli, “Israeli.” On the one hand, Israeli Arabs could then consider “Hatikva” to refer to themselves too. On the other, while yisra’eli means “Israeli” and not “Jew” in contemporary Hebrew, it is a traditional Hebrew word for a Jew as well, so that Israeli Jews would not have to feel that its substitution for yehudi was an assault on the Jewish character of their state.

True, such a substitution might appear at first glance to create a problem of musical scansion, since, although bout yehudi and yisra’eli are pronounced in Israeli Hebrew with the stress on the -i of final syllable, yehudi has three syllables and yisra’eli has four. But inasmuch as spoken Hebrew tends to elide the second syllable of yisra’eli, so that the word sounds more like yisreli, this is no obstacle. A perfect solution!

Or, rather, it would be if not for something odd that gets in the way: When Israelis sing “Hatikvah,” they do not stress its words as they would ordinarily do when speaking them, but rather according to the stress patterns of the Ashkenazic Hebrew of Eastern Europe — a Hebrew that is heard nowhere in Israel today except for prayer in ultra-Orthodox synagogues. In other words, to return to the two opening lines of “Hatikvah,” whereas if sung like spoken Hebrew they would come out (capitalizing the stresses) kol od ba-le-VA-AV p’ni-i-i-I-mah, NE-fesh ye-hu-di-I-ho-o-mi-i-YAH, what one actually hears is Ko-ol od ba-Le-vav and NE-fesh ye-HU-di. Although with adjustments in the placement of the quarter notes either pattern fits the music, Israelis sing their anthem as if they were living in 19th-century Russia or Poland.

The reason for this is quite simple. The words of “Hatikvah” come from a verse of the same name written in 1878 by the Hebrew poet Naftali Hertz Imber and set to music in 1882 by Shmuel Cohen, a Zionist pioneer from Romania who had settled in the new Palestinian colony of Rishon le-Tsiyyon. Imber read the poem aloud there during a visit to Palestine in 1882, and Cohen was so inspired that he asked for a copy of the text and wrote a melody for it based on the Moldavian-Romanian folk song Carul cu Boi (“Cart and Oxen”). The song quickly caught on, first among Zionist settlers in Palestine and then among Zionists in Europe, and since Imber had read it in an Ashkenazi-stressed Hebrew, which was also the way Cohen set it to music, and the way that, until the first decade of the 20th century, Hebrew was pronounced in teh colonies, this was the version that became traditional and that — as unnatural as it may seem —has survived to this day.

“Well,” you may say, “that’s all very interesting, but what’s the problem in terms of yehudi and yisra’eli? If Israelis sing ye-HU-di with the Ashkenazic stress, why can’t they also sing yis-RE-li with the Ashkenazic stress, so that the switch can still be made?”

Curiously, however, it can’t be. The Ashkenazification of yehudi is acceptable to Israelis because it is the way they have learned to sing it from kindergarten; the Ashkenazification of yisra’eli at this point in time would simply not be and has therefore not been seriously proposed. And so by a quirk fo accentuation the perfect solution is not perfect after all, and Walid B’deir will have to go on standing in silence as “Hatikvah” is played at international matches.


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