Basque Twist Tarnishes Jerusalem’s ‘Gold’


By Ofer Shelah

Published May 13, 2005, issue of May 13, 2005.
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TEL AVIV — To Israelis, Independence Day is by tradition a day of accounting. They learn how many of them there are (6.9 million last week — 76% of them Jewish — the Central Bureau of Statistics announced). They decide how they wish to be represented (in endless debates over who will win the prestigious Israel Prize and light the annual Independence Day torches). Most of all, they ponder the nature and meaning of their national identity, with the help of countless holiday features in the media.

This year, the stories most talked about as Independence Day approached were not essays or documentaries but bombshell news events. One was a cultural scoop, the unseating of a national icon. The other was a sports triumph, the crowning of another national icon. Each captured, in its own way, the changing nature of Israel’s relationship to itself and to the rest of the world. Curiously, both involved a face-off with, of all places, the Basque region of Spain.

The first story, reported in Ha’aretz May 4 by the iconoclastic journalist-historian Tom Segev, was the explosive revelation that the melody of the beloved “Jerusalem of Gold,” often called Israel’s unofficial national anthem, was not original but borrowed from an old Basque folk song. Composer Naomi Shemer, known as Israel’s first lady of song, had for 38 years denied any similarity between the Basque lullaby and her signature composition. Finally, she admitted borrowing the tune in a sort of deathbed confession written to a friend a few weeks before she died last spring from cancer.

The news that “Jerusalem of Gold” had been borrowed — “stolen,” as many media reports put it — struck Israelis like a thunderbolt. It was as though a piece of their identity had been snatched from them by the Basques, a tiny nation within a nation in far-off Spain whose name conjures up guitars, terrorism and echoes of the Inquisition.

Just days later, like lightning striking twice in the same place, Israelis won their identity back in a basketball game against, of all teams, the Basques. The May 9 game was the last round of the European championship, pitting Israel’s national team, Maccabi Tel Aviv, against the fast-rising Tau Vitoria, representing the sleepy capital of Spain’s Basque autonomous region. The Israelis won by a convincing 90 to 78, taking the European Cup for a second year in a row and putting Israel in the unaccustomed role of Europe’s reigning champion. For the Basque players, preparing for the Maccabi game after trouncing the legendary Red Army team CSKA Moscow in the semifinal, it was a moment of national pride, a Basque journalist said. But nothing could match the Israelis, Europe’s juggernaut. Six thousand Israeli fans were in Moscow to watch the game, including the country’s president, Moshe Katzav. Sixty thousand more turned out the following evening for a victory celebration at Tel Aviv’s Yarkon Park. Decked out in Maccabi team colors, the fans formed a sea of yellow, seemingly overshadowing the melancholy of Jerusalem’s gold.

Yet the melancholy was palpable, for “Jerusalem of Gold” is no ordinary song. Shemer wrote it in the winter of 1967 at the request of Gil Aldema, producer of the annual Israel Independence Day Song Festival. It premiered at the festival that May, just three weeks before the outbreak of the Six-Day War. It told of Israelis’ yearning for the ancient quarters of Jerusalem then occupied by Jordan, including the Western Wall. Performed by Shuli Natan, an unknown, golden-voiced 19-year-old, the song was an instant sensation. A month later, when Old Jerusalem was conquered by Israeli troops, “Jerusalem of Gold” became a prophecy fulfilled.

Since then, the song has almost overshadowed the rest of Shemer’s vast oeuvre. It has often been proposed as a new Israeli national anthem to replace “Hatikva.” Supporters claimed it was better suited to a sovereign, self-confident nation.

“Hatikva” itself borrowed its melody from a European folk tune. Written in 1886 by Galician-born poet Naftali Hertz-Imber, it was set to the tune of an old Moldavian folk song. The provenance was never a secret; the same theme had been featured a decade earlier in the “Moldau” suite by renowned Czech composer Bedrich Smetana.

Suspicions that “Jerusalem of Gold” was not original were raised soon after the song was first performed. Shemer vehemently denied it, maintaining she had never heard the Basque tune. In 2000, when a Yediot Aharanot reporter gave her a tape of the Basque tune during an interview, she repeated the denial, insisting that the two melodies sounded nothing alike.

In the spring of 2004, however, as she was dying of cancer, she wrote to Aldema that she needed to tell the truth. “The whole thing was a terrible accident,” she wrote. At some point in the mid-1960s, “my friend [and fellow songstress] Nehama Hendel visited me and apparently sang the well-known Basque song to me. It must have entered one ear and gone out the other one, but in the winter of 1967, as I was laboring on ‘Jerusalem of Gold,’ it must have unconsciously crawled back into my mind.”

She concluded: “My only comfort is that I tell myself that perhaps it is a tune of the Anusim [Inquisition-era Spain’s secret Jews or Marranos] and all I did was restore past glory.”

Paco Ibanez, the Basque singer who popularized the original tune, weighed in personally last week in Israeli press interviews, saying that he had always taken pride in Shemer’s use of his tune, which he performed at a Jerusalem concert in 1962. Still, as his rendition was played repeatedly on every Israeli radio station last week — accompanied, just as Natan had been, by a single guitar (Ibanez’s version can be heard on the Internet at — many Israelis were filled with strange emotions. Even Israel’s most treasured song, it appeared, wasn’t really Israel’s.

The victory of Maccabi Tel Aviv was a different story, at least at first glance. The team holds a unique place in Israeli culture. It has won 34 of the last 35 Israeli championships, and its back-to-back Euroleague crown was its fifth European trophy. Israel’s few moments of triumph on the international sports scene largely belong to Maccabi.

Alas, few Israeli-born players took part in the championship game. As is customary in international play, the Israeli team packed its ranks with foreign stars, including Americans, Croats and a Lithuanian, Sarunas Jasikevicius, who had sunk America’s hopes while playing for Lithuania in the 2004 Olympics and scored 22 points for Israel last week. Israel’s top political leaders hailed the team in a round of victory celebrations, but they had to address the players in English.

Israelis, though, take their national pride wherever they can. Their song may be half-stolen, their team mostly foreign, but the Israeli public continued to embrace both with full hearts as they marked the country’s 57th Independence Day.

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