A few years ago, there was a video that went viral.  It was a satire of Israel and its tourism industry.  The clip opened with a shot of the beach in Tel Aviv, with trendy music in the background.  And then, the camera zoomed in on two guys…who resembled typical American college students…hanging out on the beach (perhaps on a birthright Israel trip).  And suddenly: they notice that they’re surrounded by beautiful women, who start smiling at them.

As each woman notices them, they take turns exclaiming: “Holy Jesus!  Holy Bleep This!  Holy Bleep That!”  Then: the tagline scrolls onto the screen: No Wonder They Call It The Holy Land!

Okay…so this wasn’t an officially sanctioned ad from the Tourism Ministry.  But it does compliment their advertising of late. It’s suddenly okay for the Tourism Ministry to encourage people to visit Israel by handing out condoms with double entendres printed underneath the Israeli flag!    

How fascinating…For the first time in decades, Israel  is actively interested in encouraging everyone to visit  – not just religious pilgrims and history buffs.

There’s something about our current cultural moment that has shifted.  When people Google Israeli travel information today, the first results are the Israeli  news stories rejoicing in the fact that Israel was just designated as the country with the world’s 7th hottest women, and 10th hottest men.

Perhaps it’s all good.  Israel is welcoming  its largest group of tourists in years.  There were 300,000 this past July alone – an 8% increase from July of last year.  And I don’t have to tell you that those numbers are all the more remarkable because they come at a time of massive regional instability…where the mere mention of Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Iran raises questions about the physical and emotional security of Israel today. 

It’s a paradox: even as the world sits by and waits…frantically hoping against hope that Iran won’t finish developing a nuclear weapon which it has promised to use against Israel…international tourists are streaming in.

We could celebrate the economic vitality that comes with such a tourist influx. But Israelis, and Jews around the world, might alternatively ask themselves: what price are we willing to pay for being just another country filled with good looking young men and women?  On this Yom Kippur, when we meditate not only on the state of our own Jewish identity, but also Israel’s, I would ask you: How much of Israel’s essential identity, and our own, are we willing to trade away, as Israel re-brands itself in the 21st century?

Here’s what I think.

Israel is different.  And I stand before you on this most solemn day of the year to tell you that I don’t think it should aspire to be like every other great country in the world.

There was a time, you know…when that’s all we hoped Israel would be. When Theodor Herzl, founder of modern day Zionism, imagined the Jewish State, he presumed that people would speak, read, and study primarily in the great European languages of the day.  He yearned for a Jewish state that wasn’t particularly Jewish, except for the Jews that would be living there. 

We know, today, that Israel has evolved past Herzl’s vision.  Israel wasn’t just founded to be a homeland for Jewish People.  It was also founded in order to be an explicitly “Jewish” State.

Ahad Ha-Am, one of the visionary founders of Zionism alongside Herzl, distinguished his approach from Herzl in this text, from 1897.  Zionism, he believed, must begin “with national culture [Judaism], because only through the national culture and for its sake can a Jewish State be established in such a way as to correspond with the will and the needs of the Jewish people.”[1]

For 64 years, the State of Israel that we have known and loved has been a fusion of Herzl’s and Ahad Ha-Am’s vision: a place that functioned for the Jewish People as both a political homeland and as a spiritual one.

But Israel’s spiritual identity is now being called into question.  Not just by the amusing marketing of the Tourism Ministry – but also by the controversy that overtook Israel this year surrounding HaTikvah, the Israeli national anthem.

The debate began in February.  It was then, at a public official ceremony, that TV commentators noticed that Israeli Supreme Court Justice Salim Joubran, the only Israeli Arab sitting on the Court, was not singing along to the national anthem.

Those on the far right criticized Joubran, and some even called for his resignation or firing.

But others, including Prime Minister Netanyahu, came to Joubran’s defense.  How – some asked – can Israel legitimately expect its Arab citizens to express fidelity to a song that is clearly Jewish?  Not only is it almost exclusively sung in Hebrew…but it contains Jewish references like nefesh yehudi – a Jewish soul; and: ha-tikvah shnot alpayim, lihiyot am chofshi bei’artzeinu- the hope of 2000 years: to be a free people in our land.  It’s not hard for us to imagine why Israeli Arabs might be uncomfortable singing these words. 

The Joubran incident has become something of a dilemma in progressive circles since then.  Many have asked: what does it mean for us to have a national anthem that cannot be sung by 20% of Israeli citizens, for indeed – Israeli Arabs – not including the Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip – make up 20% of the Israeli population.

This problem…almost a mini Israeli existentialist crisis for some…spawned a series of possible solutions.

One camp suggests that we re-write HaTikvah…either from scratch, or with the necessary edits…to insure that the song can be sung by every Israeli citizen. 

The biggest proponent of this plan was The Forward, the  newspaper of our own American Jewish community.  The Forward edited the lyrics that they deemed offensive to those not Jewish, and then commissioned the noted American Jewish singer Neshama Carlebach to record the new version.

A second camp seeks a compromise…on the one hand, it has an affinity for the original version of the song, and on the other hand, it is sympathetic to Israeli Arabs who feel excluded.  Why not, this camp wonders, construct a national anthem like Canada’s – which has stanzas in both English and French.   Canadian event planners are given the latitude to choose the most approprioate version for their gathering.   

According to this approach, we might retain the original version of HaTikvah as one stanza, and write a more inclusive second stanza.  People would then have the choice of singing one and then the other; one or the other….or: a mixed crowd could sing both simultaneously.

The third approach is to do nothing.  This camp asserts that, at least with regards to the national anthem, it does not matter that Israeli Arabs are uncomfortable singing it.   

Somewhat unexpectedly, I have come to identify with this latter group.  The chief critique of the so-called “do nothing” approach is that it is fundamentally racist, and that, of course is painful for me to hear.

I am particularly aware of the conflicting emotions regarding this response…because, in terms of my own personal political views of Israel, I generally situate myself left of center, particularly when it comes to conversations about Israel and her relationship with the Palestinians.  As you get to know me, you will come to discover that I am a rabbi who believes that the Palestinians are people too…that I believe that they  deserve for their human rights to be respected no less than Israelis do.  And I believe that the Jewishness of the Jewish State is supposed to inform the ethical way that all Jews – and all Israelis – treat the Palestinians.

(I trust that there are some in this room who would disagree with me on this last point.  I look forward to much dialogue in the years ahead, in settings both private and public, where we can learn with and from each other about this pivotally important issue.)

Yet, for all of my bleeding heart liberal concern for “the other” in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, I stand before you on this Day of Atonement to admit to you that I am not particularly moved by the calls from some in Israel to change the words of HaTikvah.

I confess this to you, out of the belief that this conversation is not just about the future of a song…but rather about the future of Israel, and the future of the Zionist project. (Pause)

Allow me to digress momentarily, as I invite you to think about…bedtime routines…perhaps the ones that you experienced as a child, or the ones that you used (or still use) as parents or grandparents today.

In our house it’s a daily routine.  Siona and Avi brush their teeth, change into pajamas, read a few books, and then pile into bed.  And then, we sing two songs.

You’ll have to forgive me and Amy for being such a cliché of a rabbinic family…but we made the decision a long time ago to sing songs at bedtime to our kids that would convey to them a sense who they are…of where they come from…and to give to them a sense of identity which we hope they’ll carry with them into the future.

And so…each night…we sing the Shema…and then: we sing HaTikvah.

We do this not because we think of ourselves as religious fundamentalists, or Zionist activists.  Neither could be further from the truth.

We sing HaTikvah to our children because we want them to know that even though they are a little bit different from the vast majority of those who live in this wonderful country…that there is a place in this world that is dedicated to harboring the Jewish People…and that will always be there for them, should they ever decide that they do not want to make their life here…but would instead prefer to bind themselves to the fates of our Israeli brothers and sisters…..to a place that is not just for Jews….But a place that is a Jewish state.

I already acknowledged that sometimes Israel falls short of the lofty Jewish ideals that we have for her.  And it’s not just in terms of how she relates to the Palestinians, but also with regards to the way Israel indulges the ultra-Orthodox even as she fails to appropriately recognize the rights of Progressive Judaism.

But re-writing HaTikvah as an expression of political correctness is as inauthentic a solution to the problem of integrating Israeli Arabs into Israeli society, as the decision of the Tourism Ministry to sell Tel Aviv as just another Western beach resort with buff bodies everywhere. 

Israel ceases to be Israel when we dilute her authentic Jewish character, and turn it into something that is just like every other place.  This is true with regards to tourism campaigns.  And it is true with regards to national anthems.  The innate Jewishness of Israel is what sets Israel apart from every other country in the world.

Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav once wrote that: “Wherever I go, I am going to the Land of Israel.”  In this sense, his Zionism…his connection to the Land…was a mindset.  Though he would never use the word, it must have been akin to a pleasant fantasy: he believed  each person should act with ever-increasing holiness, which would bring them, if not actually, than at least metaphorically, to the Promised Land.

The problem is that we live in a world where the Land of Israel must be more than a fantasy.  We can no longer afford to think of HaTikvah….the great hope…as merely an ideal to work toward. 

In a world that is post-Auschwitz, post-Rwanda, and (we pray) post-Sudan, we know – more than Rebbe Nachman did – of the immense evil that humanity is capable of.  And so we know that a Jewish state of Israel must be more than a fantasy.  It must be real – because….god forbid…our children, or their great-grandchildren might need it….like some of our grandparents did, not so many decades ago.

That’s the reason that Israel can’t just be encapsulated by trend setting sex appeal, like any other Western capital.  Now…at the very moment when we worry about Israel’s existential future because of an Iranian bomb…now is the moment for us to articulate the vision of an Israel that we are moved to fight for, and defend.  Before any conversation about how Israel should treat the Palestinians, and before any conversation about the role of the ultra-Orthodox in contemporary Israeli life…we must ask ourselves: are we willing to demand that, Israel, first and foremost, can and must be a Jewish state?  One that respects its Arab citizens, to be sure.  But one that is unapologetically Jewish about its history, its values, and above all: its national anthem.

Aristotle once wrote that “hope is a waking dream.”  But Zionism is the Jew’s response to Aristotle.  Our tikvah, our hope, is no mere dream.  Herzl taught us: Im Tirtzu, ein zo agadah – if you will it, then it is no dream.  And for 64 years, our dream has been a reality: the existence of a Jewish State.  On this day, let us affirm that the dream still lives, and that we are ever-committed to insuring the Jewishness of the State, not just for another 64 years, but for all of the years upon years upon years that might come…after that.           

 Shanah Tovah.

[1] “The Jewish State and the Jewish Problem” as it appears on p. 269 of The Zionist Idea, edited by Arthur Hertzberg.



Stephen Hirschberg
09/27/2012 7:22am

If we agree that it is good to have a Jewish State, then some problems as I see it are:
1. How is the non-Jew not to feel himself "other"--somehow second-class-- in a Jewish state, however much his human rights are insured? Things are pretty good for us Jews in the USA, but I still cringe when I hear people talk about this being a "Christian nation."
2. How is Israel to remain a Jewish state if Jews become a minority of the population? Is there anything that would prevent a non-Jewish majority from taking the legal steps formally to "re-brand" Israel as non-Jewish?


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