I woke up this morning to some stunning news: The talented and soulful singer Neshama Carlebach has come up with a new version of Israel’s national anthem, HaTikva (the Hope), at an invitation by The Forward, a leading national Jewish newspaper.
This “new” version is new in the most startling and thoughtful of ways. With just the slight tweak of a word here, and a phrase there, Carlebach attempts to open up the doors of a song and an anthem that has been excluding more than 20 percent of its own population.
The traditional HaTikva dates to the late 1800s. It was adapted from a poem written by a Jew named Naphtali Imber, who lived in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, now Zolochiv,Ukraine. (As an interesting aside, Imber later converted to Christianity.) The songs words expressed the then-2000-year-old hope of the Jewish people to return to the land of Israel and reclaim it as a sovereign nation.
The Jewish people were kicked out of Israel and into their long trek into the “diaspora” in the year 70 CE, when the Roman Empire destroyed the Second Temple and expelled all the Jews from Jerusalem. (As a point of reference, it is believed Jesus died around the year 35 CE).
Of course there is nothing wrong with expressing the Jewish hope for teshuva, for return. The song was, and remains, one of the most beautiful and moving pieces of music in the entire corpus of our people. Even hearing the song on a chintzy jewelry box brings tears to my eyes.
The song has one fatal flaw, however, and that is this: Not everyone in the state of Israel is Jewish! What might we expect the non-Jews to be thinking and feeling when they are asked to rise, cover their hearts, face the Israeli flag, and then hear lyrics that begin like this?
“As long as in the heart within/
a Jewish soul still yearns/
and onward towards the ends of the east/
An eye still gazes toward Zion…” ?
Israel may call itself the “Jewish state” but Jews aren’t the only people who live there. In fact, a solid 20 percent of Israel’s citizenry are Arabs (either Muslim or Christian.) Plus another potpourri of Asians, Africans, and others constitute the legal population.
When I say “Arabs,” it’s important to keep in mind that we are not talking about the “Palestinians” here – those folks who have no citizenship and are living in the territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. What their fate is or should be is beyond the pale of this conversation. I’m talking about actual citizens ofIsrael, who hold Israeli passports and vote in Israeli elections, and elect their own Arab-Israeli members to the Knesset (Congress).
HaTikvah has unofficially been the national anthem of Israel since the state was founded in 1948. It officially became the anthem in 2004, by vote of the Knesset. But this song, by focusing exclusively on Israel’s Jewish character, essentially says that there is no one else there. The fact the song identifies Jews, and not Israelis, as the people of Israel casts all non-Jews (whether Muslim, Christian, Buddhist or atheist) into the disempowering position of invisibility. And everyone knows that invisible people are not equal.
This ideological problem has been a hard one for lovers of Israel to respond to. On the one hand, we can’t fathom not having this song as our anthem. It feels as crucial to Israel’s spirit and soul as a fresh-made falafel, the searing view from Masada, and the white stoned walls of Jerusalem. It would be less painful to cut off a limb than it would be to take down HaTikva from the mantel of national anthem.
On the other hand, people of conscience can’t in good conscience fail to be troubled by what Hatikva doesn’t say – by how silence makes a statement in and of itself.
It took someone with the sensitivity and raw courage of Neshama Carlebach to fix this vexing dilemma. And like all acts of courage meant to open doors, welcome in, and improve the brotherly love between people, she will no doubt be skewered for her actions by all the groups, left, and right, whose entire purpose for being is to keep divisions and antagonisms spinning on to the end of the next millennium.
Yasher Koah, Neshama Carlebach, for this beautiful, delicately done remake of Israel’s beloved anthem. Like the finest surgeon, you excised only what needed to go, and replaced it with a perfect, more inclusive alternative.
Now that the hard work is done, the really hard work begins. We need you, readers and lovers of Israel, to start contacting The Forward, the Knesset, and anyone else you can think of, to make these new lyrics a permanent change to the song!!
Here are the revised words below. Changes are in bold, with the original words following in brackets.
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
Neshama Carlebach is very aware of the sensitive nature of the song. As she explained to the Jerusalem Post,
“I think it was a very controversial move, because to change the lyrics to a precious song like ‘Hatikva’ is a very big statement… It’s not about leaving the world we were in behind; it’s about opening our doors wider. I feel that if the world sees, in my own humble opinion, that Israel is not just a small exclusive group that they can’t touch, but a larger entity that’s willing to wrap our arms around the whole of humanity or even change our anthem, we’re opening our doors, and maybe the press would be better.”