Next week, Israel will celebrate its 69th year of independence. There will be rallies, parties and speeches from politicians as the country unites to reaffirm its core values of sustaining a Jewish nation. Despite all the wars and the continuing political acrimony over the West Bank territories and domestic issues common to any democratic nation, Jewish Israelis stand together with pride as they sing Israel’s national anthem called “HaTikvah” or “The Hope.”
“As long as the Jewish spirit
Yearns deep in the heart,
With eyes turned East,
Looking towards Zion.
Our hope is not yet lost,
The hope of two millennia,
To be a free people in our land,
The land of Zion and Jerusalem.”
Note that the anthem is not about a battle like “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which reflected the victory over the British in the War of 1812. Written by Francis Scott Key in 1814, it is a memorial to the British bombing of Fort McHenry in Baltimore. It became the official national anthem of our country in 1913.
“Oh, say, can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright starts, through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watch’d, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
By the end of the 19th century, when the modern Zionist movement took form to begin to settle the land then known as Palestine, the poem “HaTikvah” had already become a favorite song and rallying cry for Jews all over the world. The idea of hope is central to Jewish identity.
The song was, at that time, criticized by secular communities because some felt it was too religious. It was also criticized by religious communities because they felt it was not religious enough. Today the song continues to be somewhat controversial due to the increasing numbers of non-Jewish Israelis. There are, for example, Arab communities existing inside Israel whose residents are citizens of the state but who do not identify with the vision of the lyrics that defines the Jewish experience in history.
Clearly, the overwhelming majority of Israelis today sing this anthem standing at attention and with respect since most of them have served in the Israel Defense Forces. Some of them have lost loved ones over the course of fighting wars against Arab nations. The anthem not only reflects deep respect for Jewish history but also captures the hope and aspiration of almost all Israelis who seek to build lives and preserve their national and religious identities despite the fact that Israel, like so many other nations, has diverse populations and diverse ways of practicing Judaism.
A national anthem is supposed to be secular, but it has a sacred aspect highlighting what it means to be part of the people who comprise the nation. Singing “HaTikvah” for Israelis reminds them to take a step back from the political issues that divide the nation and remember the existential core values that unite them.
For Israel, those issues are being a free and sovereign Jewish country. All Israel has ever wanted is to be free of longstanding prejudices and bigotry that exist simply because they were Jews. The Jews who settled and built Israel wanted to prove to themselves and to the world that they could be a credible nation like other countries and turn the tide of history, create a new Jewish identity for the future and earn the respect of the rest of the world. They wanted themselves, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, to become a “light to the nations.”
The Holocaust certainly contributed to an international consensus in 1948 that Jews deserved their own state, and Israel was declared a sovereign state by the United Nations.
Israel must contend today with lots of issues, among them how to help the Arab minority and other non-Jewish citizens feel part of the national identity. No doubt this will continue to be a challenge. At the same time, Israel was created to be a Jewish state that still welcomed non-Jews into its borders. The country has done this by accepting refugees from Africa and other nations as well as Arab Christians and Muslims.
Nation building is an ongoing process for Israel as it is for the United States and every other country. When I sing “HaTikvah” or “The Star-Spangled Banner,” my heart fills with pride and reverence no matter whether I sing it at a sporting event or at religious services.
Israel is and will always be a Jewish state at its core. Its vision of “The Hope” is about how one should never give up on fulfilling a people’s deepest dreams, not to hurt others, but to live freely and respectfully with its neighbors.
That is what I hope and pray for in Israel, especially in the eternal capital of Jerusalem, as well as for America.