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The song of hope that made a nation

What makes Israel's national anthem so special? And why did Tupac choose to sample it? Daniel Sugarman found out.

    Rapper Tupac Shakur in the film
    Rapper Tupac Shakur in the film "Poetic Justice"

    Growing up in the Charedi community, I was well into my teenage years before I knew the words to Israel’s national anthem.

    This only became a problem when I transferred to an Orthodox but non-Charedi high school. When Hatikvah was sung, I would mouth along to most of the words, while singing out loudly the bits I knew, like so:

    “Da da da da da da, P’NIMA, da da YEHUDI da da da da da

    “Da da da da da MIZRACH, KADIMA, da da da TZION da da da da da.”

    I learned soon enough, but it made me keen to meet Alex Marshall, author of Republic or Death! Travels in Search of National Anthems, to learn more about anthems in general and Hatikvah in particular.

    “I think, musically, Hatikvah is incredibly powerful and lyrically it’s a cut above many others,” he says. “Ninety per cent of national anthems basically just say ‘our fields look nice’. This one has a proper, very specific message.”

    After sailing from Cypress to Palestine, 297 Jewish refugee men, women, and children sing with joy as they arrive in the port of Haifa, Isreal, December 9, 1946.
    After sailing from Cypress to Palestine, 297 Jewish refugee men, women, and children sing with joy as they arrive in the port of Haifa, Isreal, December 9, 1946. PhotoQuest/Getty Images

    Hatikvah’s sadness, he says, is rivalled only by Japan’s anthem.“When Hatikvah was written, when Israel didn’t exist and it was just a song of the Zionist movement — it was basically being written for people who didn’t have a home,” says Marshall, who is not Jewish.

    “It is a feeling of longing, almost like unrequited love.”

    Hatikvah, of course, means “the hope”, and once it was adopted as the song of the Zionist movement, Jews took it to their hearts. A former member of the Auschwitz-Birkenau sonderkommando described how a group of Czech Jews sang it as they went to their deaths. A recording also exists of liberated inmates of Bergen Belsen in 1945 singing the anthem of yearning, which Marshall describes as “one of the most moving pieces of singing I’ve ever heard. You picture those people, weak and unable to even eat.

    “And this is the first thing they think of doing because it reflects at that moment, the joy of survival, the realisation of what needs to be done, the fact that hope isn’t lost.

    “You have moments like that in all anthem stories but none as powerful or shocking.”

    More recently Hatikvah has a rare distinction — it has been sampled by various rappers, originally and most famously by Tupac. Beneath his rhymes about “scams plotted over grams and rocks” and “pistol packin’ fresh out of jail” in Troublesome ’96 comes the tune.

    Alex Marshall thinks it’s a tribute to Tupac’s first manager, Layla Steinberg, despite the many drug references. “It’s a slightly left-field tribute, but I’m sure she appreciated it nonetheless.”

    Hatikvah is famously based on a Romanian folk tune which Marshall describes as “a lot more upbeat and joyful”.

    However, the lyrics were written by Naftali Herz Imber, a poet who was “an alcoholic misogynist,” and whose life was “a disaster.”

    “He came from a very impoverished background, and was tortured his entire life by alcoholism and poverty and obsession with various women and he was clearly an egotist.

    The New York Times obituary for him is quite horrifically blunt about his alcoholism, it speaks about how he was ‘never far from silver cups’. It also calls him ‘a good speaker, but sometimes a voluble one’, which basically means ‘goes on too much when he’s drunk and we tell him to shut up’.”

    This means Imber fits right in to the narrative of most national anthem composers, says Marshall, a small but surprisingly similar group of people.

    “If you write a national anthem,” he says, “chances are you’re a disaster before you start or you become a disaster very quickly afterwards.

    “I can understand why afterwards — because if it [your creation] is taken up by the people you are never going to better it. Imber would have known that. And it’s also a song that’s no longer yours. When people sing it, they don’t think of you, they think of their country. And that must be incredibly hard mentally for a poet or musician.” In addition, although Imber’s work was officially adopted as the anthem of the Zionist movement at the First Zionist Congress in 1897, the man himself was, Marshall believes, ostracised by the early leaders of Zionism.

    “People like Herzl clearly argued against the song being taken up as the anthem,” Marshall says.

    “They thought it was completely inappropriate to be the anthem of Zionism — because it was written by Imber.”

    And although Hatikvah has been considered Israel’s national anthem ever since the state’s founding, it was only officially chosen in 2004.

    “I imagine the politicians at the time — at the end of the second Intifada — realising that it wasn’t officially the national anthem, wanted to protect it so no one changed its words or suggested alternatives,” Marshall suggests.

    However, at a time when other countries are debating changes to their own anthems — most recently with Canada’s lawmakers voting to make their anthem gender neutral — Marshall foresees growing tension over Hatikvah.

    “When the first Arab Minister was appointed, he didn’t sing it. The Arab supreme court judge [Salim Joubran], didn’t sing it either — and it’s going to keep on happening.”

    “What Hatikvah almost says to every Arab in Israel is that you’re not part of this country. Your ‘Jewish soul’ can’t ‘yearn’, because you don’t have one.”

    He admits, “it sounds bad to single Israel out for this.” After all, “a surprisingly large number of anthems have a religious bent”, including, of course, God Save The Queen.

    However, he adds, “I think you’re going to get this pressure more. As people notice cases around the world, they’re going to start asking questions about their own situation, and it may become more of a flashpoint.”

    ‘Republic or Death! Travels in Search of National Anthems’ is published by Random House.

    Alex Marshall spoke at Milim, the Leeds Jewish Literary Festival.

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