With Liberal MP Mauril Bélanger’s private members’ bill seeking to change the lyrics of O Canada having advanced to its second reading, I am thinking about another anthem close to many CJN readers’ hearts: Hatikvah. With Yom Ha’atzmaut having recently passed, the content of Hatikvah deserves some reconsideration.
Bélanger’s amendment would make the Canadian national anthem more gender inclusive, changing “in all thy sons command,” to “in all of us command.”
As reported by CBC News, Bélanger said, “As Canadians, we continually test our assumptions, and indeed our symbols, for their suitability.” He continued: “Our anthem can reflect our roots and our growth.” It’s a statement that is rife for comparing with the Israeli experience. Israel’s Jewish state-building origins have long been challenged by the country’s democratic requirements.
When it comes to inclusiveness, Bélanger knows of what he speaks. Over the last several months, Bélanger has been an especially unifying figure in the corridors of Canadian power, having been recently diagnosed with ALS. Not long ago, my own synagogue in Ottawa honoured him in a highly moving ceremony that easily transcended whatever residue of partisan divisions may have remained after what was an unusually divisive Canadian election.
Despite being written in the highly gendered language of Hebrew, ironically, Hatikvah doesn’t suffer from gender exclusion (its gender inflections are mostly in the neutral “we” form). But there is a different gap in its inclusiveness: the 20 per cent of Israeli citizens who are Palestinian. Reports about swearing-in ceremonies of Knesset members or Israeli judges from time to time include a mention of a Palestinian honoree walking out or simply refusing to sing.
Writing in the Forward in 2012, Philologos (a pseudonym for Hillel Halkin) proposed changing Hatikvah’s lyrics to make them more inclusive. “It’s unacceptable to have an anthem that can’t be sung by 20 per cent of a population,” Philologos wrote. “Permitting [the minority] to stand mutely while others sing is no solution.”
Philologos’ fix is simple. Change “Yehudi” (Jewish) to “Yisraeli” (Israeli), and “le’tzion” (“to Zion”) to “le’artzeinu” (to our land). Close the song with “in the city in which David… encamped.”
It’s an idea that is top of mind for Israel’s Arab MKs, such as Yousef Jabareen, who told me in a 2015 interview that he believes Hatikvah should be adapted “to accommodate both national groups.” He added, “The Arab minority are not just another minority. They are a native minority. They were there before the establishment of the State of Israel.”
When thinking about any type of policy change, it’s important to consider who stands to gain and who stands to lose. Given that a recent Pew poll found that 79 per cent of Israeli Jews feel they “deserve preferential treatment,” it’s clear that Jewish Israelis are comfortable with their position of privilege – whether legislative or symbolic – in Israel. It stands to reason that any erosion in perceived privilege might be seen as a threat.
Israeli Jews – especially the solid majority who crave “preferential treatment” – may not embrace these sorts of changes. Neither, when it comes to changing O Canada, do some Conservative MPs, citing no need to bend to “political correctness,” as Larry Maguire said. Another MP, Kelly Block, said she does “not believe the anthem is sexist,” according to CBC News.
However, there is something powerful about allowing for expanded boundaries of inclusion. Further enfranchising those who feel excluded can help buttress the institutions that constitute the state. And the costs would be relatively low.
By their design, national anthems are meant to express the will of the polity. Those who wield power might want to think about the effects of the content of national symbols on those who don’t feel represented by them. When it comes to nation-building, casting a net that extends to the edges of the polity bears fruit for democratic functioning and civic identity.