Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and politicians lined up to slam the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Thursday over a report that said the national anthem would not be sung at a graduation ceremony that evening so as not to offend Arab students.
Army Radio reported that it had obtained a recording of a student querying the decision to not sing Hatikva during the ceremony at the Mount Scopus campus, and being told by an employee of the Humanities Faculty that it was out of “consideration for the other side” — an apparent reference to Arab students.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it “a disgrace.”
“It is the height of servility, the opposite of national pride,” he said in a statement. “We are proud of our country, our flag, our anthem, and it only strengthens my resolve to pass the Jewish State bill that we are leading, in order to anchor in law the national symbols that are so dear to us.”
The university said the graduation ceremony “has followed the same format for years,” and that there had been no new decision taken to “cancel” the anthem. It said the national anthem is always played at the state ceremonies that it holds, and that the university president had made this clear to the education minister.
The controversial Jewish State bill, currently making its way through parliament, would enshrine Israel’s status as a Jewish nation-state, and national symbols such as Hatikva, in its Basic Laws.
The national anthem, whose lyrics express the yearning of Jews throughout the ages to return to Zion, has been the subject of protests by some of Israel’s non-Jewish citizens. Arab MKs have frequently left the Knesset plenum in protest when it was sung. In 2015 President Reuven Rivlin said he understands why Israel’s Arab citizens feel uncomfortable with the national anthem and maintained they should not be forced to sing it.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who leads the nationalist Jewish Home party, contacted the president of the Hebrew University, Prof. Menachem Ben-Sasson, to protest the exclusion of the anthem.
A ministry statement said that Bennett clarified to Ben-Sasson that “at every state ceremony that is held at the university Hatikva should be played.”
“The Hebrew University is a public state institute, it is not a private institute,” he said, according to the statement. “A public body should respect the state that stands behind it. Academic freedom doesn’t mean one can harm national values.”
Bennett clarified that “also at non-state events,” such as the graduation ceremony, “the consideration whether or not to sing Hatikva cannot be influenced by considerations of hurt feelings.”
The ministry said that Ben-Sasson committed to ensuring Hatikva is sung at state ceremonies in the university and said he would look into the circumstances of Thursday’s graduation ceremony with the deacon of the Humanities Faculty, Prof. Dror Wahrman.
Other politicians took to social media to vent their criticism of the university.
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked tweeted, “The Hebrew University. A disgrace.”
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, a graduate of the university, wrote, “I call on the heads of the university to change this surprising decision.”
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein wrote on Twitter that “in an institution where it is forbidden to sing the national anthem there is no hope and no humanity.” He called on university heads to “immediately reverse the decision.”
Condemnation also came from opposition MK Tzipi Livni of the Zionist Union faction, who tweeted, “Hatikva is the anthem of Israel. Instead of running away from symbols, we need to protect a state for the Jewish people with equality for all. The decision by the Hebrew [University] is a mistake and plays into the hands of right-wing extremists.”
However, MK Zehava Galon, who leads the left-wing Meretz party, dismissed the issue as “fake news” and asserted that the national anthem hasn’t been sung at the ceremony for at least the past four years.
“For several hours we’ve been seeing totally fake news,” she said in a Facebook post.
“At state ceremonies the national anthem needs to be sung. That is a given, even if it is hard for Arabs to identify with singing ‘a Jewish soul yearns.’ But that is not what is happening here. Handing out academic certificates, with all due respect, is not a state ceremony, and no anthem was canceled. It never was [a part of the ceremony].”
The Hebrew University noted that there is no formal instruction or requirement to include the national anthem at academic ceremonies.
“There is no provision of law or guidance by the Committee for Higher Education concerning singing the national anthem at academic events, and therefore there is no basis for any argument with the Hebrew University about the subject,” it said in a statement.
In 2016 President Rivlin suggested that Israel might consider revising its national symbols and its anthem to make them more inclusive to its Arab community, which makes up about 20 percent of the population.
Rivlin said he “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.”
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.