The Jewish Week is always here for you.
We need your support now.
Your contribution will help us bring you vital news
and frequent updates about the impact of COVID-19.
Is Israel’s National Anthem, ‘Hatikva,’ Racist? A New Debate Gains Steam

Is Israel’s National Anthem, ‘Hatikva,’ Racist? A New Debate Gains Steam

Jews have a long history revising liturgy they find offensive. The Reform movement has often led that charge, doing away with, for the most part, patrilineal prayers they think should be gender-neutral, and thus more inclusive. But the Jewish anthem? Hativka? Now that’s a new one to consider. And in fact, revising it is exactly what two prominent Jewish papers—Ha’aretz and The Forward—began promoting two weeks ago.

The occasion was Israel’s 64th anniversary, on April 26, and both papers published editorials questioning the Jewish ethnocentrism of “Hativka.” The original lyrics, taken from a Jewish poem written in 1878, are rife with the romantic yearnings of a Jewish people pining to return to their ancient homeland. Set to a plaintive tune, the lyrics took on special poignancy after the Holocaust. When in 1945 the BBC aired a group of just-released concentration camp survivors singing Hatikva, they mid-wifed what was and remains one of the most haunting and riveting reminders of Jewish perseverance ever recorded.

Perhaps it was obvious then that it’d become Israel’s unofficial anthem upon the state’s establishment, in 1948. It was only a formality when Israel officially designated it as such in 2004, but you sensed that by then, the political winds were already changing against it. The Arab population within Israel proper, then as now, was about one-fifth of the population. And as The Forward editorial argued: “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.”

Their solution was to get the Jewish singer Neshama Carlebach, daughter of the ‘60s spiritual guru, Shlomo, to change the verses deemed most exclusionary. Which is to say, ones that are explicitly Jewish: lines that say “Jewish,” as in “Jewish soul,” where changed to “Israeli soul”; “Zion” was changed to “our country”; and so on.

At the end of this blog, I’ve posted the full changes. But rather than take a firm position on whether I personally agree with any change at all—frankly, I’m undecided, with good arguments, like historical integrity, in the status-quo camp, and moral ones like inclusion, in the change quarter—I’d just say that airing this debate is something worth doing. After all, we do it anytime a religious movement questions the verses in our prayers, so why not when journalists question our politics?

The new lyrics, proposed by Neshama Carlebach, are as follows:

The rewritten anthem reads:

As long as the heart within
An Israeli [Jewish] soul still yearns
And onward, towards the East
An eye still gazes towards our country [Zion]
We have still not lost our hope
our ancient [2000 year] hope
To be a free people in the land of our fathers [our land]
in the city in which David, in which David encamped [land of Zion and Jerusalem]
To be a free people in our land
In the land of Zion and Jerusalem

read more: