Hatikvah by Ruth King

In 1897, at the First Zionist Congress in Basel, delegates sang a song called “Hatikvah,” set to the music of Bedrick Smetana’s “The Moldau.”  Smetana was a Czech composer closely identified with his nation’s aspirations to sovereignty. It was fitting music for the poem entitled “Tikvatenu” (“Our Hope”) written two decades earlier, in 1878, by Naftali Hertz Imber, who was inspired by fellow Zionist dreamers in Romania.

The delegates could not, in their wildest imagination, have guessed that the song would in subsequent years be sung by Jews  from Bulawayo, Rhodesia to Melbourne, Australia, to Buenos Aires, Argentina—indeed wherever Jews congregated in schools, conferences, organizations in the Diaspora. They might have been equally surprised that given the huge impact of the song, it would take over fifty years after the state of Israel was established for Hatikvah to be formally designated the national anthem in 2004.

Why did the song take so long to be recognized as the national anthem? Herein hangs a dramatic tale of intrigue, infighting and politics.

First, there was the controversial character of the author, Naftali Imber, who settled in Palestine in 1882. He was a wanderer, eccentric, a mystic, and an alcoholic. He left Palestine in 1888 to dabble in hopeless ventures in England, Boston and New York. That left Samuel Cohen, the composer who had blended Imber’s poem to the music derived from the Moldau, to promote Hatikvah in Palestine.

The secular Zionists of Palestine liked the song because it was not religious. But not all Zionists were so enchanted. In fact, Theodore Herzl despised Imber and offered contests in hopes of coming up with a better anthem.

Religious Zionists faulted the song for the absence of God in the lyrics.  Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the chief rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine, submitted a substitute poem “Ha-Emunah” which included faith, return and God. The secularists swiftly rejected it for being “messianic.”

Other Zionists objected to the music as unoriginal and inspired by a Christian nationalist composer. Another contest was organized, this time for composers and musicians to submit different melodies. Again, none were successful.

The Zionist Congress in 1933 adopted Hatikvah as its anthem. But the rancorous debates continued even after statehood.

Some called the song outdated because it spoke of the “hope” which critics averred was now fulfilled. Although it was the staple music and lyrics at all public functions, the government obstinately refused to designate it as the national anthem even after this criticism was addressed as the last stanza “the ancient hope to return to the land of our fathers, to the city where David dwelt,” was changed  to “the hope of two millennia to be a free people in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.”

In May 2017 it was stated that Hebrew University announced a plan to skip “Hatikvah” in graduation ceremonies to avoid offending Arab students.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called this “a disgrace.”

“It is the height of servility, the opposite of national pride,” he said in a statement. “We are proud of our country, our flag, our anthem, and it only strengthens my resolve to pass the Jewish State bill that we are leading, in order to anchor in law the national symbols that are so dear to us.” The University denied it had done what it had done and issued a statement to the effect that the national anthem will always be played at graduations and other ceremonies.

Hatikvah continues to be protested by some of Israel’s Arab citizens. Arab MKs routinely leave the Knesset when it is sung. In 2015 President Reuven Rivlin said he understands why Israel’s Arab citizens feel uncomfortable with the national anthem and maintained they should not be forced to sing it. In 2016 he went even further, suggesting that Israel might consider revising its national symbols and  anthem to make them more inclusive to its Arab community, which makes up about 20 percent of the population.

And Imber? He died, drunk and impoverished in New York City in 1909, only two years after Irving Berlin composed his first published song. A sad coda to the tragic life of the author of “Hatikvah.”

To end on a brighter note, when Prime Minister Netanyahu recently visited several African nations he was greeted at the airport by bands playing Hatikvah, sometimes a tad off key but a wonderful sound nonetheless.

The last stanza of Hatikvah is:

“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.”

R.I.P. Naftali Hertz Imber.

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Article by Ruth King

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Editor: Rael Jean Isaac
Editorial Board: Herbert Zweibon, Ruth King

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March 2018
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