Sing. Or don't. It's OK either way.

Photographer: Gil Cohen Magen/AFP/Getty Images

Israel's President Sings a Different Tune

Daniel Gordis is senior vice president and Koret distinguished fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. Author of 11 books, his latest is "Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn."
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Reuven Rivlin was largely unknown outside Israel before he assumed the presidency last summer, and was initially considered by many Israelis as an underwhelming choice. He has quickly found a unique and nuanced voice, especially on the topic of Israel’s relationships with Arabs -- both Arab citizens as well as those beyond Israel’s borders with whom the nation is sadly at war.

In October, Rivlin became the first Israeli president to visit Kfar Kassem, where 49 Arabs were killed by the Israel Defense Forces in 1956 when they violated a curfew. The massacre, long acknowledged by the nation as a horror, still haunts Israeli Arabs, but it wasn't until Rivlin that the president attended the annual memorial ceremony.

Just last week, Rivlin said he would be willing to negotiate with Hamas if the group dropped its commitment to destroy Israel. His tone was starkly different from that of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, particularly given the prime minister's recent appointment of the grotesquely unsubtle Tzipi Hotovely as deputy foreign minister.

Perhaps most interesting, however, was Rivlin’s statement last week that he doesn't believe that Israeli Arabs should be required to sing the national anthem, “Hatikvah” (“The Hope”). It is different from almost every other national anthem in that it makes no allusion to war or conflict, and is sung in a minor key. Nonetheless, the anthem is problematic for Israeli Arabs, because it speaks of the “Jewish soul” that has yearned for “Zion” for “2,000 years.” That is most definitely not an Arab narrative.

Thus, there have been moments when high profile Israeli Arabs have refused to sing their country’s anthem. Most recent was when Supreme Court Justice Salim Joubran stood respectfully but silently during the singing of the anthem at a gathering to mark the retirement of another justice. Israel’s right wing expressed outrage, but Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein, among others, defended him. Then Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon (like Rivlin, of the Likud Party) said publicly that Joubran had handled himself with great dignity, and noted that non-Jewish soldiers are not expected to sing the anthem at IDF ceremonies.

All this raises the question of whether a democracy like Israel should have such a Jewish-centric anthem in the first place. To those who believe that Israel is, or should be, first and foremost a democracy, “Hatikvah” is problematic. What that view doesn't understand is that Israel was never intended to be a Hebrew-speaking, falafel-eating version of the ethnically neutral U.S. When the British in 1917 advocated the creation of what eventually became Israel, Lord Balfour said, “His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” Israel’s Declaration of Independence similarly opens with by stating, “The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people.” The State of Israel is about the Jewish people.

How, then, ought Israel -- as a both Jewish and democratic state -- accommodate the legitimate feelings of Arabs who do not wish to sing an anthem about 2,000 years of Jewish yearning? Israelis are rather divided on that issue. Given that “Hatikvah” has been the anthem of the Zionist movement for more than a century, however, Israel is unlikely to drop it. Some well-known Jewish personalities, from popular singer Neshamah Carlebach to the Israeli scholar and columnist Hillel Halkin (writing under his pseudonym Philologos), have urged minor emendations such as substituting “Israeli soul” for “Jewish soul” and “our country” for “Zion.”

Others have suggested that Israel take a page from Canada, which has English and French versions of its anthem, which contain slight -- and intentional -- variations to satisfy both ethnic groups. Might not Israel adopt an Arabic version of its anthem that, with the same melody, could be sung alongside the Hebrew, fairly comfortably if not indistinguishably?

That is actually an interesting idea, and it remains to be seen whether President Rivlin will endorse it. Having the two anthems sung side by side -- more or less harmoniously but still noticeably different -- would be a stark and useful reminder to Israelis of all stripes that the experiment called Israel is never going to be simple one.

“Hatikvah” is but one manifestation of the core challenge facing the nation: Sustaining Israel as both a Jewish and democratic state. If Israel is not Jewish at its core, it has no reason to be. If it is not democratic, it does not deserve to be. Preserving both will require constant vigilance, sensitivity and wisdom. Still less than a year into his term, Reuven Rivlin is giving every indication that his will be the voice that encourages the conversation about that challenge.

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To contact the author on this story:
Daniel Gordis at danielgordis@outlook.com

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net