To Sing Hatikvah Or Not

Brent E. Sasley on Hanin Zuabi's decision to leave the Knesset during the singing of the Israeli national anthem.

In an op-ed in Haaretz, Zvi Gabay takes Balad MK Hanin Zuabi to task for leaving the Knesset after her swearing in, because she didn’t want to be there for the singing of the Israeli national anthem, Hatikvah. Her explanation is that the anthem’s nationalist inspirations and implications don’t speak to her as an Arab living in Jewish-dominated Israel. Gabay’s piece is angry, and he calls on her to leave the country if she isn’t satisfied with her freedoms and levels of prosperity.

Gabay’s argument is representative of many who think Palestinian citizens of Israel should be grateful for what they have—look at your brethren in Gaza or, worse, Syria and Lebanon!—rather than look for things to complain about. But this is a serious misreading of both Israeli Arab history and needs, and an indirect attack on the social and political health of Israel itself.

One only has to look at the Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel to see how deep the problem goes. This document, written by a range of Arab leaders from different spheres, is used as the basis for claims to equality and redress within Israel. But its very first sentence asserts an identity totally incompatible with the hegemonic Jewish identity that Gabay and others think Arabs should adapt to.

It begins: “We are the Palestinian Arabs in Israel, the indigenous peoples, the residents of the State of Israel, and an integral part of the Palestinian People and the Arab and Muslim and human Nation.”

There is no sense of identification with Israel itself—they only reside in Israel. Any possible identification with their country of residence is subsumed under their connection to the Palestinian people, the Arab nation, the Muslim community, and humanity writ large.

The paper, and subsequent documents, indicates a dual process of increasing demands for a variety of rights and growing estrangement from the state within the Arab community.

It’s clear, then, that Israel needs to do something to improve the Palestinians’ attachment to the state. It’s too much to expect—and it just wouldn’t be right—that they proclaim loyalty to Jewish symbols like the Star of David, or sing songs expressing the Jewish longing for nationhoodl.

Dov Waxman and Ilan Peleg—two smart observers of Israeli politics—have suggested three things Israel might do: provide more resources for the Arab community’s development (a recommendation also put forward by the Orr Commission, which noted that “Government handling of the Arab sector has been primarily neglectful and discriminatory”); enhance individual rights; and provide more national-cultural autonomy. None of these, they conclude, would affect the country’s Jewish character, but they would strengthen the country by providing broader legitimacy and stability to the state.

They are right. Advancing the prosperity of society is simply what states do, and in purely instrumental terms it’s better to have happy and satisfied citizens than disgruntled and alienated ones. Advancing individual rights would meet with Israel’s own commitments in its Declaration of Independence and subsequent laws proclaiming personal freedoms and democratic liberties. Advancing the Arab community’s autonomy in cultural and other affairs—language, education, even some politics—would be both ethical and realistic: the Palestinian community in Israel is as much a national community as the Jewish one. If Israel doesn’t want to have to fight against secession like Canada, Spain, Turkey, and others have, then it needs to make sure all segments of society view the state as authoritative and legitimate.

There is a dire need for immediate action. Yes, it would have been polite for Zuabi to simply stand during the anthem, without singing it. But Israel’s got much bigger problems, and Zuabi’s decision to leave rather than provide even that minimal level of respect and identification with the state reflects the problem rather than the solution that Gabay proposes.