Rewriting ‘Hatikvah’ as Anthem for All
Back in 1998, I wrote a column about “Hatikvah.” It was occasioned by a European Cup soccer game between Israel and Austria, before which, as usual on such occasions, the national anthems of both countries were played. When the band struck up the Israeli anthem, the whole Israeli team joined in singing it except for a talented young Arab player named Walid Badir, who stood in silence.
In my column, I observed that one could hardly expect an Arab to sing a national anthem that begins “Kol od balevav p’nima / nefesh yehudi homiya, / u’lefa’atei mizraḥ kadima, / ayin le-tsiyon tsofiya” — that is, “As long as deep within him / a Jew’s soul stirs, / and to the margins of the east, / his eye looks for Zion.” After discussing, however, whether the words of “Hatikvah” might be changed, I concluded that this was impractical and that, alas, Badir and his fellow Israeli Arabs would have to go on standing in silence.
I thought of that column the other day when the papers ran a story — and the Forward, an editorial — about Israel’s Arab supreme court judge Salim Jubran not singing “Hatikvah” at a recent swearing-in ceremony for a new chief justice. Although Jubran was attacked for his behavior by a number of right-wing commentators and politicians, most Israelis understood it and even Prime Minister Netanyahu came to his defense. How, really, can one expect an Israeli Arab to sing about a Jew’s soul stirring for his country?
I’ve changed my mind about “Hatikvah.” The successful integration of Israeli Arabs into Israeli life, on which the country’s future depends, has to have its symbolic expression, too. It’s unacceptable to have an anthem that can’t be sung by 20% of a population. Permitting it to stand mutely while others sing is no solution.
Should “Hatikvah” then be abandoned for another anthem, or sung to the same melody with new words? I don’t think so. There’s no point in accommodating the feelings of Arabs by trampling on the feelings of Jews. “Hatikvah” spontaneously became the Zionist anthem soon after an 1878 Hebrew poem by Naphtali Herz Imber was set to music in 1886, and it has the patina of historical memory and associations that only time can produce. A Jewish soul indeed stirs to it in a way that no substitute could evoke.
Fortunately, no substitute is needed. It would be enough to change two or three words and partially restore Imber’s original phrasing, several lines of which (as the Forward noted in its editorial) were altered when the State of Israel was established. The curious fact that “Hatikvah” is sung to this day with many of the Ashkenazi syllabic stresses that Imber wrote it in (e.g., LEI-vav, ye-HU-di, MIZ-raḥ, and le-TSI-yon in the first stanza) rather than with the Sephardi stresses of Israeli Hebrew (lei-VAV, yehu-DI, miz-RAḤ and le-tsi-YON), makes this even easier.
What, from an Israeli Arab point of view, are the problematic words in the first two stanzas, the only ones of the 10 written by Imber that are sung? In Stanza 1, they are yehudi, “Jew,” and tsiyon, “Zion,” which is a bit too close to tsiyonut, “Zionism.” Suppose we changed yehudi to yisra’eli, “Israeli.” Although yisra’eli has four syllables compared to the three of yehudi, it fits the melody of “Hatikvah” just as well as yehudi when pronounced, Ashkenazi-style, yisra-E-li — and better yet, in traditional rabbinic Hebrew it means “Jew” just like yehudi. As for le-tsiyon, “for Zion,” it could be changed to l’artseynu, “for our country” (which scans as lar-TSEY-nu in both Ashkenazi and Sephardi Hebrew) without losing a beat of the music.
The original words of Stanza 2 of “Hatikvah” were: “Od lo avda tikvateynu, / hativka ha-noshana, / lashuv le-eretz avoteynu, / le’ir ba David, David ḥana” — “We still have not lost our hope, / our ancient hope, / to return to the land of our fathers, / to the city in which David, in which David encamped.” In 1948, the return to the Land of Israel being no longer merely a hope and Imber’s reference to David sounding archaic, this was changed to Od lo avda tikvateynu, / hatikva mi-shnot alpayim, / lihiyot am ḥofshi b’artseynu, / be-eretz tsiyon ve’yerushalayim” — “We still have not lost our hope, / our 2,000-year-old hope, / to be a free people in our land, / in the land of Zion and Jerusalem.”
That leaves us with “Zion” again — and with no Arab ever having yearned 2,000 years for Palestine. But what’s wrong with archaism in a national anthem? Does the reference to the stand of Fort McHenry in The Star-Spangled Banner, or to the revolutionaries of 1789 marching on Paris in the Marseillaise, sound any less archaic? It’s precisely the ancient feel of such songs that gives them their hallowed ring. Suppose, then, that we go back to Imber’s Stanza 2 while keeping a small part of the 1948 emendation, so that we arrive at “Od lo avda tikvateynu, / ha-tikvah ha-noshana, / lihiyot am ḥofshi b’eretz avoteynu, / b’ir ba David, David ḥana” — that is, “We have still not lost our hope, / our ancient hope, / to be a free people in the land of our fathers, / in the city in which David, in which David encamped.” Sung with Ashkenazi stresses, this, too, scans musically and retains an allusion to Jerusalem without calling it “Zion.” David, after all, belongs to Christian and Muslim tradition, too.
It could be done. It should be.
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