By Rowan Polovin
“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;
Our hope is not yet lost,
The hope two thousand years old,
To be a free nation in our land,
The land of Zion and Jerusalem.”
On 20 April 1945, survivors of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp sang the Jewish anthem of freedom and hope known as Hatikvah or The Hope. They had been liberated by Allied forces only five days before. A year earlier Czech Jews, marched into the Auschwitz-Birkenau gas chamber, spontaneously erupted in the anthem and sang the stirring notes whilst being whipped and beaten by their Waffen-SS guards. Who knew that within a few years a State adopting this very anthem would be reborn, whose earlier existence may have prevented that terrible tragedy from taking place.
The words of Hatikvah were derived and inspired by the Hebrew-language poet Naftali Herz Imber’s original poem, Tikvateinu or Our Hope. They were written in the 19th century, long before the rebirth of the Jewish State, and captured something of Psalm 137’s verses, wherein Jews in a “strange land” collectively “wept, when we remembered Zion” and individually implored themselves never to forget Jerusalem. Hatikvah evokes the refrain of Jewish exile and exodus, and verbalises that deeply entrenched, two millenia long yearning of the Jewish people to return to Zion and be a free nation. Two thousand years of Jewish exile and longing have become immersed in our collective Jewish soul, and the words and music of Hatikvah reflect the ever-present hope and optimism to be free and fairly treated amongst the nations of the Earth.
When Jews historically stood together as one people and sang Hatikvah, a profound and deep-rooted sense of Jewish history traversed through their veins, tears welled up in their eyes and goosebumps formed over their skin. Even today, after the rebirth of Israel, Hatikvah remains emotional and meaningful because it makes us remember who we are as Jews, never to forget our history, and to be proud that finally, we have a Jewish State of our own. Moreover, it reminds us that our Hope continues because our beloved Israel, the Jew amongst nations, is still not treated as an equal in the world, and our Zionist dream is not yet fulfilled.
It is therefore extremely hurtful when fellow Jews, albeit those without any proper sense of the meaning and importance of what Hatikvah represents to their people and their history, theatrically snub the anthem and make a spectacle of doing so. If they have criticisms of Israel’s political leadership or actions they have abundant opportunities and ways to make them. They enjoy all the privileges of freedom of speech, association and affiliation thanks to our world-class South African Constitution. Where their actions become wildly irresponsible, disrespectful and damaging to their fellow Jews in South Africa, the Diaspora and in Israel, is when their theatrics win the applause of individuals and organisations one would not want around the dinner table, let alone a safe space. Their new found fans include individuals who openly and repeatedly call for the destruction of Israel, who encourage Nazi-inspired boycotts of Jewish and Israeli entities, who support terror organisations that call for the murder of Jews worldwide, and whose bigoted values would return us to the middle ages. Once these people become their supporters and cheerleaders, it becomes time to question their own values and antics. If they did not intend the whirlwind that they created, then they ought to apologise profusely to those they hurt and learn from the situation.
There is absolutely nothing heroic, noble, or smart about a Jew who kneels in protest whilst Hatikvah is sung. It simply means that they are Jews with trembling knees, afraid of standing up for their own people, and led astray by those who have anything but their interests at heart. Their actions do nothing towards protecting and promoting the freedoms of Israel that they claim to desire for all peoples, least of all the Palestinians who they ostensibly support. If they have legitimate criticisms of Israel, they ought to stand up and voice them in the appropriate places. Do not falsely claim that there is no space to do so when there are multiple spaces created specifically for discussion and debate. Treat those with whom you disagree respectfully, and they will listen to you respectfully. Israel will be the better for it too when she is supported by people who lovingly criticise her because they want her to be a better place. Israel, like any country, is not perfect and does not profess to be so, but tries amazingly hard to survive and thrive in extremely tough circumstances. Do not hold her up to impossible standards without showing proper understanding for her circumstances.
Within the storm some context and perspective is often lost. The overwhelming majority of Jews in the diaspora and Israel stand tall and proud when they sing Hatikvah, and will continue to do so, because it runs through our Jewish hearts and souls. We will never again sing it on the way to captivity and the killing fields, nor chant someone else’s tune. We have our home. We have our song. Let those melodious notes intertwine with those profound words, and together our choir will sound louder towards the heavens than ever before.