Hatikvah: The story behind the anthem

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E7
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Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem, predates the establishment of the Jewish state by decades. Zionist leader Theodor Herzl hated it and many of Israel’s citizens refuse to sing it. So, how did this unlikely song take the national anthem top spot? What were the alternatives? And are there any plans to change it? Join Noam Weissman as he deconstructs the music, melody and meaning behind Hatikvah.

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Episode Transcript

I get really emotional whenever I hear the Hatikvah. And I know I’m not alone in saying that.

In November of 2019, 17-year-old Israeli Alon Leviev took gold in the junior category at the Ju-Jitsu World Championship in Abu Dhabi. As he stood on a podium after the tournament to receive his medal, the presenter congratulated him, and then introduced the Israeli national anthem. This melody began to play.

You might be wondering why this is a big deal. Well — this is only the second time in history that a Gulf state allowed the Israeli national anthem to be played, the first time taking place in Abu Dhabi one year prior at a judo tournament. Before that, if Israeli athletes were even allowed to compete in an international tournament hosted in an Arab country, it was expected that their flag and anthem would not be welcome.

The video of the Hativkah melody playing as Alon Leviev stood on that podium was covered in many newspapers, shared widely on social media, and generally was understood to be a big deal, bringing many to tears. But why?

That’s the question I want you to think about throughout this episode: This song, this tune, these lyrics bring out such strong emotions in people. For some, it is tears of joy. For others, the exact opposite. What about this anthem evokes such strong emotions? And what is the story behind this anthem?

You may have heard it growing up at a Hebrew school, at camp, memorial ceremonies, or at any official event in Israel. But Hativkah, Israel’s national anthem is a lot more interesting, controversial and unique than most people are aware of.

First, let’s start with the history, the origin story of Hatikvah.

Like many national anthems before it, Hatikvah finds its lyrical roots in a poem. Tikvatenu or “Our Hope” was first published in 1886, 62 years before the birth of the state in 1948. Originally, it was nine stanzas, so people typically struggled to remember it.

I actually find it pretty interesting that Israel’s national anthem predates the existence of the country by dozens of years. Maybe it’s because I’m American and in the case of the United States for example, the “Star Spangled Banner” was written in 1812 — shout out to Francis Scott Key — and wasn’t officially made the national anthem until 1931, despite the fact that the country declared independence in 1776.

Some trivia here. The poem “Tikvateinu” was written by Naftali Hertz Imber, a Ukrainian Jew, who had a reputation for being a broke alcoholic who was deeply unhappy. So even from the inception of Hatikvah, it wasn’t fancy or held in high regard.

In 1888, Samuel Cohen, a Jewish Russian-Palestinian immigrant from Bessarabia, which if you’ve never of it before is an eastern Europe, right next to Moldavia, who was a composer, put Naftali’s words to a beautiful melody, one that was inspired by a Moldovian song, “Carol cu boi.”

And that song was a version of “La Montovana,” which was modified by Czech composer Bedrich Smetana in “Die Moldau.”

Say what you want about this song, but like I said at the beginning, this song elicits really strong reactions from people.

Unlike me, Theodor Herzl was not a fan. Herzl, the founder of political Zionism strongly rejected the song in 1898, the year after the first Zionist congress, reportedly because of Naftali Hertz Imber’s reputation as someone with a serious booze problem. I think the term “vagabond” was used. Herzl even held multiple international competitions to create a new anthem for the future Jewish state. They didn’t work.

Here is what happened. At the Sixth Zionist Congress in 1903, the idea of a Jewish state in Uganda was proposed, and was passed 295 to 178. Yes, Zionists were so desperate to find an oasis from antisemitism that they were willing to turn their back on their dream to return the Jewish people to their ancient homeland. That’s right, but you can learn more about this story in our episode about the Uganda plan. Enter Hatikvah… In protest, opponents to the proposal stood up and sang Hatikvah in a moving demonstration, emboldening them not to give up on their ancient homeland. It was as if the song was already the anthem to the state that didn’t even exist yet.

As the 20th century went on, the significance of Hatikvah expanded within the Jewish world. By 1933, the 18th Zionist Congress officially adopted Hatikvah as its anthem. By now the song had become a sort of cultural identity for the Jews, who were returning home for the first time in almost two thousand years. When European Jews found themselves facing the brutality of the Holocaust, Hatikvah took on a new life as a resistance song.

There are multiple stories of Hatikvah being sung by Jewish prisoners at death camps during the Holocaust. Filip Mueller, who was a sonderkommando in Auschwitz — meaning he was a Jewish prisoner forced by the Nazis, on threat of his own death, to aid with the disposal of gas chamber victims — recounted seeing Czech Jews marched to the gas chambers. Fully aware of their fate, they broke into a spontaneous and heart wrenching rendition of Hatikvah, one that stirred his soul. A Polish Jewish pilot imprisoned in a labor camp reported frequently hearing voices singing Hatikvah coming from other prisoners.

The audio you’re about to hear is from a BBC Radio broadcast after the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp – it is a recorded account of hundreds of survivors, newly freed, singing Hatikvah, led by a British Jewish army chaplain.

For me, this is all deeply personal. As a former high school principal, I took seniors to Poland each year and each year we would stand at the infamous train tracks at Auschwitz and sing Hatikvah. Time would stop for a little, our hearts would race, and we would imagine how our ancestors could only dream of being a Jew in a world with a free Jewish state.

Hatikvah has and continues to inspire Jews from around the world. The Refuseniks, Soviet Jews who were unable to make aliyah to Israel. During the first demonstration of Israeli students to free Soviet Jewry in 1969 at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Hatikvah was spontaneously sung by students who were very moved by the moment. This demonstration acted as a catalyst to challenge the Israeli government and Jewish Agency to begin the worldwide campaign to free Soviet Jewry that many of us know so well today. Ethiopian Jews and Mizrachi Jews quickly adopted the anthem as well.

This is audio of Hatikvah from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

There’s something majestic about the lyrics and the tune fits the lyrics like a glove. So, how could such a seemingly rich song about hope be a source of such controversy?

As long as the Jewish spirit is yearning deep in the heart,
With eyes turned toward the East, looking toward Zion,

Then our hope – the two-thousand-year-old hope – will not be lost:
To be a free people in our land,
The land of Zion and Jerusalem.

But…from the beginning, this anthem always had serious competition.

Within the Zionist camp, there was a diversity of opinions, and lots of competition, which most of us forget about. It’s sort of a misconception to think that the anthem was peerless.

The Labor Zionists preferred Hayim Nachman Bialik’s “The People’s Blessing” or “Birkat Am” with its focus on socialism.

The Revisionist Zionists probably preferred their anthem, “Shir Beitar,” which was a bit heavier on themes of battle and saving the Jewish people.

And, the religious Zionists led by the august Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, were bullish on “Shir Haemunah,” which highlighted the Jewish people’s eternal connection to God and the Torah.

More recently — as in after the Six-Day War — Uri Avnery, the fairly loudmouthed and controversial left wing Israeli former member of the Knesset strongly disliked Hatikvah. Let’s read his critique in full. It’s a doozy:

“I detest the Israeli anthem, because the anthem has nothing to do with Israel. It was composed by an unimportant poet, and it is about Jews somewhere abroad, who are longing for the Land of Israel. It has nothing to do with people in the Land of Israel. I don’t turn to the east, because I live in the middle. The east I am looking at is Jordan, or India or China. It is a completely irrelevant song. Irrelevant to a state in which we have two different populations, the Jewish and the Arab. And I am for many many years I am thinking about the need to get rid of this anthem, and have a real Israeli anthem.”

Like I said, Hatikvah really evokes strong emotions.

But, when the dust settled, the Labor Zionists, the Revisionist Zionists, and the Religious Zionists embraced Hatikvah as their anthem — and we’ve been singing it ever since. Now here’s a common misconception: since we have been singing it ever since, you might have thought that Hatikvah has been the anthem since 1948. Well, here’s a nice little factoid — it was not until 2004 that Hatikvah OFFICIALLY became Israel’s national anthem. Mind blowing right?

So, we discussed some of the varying opinions for and against Hatikvah within Jewish society. But I want to focus now on Israelis who aren’t Jewish. One of the most daunting challenges that Israel has undertaken is to be both a homeland for the Jewish people as well as a nation dedicated to equality regardless of race, religion, or culture. Israel contains dozens of different ethnicities, and people of many different faiths, like Christians, Muslims, Druze, Bahai, and Samaritans. Israeli citizens — no matter what faith — can vote and hold government positions. Right, we know this. And while it’s of course true that they can live and worship as they please without the oppression they might find in neighboring countries, Hatikvah evokes tension for non-Jewish Israelis.

For instance, the Arab citizens of Israel make up over 20% of the country and as you can imagine, the community has not accepted Hatikva with open arms. In fact there have been multiple examples of high profile Arab citizens of Israel publicly rejecting the anthem. Rifaat Turk, the first Arab to play for the Israeli national soccer team remained seated and silent as Hatikvah played at the 1976 Olympic Games commenting, “I’m not a Jewish soul. I am an Arab soul. If the anthem’s lyrics were about love and consideration of people like me, I’d happily sing it.” Colin Kaepernick drew a lot of attention from his decision to kneel for the national anthem. Years earlier, NBA star Mahmoud Abdul Rauf chose not to participate in the singing of “Star Spangled Banner” as well. I know there are plenty of differences between many American athletes kneeling — like many — while listening to the “Star Spangled Banner” and this, but for many it feels similar. One thing I’d pose for you to think about it: Do you think their opposition to participating in the anthem is similar to or different than when Arabs living in Israel protest “HaTikvah”? Email me your thoughts on that.

In 2012, a Peace Index poll from Tel Aviv University found that 90% of Arab citizens of Israel found the anthem “unsuitable.”

Which if you think about it, of course makes sense. If 20% of your population lacks representation in your country’s song, what do you do about that? Especially when you’re trying to maintain the soul of a Jewish homeland. Interestingly enough, in the same poll, the majority of Jewish Israeli respondents, (62%) agreed that Arab citizens who hold public office shouldn’t be forced to sing the anthem. But although the anthem has brought some controversy, a recent poll on ‘belonging’ in the Israeli society, conducted by the Israeli Democracy Institute in 2020, found that 77% of Arab citizens of Israel say they do feel that they belong. So maybe belonging and the anthem don’t have that much to do with each other — but still, these opinions are valid and are worth considering.

In 2016, Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin controversially suggested that Israel consider revising the anthem to be more inclusive to the Arab community since we “can’t expect loyal Israeli citizens who are not Jewish to say that they have ‘a Jewish soul yearning” [as the lyric goes] because they are not Jewish, and maybe their spirit is yearning for their country but not as part of the Jewish people.”

There is also the additional point which often gets overlooked. I don’t to overly focus on it, but I definitely think it’s relevant. Remember that phrase “eyes turned toward the East.” It does not perfectly capture the experience of Mizrahi Jews from North Africa and the Middle East who were certainly not looking east to the Land of Israel. Take a look at any map. Syria is to the north of Israel, Iraq is to the east, and Egypt is to the south. And for context, Mizrahi Jews now number at nearly 3.2 million in Israel, which is the majority of the Jews in Israel.

There’s simply no avoiding the fact that Hatikvah doesn’t represent a lot of people in the country. So here’s another to think about: what’s more important to a national anthem? That it includes its citizens in the broadest sense? Or that it embodies the spirit the country was founded upon and that it strives to maintain? Is it reasonable to ask those * not * represented to try to connect with it on that deeper emotional level? And what about the plurality of Jews living in Israel and abroad who deeply connect with the song? They embody a tradition of longing to return to a homeland after thousands of years. A hope that refused to die until it was finally realized. Should the lyrics be different entirely? Should the lyrics represent the State of Israel, the country that now exists or continue to focus on the 2000-year Jewish hope for a future country that doesn’t yet exist?

There are people out there who are trying new things with Hatikvah, some changing the anthem musically and some lyrically. In 2018, Israeli artist Daniel Saadon produced a Dabke Arabic style version of Hatikvah in time for the 70th birthday of the country.

Yes, there were some who claimed that it was cultural appropriation but many others responded by pointing out that Jews from the Middle East “have a huge tradition of participating and shaping different genres from this region” and that Middle Eastern Jews “didn’t listen to Klezmer”. Love that point. Daniel himself also pushed back by saying:
“I wanted to show that the unity of cultures is possible through music. I don’t find anything wrong with using the text of our Zionist national anthem ‘Hatikvah’ and replacing with a different style of music.”

So, are there any suggestions for changes? While the nation state law passed in 2018 determined in a sort of constitutional way that the state anthem is Hatikvah, as it turns out, the answer to that is yes. There have been suggestions to change up the words in a simple way that would make more Israeli citizens feel included. In an article from the Forward from 2012, the following suggestions were made: Changing the word yehudi to yisraeli (Jewish soul to Israeli soul), instead of ayin l’tzion, (with eyes towards Zion) changing to ayin l’artzeinu (with eyes towards our country). Both are interesting ideas.

When it comes down to it, Hatikvah brings up questions that aren’t easy to answer — and the truth is that given Israel’s complex nature, there isn’t going to be a simple solution that satisfies everyone. But hopefully in the end, these questions will lead the people of Israel to understand each other better, as opposed to driving them apart. Because that’s what Hatikvah stands for — hope, peace, and endurance through hardships.

So that’s how Israel’s national anthem came to be, and why it isn’t just a simple song to sing in a nonchalant manner at a sports game.

Five Fast Facts

  1. Hatikvah was written in the 19th century long before Israel existed by Naftali Hertz Imber and was put to a tune by Samuel Cohen.
  2. Hatikvah became the official anthem of the Zionist movement in 1933 and the official anthem of the state of Israel in 2004.
  3. The song was a rallying cry for Jews in the Holocaust and has been a rallying cry for oppressed Jews throughout the world.
  4.  There are Israelis who feel the anthem is not inclusive towards them.
  5. There have been recommendations and suggestions for how to revise Hatikvah to be more inclusive of all Israelis.

Those are the facts, but here’s one enduring lesson as I see it. Hatikvah, meaning “the hope” represents the story of the Jewish people, always hoping, always thinking about a better tomorrow, obsessed with an optimistic vision for the future, especially in the face of pessimistic naysayers. Former Israeli statesman Shimon Peres said it best. “Pessimists and optimists die the same death, but they live very different lives.” 

Yes, its complexity is certainly symbolic of the dialectic of Israel being BOTH a Jewish and democratic state. But still, for all its complexity, my heart will race and I will even often hold back tears when I hear it.  For me, and for many others, it remains the anthem of the Jewish people.

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