Every four years, 3.5 billion people are riveted by a single sporting event. For a full month, half the world’s population eats, sleeps and breathes the FIFA World Cup, in which national teams from 32 countries square off to determine who will emerge as the planet’s greatest soccer team.
Israel rarely reaches the final tournament as, due to political pressure, it is placed in the European qualifying group, rather than the Asian or African groups in which other Middle Eastern countries compete. The Israeli team is good, but just cannot compete with soccer powers such as France, Italy, Belgium, Spain or Portugal. So Israel is essentially excluded from World Cup play and Israelis sit at home watching as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia play for the glory.
Prior to each World Cup match, the national anthems of each competing team is played and the athletes sing along with pride. The music is stirring and the words evoke glory, patriotism and a profound sense of national optimism. National anthems unite people by calling upon a nation’s citizens to stand together in pride and determination. You may remember the scene in the movie “Casablanca” where the resistance fighter Victor Laszlo, played by Paul Henreid, asks the patrons of Rick’s Café to sing “La Marseillaise” in order to drown out the Nazis singing “Die Wacht am Rhein.” For many, this deeply stirring anthem of resistance to tyranny is the emotional heart of the film.
“The Star Spangled Banner” also has deep emotional resonance for Americans. It was originally a poem written in 1814 by Francis Scott Key. He was overwhelmed by the sight of the Stars and Stripes tattered and scorched but withstanding the bombs and guns of the British navy’s bombardment of Fort McHenry. “The Star Spangled Banner” was not officially declared the U.S. national anthem until 1931. “America the Beautiful” and other patriotic songs were more popular, but the Depression, the aftermath of the First World War and the looming crisis in Europe seemed to require a more stirring appeal to nationalism.
“O Canada,” the Canadian national anthem, has a more contentious history. Originally written in French as an anthem for St-Jean-Baptiste Day, it called upon all “good” Christians to stand up for the glory of the church. The English-language version has been revised three times since Robert Stanley Weir produced the initial translation in 1908. The verses have been modified to be more inclusive of all genders and to be less Christian. However, the official French version still includes the line, “Il sait porter la croix (It [thy arm] knows how to bear the cross).” Such exclusivity hardly fosters a cohesive sense of Canadian national unity, particularly for Indigenous peoples and non-Christians.
What of “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem? As Jews, we sing it proudly. However, do we consider how many peoples “Hatikvah” excludes? The words of “Hatikvah” are a modified version of Naphtali Imber’s poem “Tikvatenu.” Written in 1878, the Polish poet composed nine verses to express his yearning for a return to the Jewish homeland. The Zionist Congress of 1897 adopted the poem as its official anthem. But, almost immediately, some Jews rejected it. Religious Jews declared that without mention of God or Torah, it did not deserve to be called the national anthem of a Jewish state.
Rav Avraham Kook, the first chief rabbi of pre-state Israel did not like the piece. He suggested many replacements, though when called upon he sang “Hatikvah.”
In the 1970s, after the Six Day War but before the Yom Kippur War, a resolution was introduced in the Knesset to make “Jerusalem of Gold” the national anthem. The intent was to create a more inclusive emotional response to the survival of the Jewish state and the Jewish people. Since then, there have been other attempts to change the Israeli anthem. Israeli Arabs, Israeli Christians, Israeli Druze have all, at one time or another, demanded that, as Israeli citizens, they be included in a national anthem.
I watch the FIFA World Cup and feel the pride of each team singing their anthem. As I do, I wonder about the day when Israel finally participates in this global event. Will they have an anthem that will allow Israeli athletes – Jewish, Christian, Arab, and Druze – to sing of shared hopes and shared aspirations?