The Anthem Question


By Philologos

Published April 08, 2005, issue of April 08, 2005.
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It’s not every day that a Palestinian gets to be an Israeli national hero, but it happened last week to Abbas Suan, the soccer player who scored a last-minute goal that gave Israel’s national team a 1-1 tie against Ireland and kept it in the running as a contender for the 2006 World Cup Finals. It was an especially dramatic moment because Suan, who plays in the top Israeli league for a team from the Arab town of Sakhnin, had recently been razzed with racist taunts during a game in Jerusalem. Now, Jewish fans were cheering him wildly. (See related story, page 1.)

It isn’t easy to be an Arab in a Jewish state, even if you’re a soccer star. I thought of this while watching the singing of “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem, on television before the game against Ireland began. Like soccer players everywhere, some of the Israeli team sang along while others were silent or moved their lips. Two men, however, looked down at the ground. They were Suan and Walid Badir, the national team’s other Arab member, who scored a similar late-game equalizer against France a few days later.

Who could blame them? The first two lines of “Hatikvah” are, “Kol od ba-levav p’nima (“As long as in the heart, inwardly,”)/nefesh Yehudi homiya (“a Jewish soul yearns”).

Both Badir and Suan, who said after the game that the taunts in Jerusalem were forgotten and that “it’s time to stop talking all the time about Jews and Arabs — we’re one country and we’re all together,” have a soul. It’s just not a Jewish one.

What is Israel to do about “Hatikvah,” whose words, taken from a poem written by Naphtali Herz Imber, probably in 1878, were already being sung, fitted to a Rumanian folk tune, in the villages of Palestine in the late 19th century? On the one hand, there are those who argue that, like any national anthem with a long and emotional history, its words are sacred and should not be changed — especially not to delete the word “Jew” from them. Why should a Jewish state be embarrassed by a Jewish anthem?

But there is an “on the other hand,” too. One in every five of Israel’s citizens is a Muslim or Christian Arab. The successful integration of Israel’s Arab minority, which feels marginalized and discriminated against, is a crucial task and a vexing problem — and how can Arabs even begin to feel equal in a country whose anthem they can’t sing?

It’s true, of course, that singing a national anthem is a symbolic act that can’t compare in importance to equality in education, in the job market or in politics. Yet not only is this symbol powerful in itself, but it also makes Israeli Arabs ask: If Israel doesn’t have the will to change even a symbol, where will it find the will to change more substantial things?

How does one reconcile these two arguments?

Actually, it would be easy — if only there were a will. All that needs to be done is to substitute the word “Yisra’eli, (“Israeli”) for “Yehudi (“Jew”) in the second line of “Hatikvah.”

“Aha!” you object. “That isn’t reconciling. It’s symbolically making Israel not a Jewish state but a ‘state of all its citizens,’ as the post-Zionist buzz-phrase puts it.”

Not so fast! Yisra’el may be the Hebrew name of the State of Israel, and Yisra’eli may denote any Israeli citizen — Arab as well as Jew — but in Jewish literature throughout the ages, these two words have always meant a Jew. (Think of the well-known rabbinic dictum, “Yisra’el she-h.ata Yisra’el hu” (“A Jew who sins remains a Jew”). Yisra’eli in “Hatikvah” would in fact be a perfect “diplomatic ambiguity,” to use a term about which I wrote a recent column: Jews could take it to mean “Jewish” if they wished, while Arabs could take it to mean “Israeli.”

“Fine,” you say, “but what about the musical stress? Yehudi (pronounced in Israeli Hebrew “ye-hu-DEE”) has three syllables, while Yisra’eli (yis-rah-ey-LEE) has four. How will you fit it to the music?”

No problem there, either. Curiously enough, “Hatikvah,” as I once pointed out in yet another column, is sung in Israel to the stresses of Eastern-European rather than Israeli Hebrew, so that nefesh Yehudi comes out “NEHHH-fesh (with a lengthened first syllable) ye-HU-dee.” If you shorten the first syllable and give Yisra’eli Eastern-European stress, too (as it in any case sometimes has in today’s Hebrew), you get “NEH-fesh yis-rah-EY-lee,” which fits the music perfectly.

“Well,” you grumble, “that may be so, but national anthems shouldn’t be changed as a matter of principle.”

Got you there, too. The words of “Hatikvah” already were changed once, at the time of the establishment of Israel, when the last lines were altered from “lih’yot am h.ofshi be’artsenu, be’ir ba David h.anah (“to be a free people in our land, in the city in which David dwelt”) to “lih’yot am h.ofshi be’artsenu, be-eretz tsiyyon ve-yerushalayim (“to be a free people in our land, in the land of Zion and Jerusalem”). Changing Yehudi to Yisra’eli would be minor by comparison.

It really is only a matter of will. Alas, at the moment, that is lacking. Abbas Suan and Walid Badir might have to go on staring at the ground for many more years to come.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to

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