How Hatikvah became Israels national anthem by default

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"Hatikvah" has been around for more than 100 years, outlasting many challengers. Interestingly, though, nobody ever actually chose "Hatikvah" as Israel's national anthem. The state inherited it, if you will, along with all sorts of other treasures of the Zionist movement. The elites haven't always liked it, but the public has embraced it wholeheartedly.

There's no shortage of people who say the anthem's time has passed. It's done its deed, served its purpose, and should be replaced with something more appropriate, they insist.

Heresy! How dare anyone challenge "Hatikvah"? Even Zubin Mehta has called it the most beautiful anthem on earth.

Maybe so, but is it the most appropriate anthem for the state of Israel?

Set aside for a moment the fact that nearly a fifth of Israeli citizens never dreamed of a return to Zion. The overwhelming majority, it could be argued, did hold onto that hope throughout centuries of exile.

But the exile has ended. The dream became reality 46 years ago. Should we be looking back, or should we look forward?

The question is a minefield, and we won't try to answer it here. Just remember that over the years there have been efforts to change the anthem. It even came up in the Knesset once.

In 1967, Knesset member Uri Avneri tabled a bill that would have made Naomi Shemer's "Jerusalem of Gold" the anthem. It never even went to committee. Today, Avneri says, Shxemer's song has been hijacked by the right, making it inappropriate as an anthem for the state of Israel. He would like to see a songwriting contest, with the best and the brightest submitting original compositions. Sort of like Eurovision, only more serious.

It all began in Eastern Europe, you could say. Not an inappropriate place to begin a story about something that has been criticized as reeking of diaspora life.

"Hatikvah" is the fruit of the pen of Naphtali Herz Imber, a wandering Jewish poet who was born in Galicia in 1855 or 1856. Before he died in New York in 1909, he had managed to travel throughout Europe, Palestine, Britain and the United States. Everywhere he went, he wrote poetry, recited his poems to anyone who would listen, drank with hearty thirst and remained devoted to the nascent cause of Zionism.

In fact, Imber saw himself — not Theodor Herzl — as the true spiritual father of Zionism. In one letter he wrote, "I am the origin of the Zionist movement. It is not generally known, but I am. Many years ago I went to Jerusalem, saw the misery of my people, felt the spirit of the place and determined to bring my scattered people again together. For 12 years, I struggled to put the Zionist movement on foot. Now that I have started it, I will let others carry it on and get the glory."

Imber's Hebrew poems did kindle a spark for many Jews. He wrote about Rishon LeZion, the Jordan River, Hovevei Zion, and other themes and places in Palestine. But his most famous poem was and remains "Tikvatenu," which he first penned in Iasi, Romania.

In 1877, the 22-year-old Imber was living with Moshe Waldberg, a former Galician talmudist-turned-successful-attorney in Iasi. Waldberg had two sons, and according to the biography of Imber written by his daughter, Ethel Lithman, the three young men got along famously. Under the influence of his dear friends, Imber penned "Tikvatenu." It was the beginning of an anthem.

In 1882, Imber traveled to Palestine along with his mentor, Laurence Oliphant. During his years in Palestine, Imber traveled around the various Jewish communities and colonies, carrying copies of his poems at all times. When invited into people's homes, the story goes, he wasted no time before getting down to the serious business of drinking. Once he was adequately inebriated, he would begin to recite his poems to his hosts.

Those encounters so inspired the young man that he would often scribble new stanzas on scraps of paper. That continued until "Tikvatenu" had nine stanzas.

The melody also has its own story. Imber wrote a poem without music. Various attempts were made to set it to music. The first, apparently, was done by a composer named Leon Igly. He had been brought to Zichron Ya'acov by Baron Edmond de Rothschild for the express purpose of learning farming. He tried to learn, but didn't like it, so a Rothschild aide gave him a room in Rishon LeZion and handed him a copy of Imber's book of Hebrew poetry, Barkai (Morning Star).

Igly immediately turned to "Tikvatenu," in its nine-verse version. In what he certainly thought was a stroke of creative genius, Igly wrote a different tune for each stanza.

Teaching the public to sing the unofficial anthem was so difficult that children who succeeded in getting through all nine verses used to get a prize of chocolate. But all the chocolate in the world couldn't make Igly's masterpiece catch on. He returned to Russia, and the melody was lost.

Soon thereafter, a new melody emerged in Rishon LeZion, the melody Jews all over will probably be singing on Independence Day. Where did it come from? Some trace it to "The Bohemian Symphony," by the Czech composer Smetana, but others say it is based on the Sephardic melody for Psalm 117 in the Hallel service. Still others say it bears a striking resemblance to a Romanian folk song.

"Tikvatenu" got a real boost back in 1890, when Rehovot was established. Each new Jewish community in Eretz Yisrael chose a song or poem, and the people who were building Rehovot chose "Tikvatenu."

When Herzl visited Rehovot in 1898, he was greeted by a crowd singing the song, which had attained the importance of a national anthem as well as a work song.

"Hatikvah" caught on quickly. Although it was not chosen as the official anthem of the Zionist movement until the 1933 Zionist Congress, it was sung for decades before that date.

That doesn't mean everyone accepted it. As early as 1886, the Russian Bnei Zion held a contest to choose a Zionist hymn. The winner: "On the Hills of Zion," by M.M. Dolitzky. Don't feel bad if you haven't heard of it; few have.

In 1893, the Galician Agudat Zion chose "Dort Vu Die Tzeder," by Yitzhak Peled, as the Zionist anthem. It caught on, and for years was a strong challenger to "Hatikvah."

Just before the First Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897, Herzl and Max Nordau decided to hold a contest to choose a hymn. They got 45 entries. They were such a bad crop of songs that Herzl ordered them destroyed, and he canceled the contest.

During the Mandate, the British banned "Hatikvah" from the airwaves, so the broadcasters played a section of Smetana's work instead. The British responded by banning his music from Hebrew broadcasts.

In 1948, "Hatikvah" became the new country's national anthem, by default. Nobody had a better idea.