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How Do Israelis Feel About their National Anthem?

It all started with a question: Is there one song that all Israelis sing? I expected the answer to be simple. What I discovered was a rich, passionate, nuanced conversation about the Israeli national anthem, Hatikvah.

A few years ago, The Forward attempted to start a conversation around the words of Hatikvah. With Neshama Carlebach singing, the lyrics evoked an Israeli nationalism that focused less on the specific Jewish experience and more on the diversity within Israel. I had always kept that piece in mind to possibly use in a lesson plan or a starting point in a dialogue on Israel. As part of my studies as a rabbinic educator at HUC-JIR, I completed a masters concentration in Israel education through the iCenter for Israel Education. Part of that fellowship involved creating some sort of contribution to the field of Israel education, as well as some money to go to Israel. Some people used that money to do ulpan, etc., but I chose to combine the project and the trip. I remembered Neshama’s video and went to Israel to interview Israelis and hear directly from them how they felt about Hatikvah, these word changes, and whether changing the anthem was even possible.

Through an honest and thoughtful inspection of people’s perceptions and connections to Israel’s National Athem, Hatikvah reveals a delicately nuanced story of a Jewish people, living under different flags in different countries, striving to define their relationship with Israel. Simple questions lead to complex answers as the knotted threads of Jewish history, culture, family, politics and legacies are teased apart by Jews from all walks of life.

I focused on Hatikvah because it is really tangible for Diaspora Jews. While Diaspora Jews act on their deep relationship with Israel through discussion, lobbying efforts, and travel, it is rather rare that we grapple with a part of Israel that is also very tangible for us as well. For example, we can have a conversation about the virtues of settlement expansion, but if someone says, “Well, you don’t live there, you shouldn’t have a say,” the conversation is rendered virtually null. However, Hatikvah is something that holds emotional weight for both Israelis and Diaspora Jews.

Diaspora Jews often treat Hatikvah as liturgy. It is as if Moses came down from Sinai with the Ten Commandments, and then the Israelites broke out into Hatikvah. Yet, there is a lively conversation happening in Israel about Hatikvah, its message, and what it means to the whole nation. I wanted to showcase Hatikvah because it’s something that Diaspora Jews can discuss and have a very personal touch-point. Diaspora Jews have a real connection to Hatikvah, but we just accept it. We don’t discuss it the way Israelis discuss it. And those voices are really important for us to hear.

I intentionally structured the film to model how to have a healthy, loving conversation about Israel, using the arts to showcase diverse narratives in an effort to deepen Jewish identities and Israel identities. Indeed, accepting the existence of nuance in an understanding of the people, culture, land, and state of Israel adds vibrancy to one’s relationship with Israel.

The first act focuses on Hatikvah, its music and history, and how the piece positively affects us emotionally. The second act goes into the challenges Hatikvah presents. There are no solutions yet, just an acknowledgement that there are some problems that Hatikvah forces us to grapple with. Then, we get a chance to see an alternative. Sometimes it’s difficult to figure out where we land on a particular issue until we are directly faced with a potential solution. The third act focuses on responses to Neshama’s alternative version, and whether we should change the anthem. This part also brings the conversation to the global Jewish community: Is Hatikvah a national anthem for the State of Israel, or for the Jewish community writ large? Now that we are at this moment of tension and unease, we pause, return to the “coda” and remind ourselves that Hatikvah is all about hope: hope for the future, hope for a better world, hope for a solution, even if we cannot agree on what that might look like today. And of course, the ever important last line of the film, “[Hatikvah is] one aspect of Israel.” This is how I hope conversations about Israel can be conducted: first start with love, then acknowledge some issues, dive into those issues with compassion and care, but end with a reminder of the love we shared at the beginning of the conversation.

The goal of this film is not to promote a particular agenda on how to, or not, change Hatikvah for Israelis or Diaspora Jews. Hatikvah is meant to continue the conversation started by The Forward and Neshama Carlebach, adding authentic, Israeli voices to our own thinking.

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