Uri Avnery: A Hope Not Lost

By Uri Avnery
ON THE MORROW of Independence Day, a newspaper reported that an Arab child had refused to stand up while the national anthem was sung. The paper was furious. I was not. In fact, it raised a childhood experience from the depths of my memory.

It was in Hanover, Germany, some months after Adolf Hitler had come to power. I was a pupil in the first class of a high school that bore the name of the last German Empress, Auguste Victoria.

The rise of the Nazis to power did not, in general, cause immediate and dramatic changes. Life went on. But in school there was a marked change: every few weeks there was a celebration for one or another of the many military victories that German history is richly endowed with. On such days, all the pupils congregated in the big hall, the "aula", the principal made a speech full of pathos and the pupils sang patriotic songs.

On one of these occasions – I think it was in celebration of the conquest of Belgrade from the Turks by Prince Eugen in 1717 – we assembled again in the aula, and at the end of the ceremony two anthems were sung: the national anthem ("Deutschland ueber Alles") and the Nazi anthem (The Horst Wessel song). The hundreds of pupils rose to their feet, raised their right hands in the Nazi salute and sung devotedly.

I was 9 years old, a pupil of the most junior class, and the youngest child in the class. I was also the only Jew in school. I had no time to think. I rose to my feet, but I did not raise my hand and did not sing. One little boy in a sea of raised hands. I was trembling with excitement.

Nothing awful happened. But afterwards, some of my class-mates threatened that if I did this again, they would break my bones. I was saved from this test. A few weeks later my family fled Germany and went to Palestine, the land of my dreams.

HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS of Arab children are now facing a similar test. They are expected to sing an anthem that ignores their very existence and reminds them of the defeat of their people. This week, the publisher of Haaretz, Amos Schoken, the son of an immigrant from Germany, proposed changing the anthem.

"Hatikva" ("The Hope") was written more than a hundred years ago. At the time, a small Zionist community already existed in this country, but the song reflected the point of view of the Diaspora. "As long as deep in the heart / A Jewish soul is yearning, / And towards the edge of the East, the orient, / An eye is looking out towards Zion…" (My literal translation.)

Since then, the situation of the Jews and of this country have changed radically. In the country, a large and strong Hebrew society has emerged. Why should we sing about the "edge of the East" when we are living in Zion?

True, the fact that a song has become obsolete, even ridiculous, does not make it unfit to serve as a national anthem. The French anthem calls on the sons of the fatherland to stand up against the bloody tyrants (meaning Germans and others) and soak the fields with their impure blood. The Dutch anthem speaks about the injustices committed by Spain some 400 years ago. The British anthem prays to God to frustrate the knavish tricks of the enemies of the monarch. So we Israelis may be allowed not to lose our hope to be "a free people in our land" – as if we were under occupation. (Whose, exactly? Jewish? British? Turkish?) In the original text, by the way, the hope was "To return to the land of our fathers, / The town where David camped." It was changed later.

No, the problem with Hatikva is not the text of the song, nor the melody, which was swiped from Eastern Europe. The problem is that it excludes the Arab citizens, who now constitute more than 20% of Israel’s population.

I don’t want start another discussion of whether or not Israel is a "Jewish state" (What does that mean? That it belongs to the Jewish religion? That the majority is Jewish?) Even somebody who wants it to be so must ask himself: Is it wise to make every Arab citizen feel that he or she does not belong? That this is a foreign and hostile state?

Hatikva can well remain the anthem of the Zionist movement, and Jews can sing it in Los Angeles or Kiryiat Malachy (both "cities of the angels"). But it should not be the anthem of the state.

In World War II, Stalin decided that the then national anthem – the Internationale – did not serve his purpose anymore. He wanted to arouse patriotism and needed the cooperation of his capitalist allies. So he announced a competition for the writing of a new anthem. A rousing song was chosen, which struck such deep roots that even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russians preferred it to the old anthem of the Czars (familiar to us from Tchaikovsky’s "1812").

The time has come to discuss changing our anthem, not only for the sake of the Arab citizens, but also for our own sake: to have an anthem that reflects our reality. 38 years ago in the Knesset I first submitted a bill In this spirit. It was soundly defeated. Now is the time to revive the idea.

THAT IS also true for the flag.

The blue-white flag is the banner of the Zionist movement. It took the Jewish prayer shawl, the tallith, added the Star of David (an old Jewish symbol, which also appears in other cultures) and created a new national flag. It has one obvious fault: the blue and the white do not stand out against the background of the blue sky, the white clouds and the grey buildings. It is enough to compare it to the jolly American Stars and Stripes, the solemn British Union Jack and the esthetic French Tricolore.

But the main fault of the flag lies in the fact that it excludes the Arab community from the family of the state. An Arab who salutes the flag is lying to himself when he tries to identify himself with symbols like the tallith and the Star of David that exclude him and don’t speak to him.

(The more so as many Arabs believe that the two blue stripes stand for the Nile and the Euphrates, and that the flag hints at the Zionist ambition to create a Jewish state according to the Biblical promise (Genesis 15, 18): "Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt into the great river, the river Euphrates." This is an invention, but it makes the flag even more difficult to accept.)

The aim of a national flag is to unite. This flag disunites. It does not touch the heartstrings of an important community in the state. It pushes them away. And not only them. As Gideon Levy wrote this week, it has been expropriated by the extreme Right and is connected, in the eyes of advocates of peace and justice, with the shame of the roadblocks, the settlements and the occupation.

Not so long ago, the Canadian state was facing a similar problem. The national flag, based on the Union Jack, was pushing away the minority of French-speakers. In spite of the fact that these constituted only 10% of the population (to which could be added the offspring of mixed couples), the majority decided, wisely, that the unity of the country was more important than their own British sentiments. A new flag was decided upon, a flag that has at its center a symbol every Canadian can identify with: the maple leaf.

THE OPPOSITION to the changing of the anthem and the flag does not emanate, of course, only from a devotion to existing symbols. It is mainly an opposition to the changing of the Jewish identity of Israel.

The desire to preserve the "Jewish state" is strong and profound. Lately it has been strengthened even more by the demand of Arab intellectuals, citizens of Israel, to re-arrange the relationship between the state and the Arab minority.

Almost daily, new proposals pop up. This week, Otniel Shneller, a member of the Knesset and close friend of Ehud Olmert, proposed a new idea: to turn over to the Palestinian state, once it is set up, the Arab villages in the Triangle, an area on the Israeli side of the Green Line, in return for the settlement blocs on the Palestinian side, which would be incorporated into Israel. This way the proportion of Arabs in the state will decrease and the proportion of Jews increase.

Unlike Avigdor Liberman, who proposed something similar, this Kadima member of the Knesset does not propose to do it by force. He professes to a desire to achieve an agreement with the inhabitants, so that they would retain some of their social rights in Israel even after becoming citizens of the Palestinian state. What is important for him is only that they – and perhaps also the Arab inhabitants of Galilee – will cease to be citizens, so that Israel will be more "Jewish and democratic", or, rather, "Jewish and demographic".

Shneller and Liberman – both settlers, both belonging to the extreme Right – do not propose to give up East Jerusalem, where almost a quarter of a million Palestinians are living. That does not worry them, because these Arabs have never been given Israeli citizenship anyhow. When they were annexed to Israel in 1967, they were accorded only the status of "permanent residents". Therefore, they are not required to hoist the blue-white flag and to sing Hatikva.

By the way, these proposals show that these two Rightists have lost hope for the Greater Israel, and resigned themselves to a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Otherwise their proposals would be meaningless.

HOW DO the Arab citizens of Israel react to Shneller’s ideas? They just ignore them. Up to now, not a single Arab voice has been raised in support of this proposal, much as not a single Arab voice has been heard in support of Liberman’s ideas.

That sheds light on a fact that has escaped many: the Arab citizens of Israel are much more connected with the state than it seems. In spite of their suffering discrimination in practically all fields of life, they are connected with the political, economic and social system. They have no desire whatsoever to give up Israeli democracy, social security benefits and the economic advantages. They certainly want to order the relations between them and the state on a new basis, but they definitely do not want to be separated from it.

Many years ago, an Arab member of the Knesset, Abd-al-Aziz Zuabi, coined the phrase "my state is at war with my people". That is the dilemma of the Arab citizen of Israel. He is a part of this state, and at the same time belongs to the Palestinian people.

Every "Israeli Arab" is faced with this reality, and every one is looking for an answer of his or her own. The Azmi Bishara affair (which I shall address in the near future) symbolizes this dilemma. As long as there is no Israeli-Palestinian peace, the dilemma will endure.

A new anthem and a new flag will not solve the problem, but they will constitute a significant step towards a solution that both sides can live with.

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