Tel Aviv — When an Arab Supreme Court justice stood silent instead of singing the national anthem at a public ceremony in late February, it sparked a furor on Israel’s nationalist right. Some lawmakers said that the judge, Salim Joubran, should be dismissed, and Yisrael Beiteinu’s David Rotem went so far as to claim that he “spat in the face of the State of Israel.”
But perhaps more telling was the fact that many officials at the very highest levels of the state accepted, and even defended, Joubran’s silence. This acceptance by such officials as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu highlighted the fact that in Israel, where one in five citizens is Arab (excluding an estimated 3.2 million Palestinians under occupation), the nation’s leaders expect the national anthem to be sung by only part of the nation. This stems from wide recognition that most Arabs, living in a self-defined Jewish state, cannot be expected to embrace the anthem’s lyrics about how “a Jewish soul still yearns” for “Zion.”
Netanyahu conveyed his support to Joubran personally via his senior aide, Isaac Molho, according to the Israeli daily Haaretz. Likud lawmaker Moshe Ya’alon told reporters that criticism of the justice “reeks of persecution due to his origin.” There was approval for Joubran within the justice system, as well, and his fellow Supreme Court justice, Elyakim Rubinstein, publicly backed Joubran’s stance.
Even in the military, where discipline during ceremonies reigns supreme, officers accept principled silence from Druze and Bedouin soldiers when the anthem is sung. “They are required to be respectful but not to sing,” military spokesman Eytan Buchman told the Forward.
Like Arabs, Haredim, or ultra-Orthodox Jews — another 10% of the population — tend to stay quiet when “Hatikva” is sung. This is partly because it is a symbol of Zionism, a movement they don’t embrace, but also because they regard its composer, Naftali Herz Imber, as having been antagonistic to religion. Among other things, the word that Imber used in the anthem to express freedom (chofshi) has the connotation, for many of them, of breaking free from religious law.
In fact, the principle “Hatikva”-shunning demographic groups in Israel — Arabs and Haredim — are growing faster than any others. This raises the question that the Forward asked 10 citizens, including two Israel Prize winners: Is it time for an anthem change?
Former Meretz lawmaker Naomi Chazan, one of the best-known figures of the Israeli left, is currently president of the New Israel Fund.
“I like the Canadian way, because it’s elegant,” said Chazan, who thinks that Israel would do best to follow the Great White North’s example. Canada has two official versions of its national anthem in two languages, each of them with different wording. Chazan foresees “Hatikva” staying in place as the Hebrew anthem, supplemented by an Arabic anthem that would be themed on values of “citizenship and equality.” She said of “Hatikva,” “It has meaning to me, but the status quo has to be explicit that you can’t expect non-Jewish citizens to sing these words.”
Composer, conductor and arranger Noam Sheriff is the music director of the New Haifa Symphony Orchestra. He won the Israel Prize — the state’s highest civilian honor—for music last year.
“I would not touch it — it’s good for here and now,” said Sheriff, who considers “Hatikva” a key part of Israel’s musical heritage. Sheriff loves its “beautiful tender melody,” but is even more enthusiastic about the lyrics, which express the idea that the current State of Israel is the fulfillment of the “yearnings” of the Jews in the past and their “hope for the future.” He considers the way that the lyrics combine past, present and future to be “very special.” Discussing the possibility of even small alterations to the anthem, he said, “I don’t like compromises,” adding that the broad theme of hope — in Hebrew, tikva, as in “Hatikva” — is universal.