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Banned at Hebrew U: ‘Hatikvah’

Academics find Israel’s national anthem too offensive for graduation

Liel Leibovitz
May 18, 2017
A graduation ceremony at Hebrew University of Jerusalem in January.Facebook
A graduation ceremony at Hebrew University of Jerusalem in January.Facebook

On April 1, 1925, the Hebrew University in Jerusalem inaugurated its new campus on Mount Scopus. In attendance were the Earl of Balfour, whose famous letter eight years earlier paved the way for the establishment of a Jewish state in the land of Israel, as well as other dignitaries, Jewish and gentile alike. The keynote speaker was Chaim Nachman Bialik, who would soon become Israel’s national poet. That day, Bialik spoke in verse.

“We all know and feel,” he said, “that in this moment, the people of Israel lit, on this mountain, the first candle of the revival of its spiritual life. Today, let the word spread to the Diaspora that the first cornerstone for the building of heavenly Jerusalem was set and will never be moved again.”

What a difference a century makes. This week, the very same university sparked a controversy when it banned the singing of “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem, at a graduation ceremony out of, as one university official put it, “consideration for the other side,” meaning the institution’s non-Jewish students and faculty members. Pressed by government officials, including Minister of Education Naftali Bennett and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to explain its position, the university further replied that as no law mandates the singing of the anthem at official ceremonies, it refuses to discuss the matter any further.

The university’s desire to avoid hurting the feelings of some of its students is laudable, but its actions don’t go far enough. Its name, too, is offensive: What of those students who aren’t Hebrew? And what of that oppressive logo, made up of two Hebrew letters and thereby terribly insensitive to speakers of Arabic, Amhari, Russian, English, French, and other languages? Oh, and the Albert Einstein archive, the university’s prized possession, has got to go as well; there’s no room on a politically correct campus for glorifying an ardent Zionist who, in a disgustingly nationalist fashion, spoke of the establishment of Israel as “the fulfillment of our Jewish dreams.”

Let these purges begin. Meanwhile, anyone pondering what a university committed to Jewish values might look like is welcome to reread Bialik’s speech. “Nations born just yesterday are contemplating putting us to death by spiritual thirst,” the poet concluded his remarks. “We must therefore hurry and ignite here in the land of our fathers and the birthplace of our spirit the first candle for Torah and science and all intellectual and spiritual work in Israel.” It’s high time for a Hebrew university in Jerusalem to do just that.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.