Playing Ball With Israel’s National Anthem?

In a recent edition of The New York Times, British author and journalist Adam LeBor, based in Prague, published an opinion piece titled "New Lyrics for Israel," advocating the elimination of the phrase "Nefesh Yehudi"/Jewish soul," from the Israeli national anthem, "Hatikvah." In its place, LeBor argues, should be the phrase "nefesh Israeli," or "Israeli soul."

How can modern Israel, which strives to be both a Jewish state and a democracy, LeBor claims, be welcoming to a fifth of its population comprised of Arab Muslims, Christians and Druze citizens, by asking them to sing "Hatikvah," containing the lines, "As long as in the heart, within, a Jewish soul is yearning, and towards the end of the East, an eye still watches toward Zion, our hope, Tikvateinu, is not lost, the hope of 2,000 years … "

This controversy was launched in March 2007, when Prime Minister Ehud Omert appointed Israeli citizen Raleb Majadele as the nation's first Muslim Arab Cabinet minister of science, culture and the arts. Numerous Israeli right-wing politicians were upset when Majadele told Yediot Ahronot, the Israeli daily newspaper, that he would rise for the singing of "Hatikvah," but would not sing the lyrics.

"To the best of my knowledge, the law does not require me to sing the anthem, but to honor it. I fail to understand how an enlightened, sane Jew allows himself to ask a Muslim person with a different language and culture, to sing an anthem that was written for Jews only," Majadele told the newspaper in the edition published on March 17.

Changes and Connections
Parliament member Zevulun Orlev of the National Religious Party and National Union was furious with Majadele's words, and said that the prime minister should order the minister to apologize.

"Majadele's statements should raise deep concern," reported the paper. "They represent a clear violation of his ministerial oath to be loyal to the State of Israel and its laws. I call on the prime minister to demand that he make it clear he is loyal to the State of Israel as a Jewish state."

Both the music and the lyrics of "Hatikvah" have roots in 19th-century Europe. The Galician-Jewish poet Naftali Herz Imber wrote a nine-stanza poem called "Tikvateinu/Our Hope," in 1878, following the building of Petach Tikvah, an early Jewish settlement outside of Tel Aviv.

Following a number of revisions, most recently in 1948 after the declaration of Israeli statehood, the first verse of Imber's poem became the national anthem.

The music went through similar changes. Adapted from a Moldavian folk song by Samuel Cohen in 1888, it was also found in the symphonic poem "Ma vlast," the tune titled "Die Moldau," by Bedrich Smetana. This minor key melody has also been revised as the Hebrew text was changed.

The current melody was standardized, arranged and orchestrated by the Israeli composer Paul Ben Haim, whose version is performed by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

This controversy calls into question the very nature of Israel as the modern Jewish state that it is.

For virtually all American Jews, the opening measures of the anthem's introduction inspire immediate pride, erect posture and intense loyalty to modern Israel as the fulfillment of both the biblical promise and the modern Zionist ideal.

That faith-oriented connection to Israel — and Israel's role as the center of Jewish in-gathering from all over the world — is stressed and re-enforced by the use of the phrase "nefesh Yehudi." 



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