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Hatikvah

Written by: Erin Parfet
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From the beginning, when the poem-now-song was first penned, Hatikvah, now the national anthem of Israel, has been controversial, complex, emotional, and fascinatingly both polarizing and unifying at the same time. Hatikvah is both deeply declarative of the hope and faith of Jewish people throughout the world, including during some of the darkest chapters in Jewish history, as well as a topic of ongoing political debate about whether it is politically correct to retain a national anthem in a land with sizable populations of non-Jewish citizens, all interspersed with historical criticisms of the author’s personal lifestyle and whether the melody and lyrics are too religious, too secular, or too generically European to represent the Land of Israel.

The modern-day version of the song, approved as the national anthem by the Knesset in 2004, has only two stanzas (the first stanza and the chorus from the original poem), which is shorter than the original nine-stanza poem; thus, it is easier for people to remember.

Today’s modern English lyrics of Hatikvah are as follows:

As long as deep in the heart,
The soul of a Jew yearns,
And forward to the east.
To Zion, an eye looks
Our hope will not be lost.
The hope of two thousand years
To be a free nation in our land,
The land of Zion and Jerusalem

*****

Hatikvah originated from the nine-stanza Hebrew poem "Tikvatenu" ("Our Hope"), written by Naftali Hertz Imber in the late 1800s. Imber was a Jew from Zoczów, a town in Austro-Hungarian Galicia in Eastern Europe (some research indicates the town is now in modern-day Ukraine, while other research suggests Romania). Imber had spent his early years searching for meaning in his life prior to settling down in Palestine in 1882, which was at the time under the Ottoman Empire.

In Jerusalem, he was able to find work as a personal secretary and Hebrew tutor to Sir Laurence Oliphant (a British author, diplomat, parliamentarian, and Christian Zionist). Oliphant used his influence at the time to launch various philanthropic efforts aimed at helping Jewish people around the world make aliyah to Israel. It was during his tenure with Oliphant that Imber wrote "Tikvatenu" as part of an 1886 compilation of his poetry, "Barkai" (Morning Star). When Imber wrote Hatikvah, he dedicated the poem to Oliphant. This was all some 62 years before the birth of Israel in 1948.

The exact inspiration for Hatikvah is unknown; however, some scholars have speculated Imber’s inspiration may have derived from the first modern Jewish agricultural settlement, Petach Tikvah, in 1878. Others believe the poem has remnants of divine inspiration based on the writings of the prophet Ezekiel and his vision of the dry bones. The poem gained some early popularity when Jewish people would gather at the early agricultural settlements (e.g., Rishon LeZion, Zichron Yaakov, Rosh Pina, and Petach Tikvah) and read poetry around the campfire. This poem particularly resonated with many everyday Jewish people.

In 1888, Samuel Cohen, a Jewish immigrant in Bessarabia (a historically disputed region best equated to modern day Ukraine and Moldova), put Imber’s poetic words into music, composing a melody for the Hatikvah poem inspired by the Moldavian song "Carol cu boi." 

Imber ultimately left Palestine and moved to London and later Boston before perishing from alcohol-induced liver failure in New York’s Lower East Side in the early 20th century at the age of 53. In 1953, Imber’s remains and grave were relocated from New York, where he was originally buried, to Jerusalem’s Har HaMenuhot Cemetery. Some Jewish leaders of the time attempted to help Imber recover from alcoholism and climb out of poverty, but were unsuccessful in their efforts to do so.

Zionist leader Theodor Herzl hated Hatikvah. Because the original poem was an unwieldly nine stanzas long, people struggled to remember all the lyrics, so many Israelis refused to sing a long cumbersome song they could not recall. Herzl did not look fondly upon Imber for his life as a vagabond and broke alcoholic possibly struggling with depression; therefore, Hatikvah was not looked upon with high regards by Herzl given his impressions of the author. In 1898, the year after the First Zionist Congress convened in Basel, Switzerland, Herzl held several international competitions to try to come up with a different national anthem to represent the future Jewish state or at least the Jewish people. His efforts were not particularly successful. Some reports suggest Herzl had all the submissions for alternative anthems burned as they were deemed to be of poor quality and even worse than Hatikvah in his eyes.

Other early Zionist leaders were not so critical of the author and his personal lifestyle choices as believing the song had nothing to do with Israel or the Jewish people. They believed the song paralleled Czech composer Bedich Smetana’s "Moldau" section of his 1874 symphonic tone poem, "MáVlast," and therefore had nothing to do with the Land of Israel, the Jewish people, or Hebrew roots, and that there could be a better-suited anthem for the future Jewish state. 

Meanwhile, other musical scholars believe that melody has roots further back than this, citing the 16th-century Italian song "La Mantovana" (Mantua Dance) by Giuseppe Cenci, and that variations of that same song floated around Europe in the decades after that, on which Hatikvah was based. Other musical scholars have tried to trace the melody back even further, 600 years, to a Sephardi prayer for the dew, Birkat Ha’tal, and cited the melody spread throughout the Diaspora as a result of the Inquisition, later being merged with a popular Italian love song and Romanian gypsy songs. Thus, the song was deemed a “wandering melody” based on a kaleidoscope of eastern European folk music, and was believed to have no association with Israeli folk music or Israeli nationalism, despite the lack of an Israeli state at the time. 

Essentially, the song was perceived as more Moldavian, or at least generically Eastern European, depending on the scholar, than Israeli or Middle Eastern or Jewish.

Early religious Zionists believed the song to be too secular, leaving out any mention of God, with some rabbis proposing more religious alternatives. Meanwhile, socialist Zionists also believed the song to be too religious and/or too messianic, and thus proposed more secular alternatives. Cultural Zionists blasted the song, which was written in a minor key, as too gloomy and depressing, while proposing more upbeat alternatives. (Only about a dozen countries in the world have national anthems written in a minor key; other examples include Pakistan, Turkey, and Iraq.) People in general criticized the song as outdated and proposed something deemed to be more modern.

After the Sixth Zionist Congress convened in 1903, the concept of a Jewish state in Uganda was proposed. While this topic is a story for another article, Jewish people who protested the idea of having a Jewish state in Uganda protested and demonstrated in the streets, singing Hatikvah. As one modern podcaster described it from a historical vantage point, the demonstrators were singing "a Hebrew poem penned by a misfit and stuck to a random Romanian tune [that] became the unlikely political anthem of a country that did not yet exist."

Despite Herzl’s reservations about the song and disdain for the character of its author, it was as if the song was starting to take off as an unofficial de facto national anthem of a future, currently non-existent Jewish state. The song had grassroots popularity among the Jewish faithful both in Israel and the Diaspora, even if the leaders at the time detested it. It is unusual for a song to emerge as a de facto national anthem before a nation even exists; we can contrast this with Francis Scott Key penning the Star-Spangled Banner some brief time after the United States gained independence from Great Britain, not before, and not even in the immediate aftermath of the American Revolution.

The Eighteenth Zionist Congress adopted Hatikvah as the Jewish National Anthem in 1933. The song was not only used at official state functions but also took on new meaning for the Jews of the Holocaust, who adopted the song as a song of resistance and hope. There are multiple accounts of Jews in the death camps singing Hatikvah, and other accounts of Hatikvah being sung upon liberation of the camps.

For many Jews, Hatikvah served as a rallying cry for the oppression of their people throughout the world. Yet not every Israeli has been fond of Hatikvah.

"I detest the Israeli anthem because the anthem has nothing to do with Israel," said Uri Avnery, a former member of the Knesset after the Six-Day War. "It was composed by an unimportant poet, and it is about Jews somewhere abroad who are longing for the Land of Israel. It has nothing to do with people in the Land of Israel. I don’t turn to the east because I live in the middle. The east I am looking at is Jordan, India, or China. It is a completely irrelevant song. Irrelevant to a state in which we have two different populations, the Jewish and the Arab. And I am thinking for many many years about the need to get rid of this anthem and have a real Israeli anthem."

Yet, despite the criticisms over the years, Hatikvah became the official national anthem of Israel in 2004. But that does not mean that criticisms such as Avnery’s faded into the night. In 2012, a Peace Index poll from Tel Aviv University found that 90% of Arab citizens of Israel described Hatikvah as "unsuitable" as the Israeli national anthem. Israel’s president in 2016 suggested the lyrics of the anthem possibly be revised to be more inclusive to the Arabs living in Israel since we "can’t expect loyal Israeli citizens who are not Jewish to say that they have ‘a Jewish soul yearning" [as the lyric goes] because they are not Jewish, and maybe their spirit is yearning for their country but not as part of the Jewish people."

Others made various suggestions on how to render the anthem more inclusive. Yet, this call for inclusivity was controversial among Israel’s people, and largely nothing came of it at the time. In 2018, Daniel Saadon, an Israeli musical artist, compiled a Dabke Arabic-style version of Hatikvah coinciding with Israel’s 70th birthday to try to better appeal to Arab audiences.

Though Hatikvah remains a defiant declaration of hope and faith for the Jewish people both in Israel and around the world, we must not lose sight of the Tikvateynu, Our Hope, Our Greatest Hope, that was brought to the world over 2,000 years ago in the birth of our savior in Bethlehem. This eternal hope of salvation is a gift to all people, Jewish and Gentile. It is our prayer that this ultimate hope in Yeshua our Messiah will somehow be shared with all people, including the Jews, for God has not abandoned the Jewish people (Romans 11:2) and yearns to save them for eternity.

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on His shoulders. And He will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:6)

And as the Jewish people still pray today for the coming of the Messiah, who is our ultimate hope:

Bring speedily the offspring of Your servant David, and let him be exalted by Your saving power, for we wait all day long for Your salvation. Blessed are You, Oh Lord, who causes salvation to flourish. (15th Blessing of the Amidah, Standing Prayer)