Rivlin: Arab citizens shouldn’t be forced to sing national anthem

President says he is ‘touched’ by ‘Hatikva,’ but recognizes others’ opposition to it; says text shouldn’t be changed

President Reuven Rivlin (back row, center) with pupils and teachers and the Givat Gonen School in Jerusalem (Mark Neiman/GPO)
President Reuven Rivlin (back row, center) with pupils and teachers and the Givat Gonen School in Jerusalem (Mark Neiman/GPO)

President Reuven Rivlin said Thursday that he understands why Israel’s Arab citizens feel uncomfortable with the “Hatikva” national anthem and maintained they should not be forced to sing it.

“I am very touched every time I sing ‘Hatikva’, but I know that my Arab friend doesn’t have a ‘Jewish spirit yearning deep in the heart’,” Rivlin told students of the Givat Gonen School in Jerusalem, quoting from the lyrics. “I must continue to insist on singing my anthem wherever I wish, but I don’t need to force anyone to sing those words,” he added.

While accepting the decision of some citizens to refrain from singing “Hatikva,” the president nonetheless maintained that the national anthem should not be revised.

“He can come and say to me: ‘Let’s change the anthem.’ I tell him, ‘no, I can’t change the anthem because this was our goal for 2,000 years. You need to live with the anthem and I need to live with your decision not to sing ‘a Jewish spirit is yearning,’” Rivlin added.

“In the state, the ‘other’ is important to me even if they’re not Jewish. We live in a gallery of cultures as citizens of the same country and this forces us to listen to each other. Things will get better much faster if we deepen ties as you do here in school,” he said.

Rivlin made the comment after hearing about meetings between young Jews and Arabs attended by students from the school.

“We live in one country not because we were condemned to live together but because we were chosen to live together. We are a Jewish and democratic country where 20 percent are Arab citizens and we must learn to live together. First of all we need to listen to each other, try to understand the other and even if we disagree, we will learn, as you saw, that we are quite similar,” Rivlin said.

“We are all minorities, and we all need to remember we cannot just ignore reality and hope the problems will go away,” the president said, according to the Ynet news website.

The Israeli national anthem, with lyrics expressing the yearning of Jews throughout the ages to return to “Zion,” has been protested by some of Israel’s non-Jewish citizens. Arab MKs have frequently left the Knesset plenum when it is sung in protest.

Over the years, there have been several rejected proposals to pen new words to the melody written by Shmuel Cohen and inspired by Czech composer Bedrich Smetana’s symphonic poem La Moldau. The words to the anthem are the first two strophes of the poem Tikvatenu (Our Hope) by Naftali Herz Imber.

During the recent swearing-in of the Knesset, after the March elections, some members of the Joint (Arab) List stayed in the plenum and others left. The members of the Hadash faction remained, but did not sing. Members of United Arab List and Balad – other factions comprising the Joint (Arab) List – left the hall.

Joint (Arab) List leader Ayman Odeh later said: “I chose to stay in the plenary and to just stand silently. It was my protest against an anthem which does not represent me and which is for me only another symbol of discrimination.”

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