According to a July Haaretz article, Israeli education authorities have implemented a new rule that kindergarten teachers must have their classes sing the Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem, every week. This generated some debate in Israel about forced patriotism that poses an interesting contrast with the US, where for many decades, classrooms have included daily recitals of patriotic songs and/or the Pledge of Allegiance. There was little or no attention to the uncontroversial exception made for the “Arab sector.”
According to the Education Ministry, the directives will not be implemented in the Arab sector....The ultimate goals of the plan are to strengthen the pupils' Jewish and Zionist values, and to improve their scholastic achievements.
On its face, this makes perfect sense. The Hatikvah speaks of the yearning of the Jewish soul for return to and control over Zion. It would be incongruous and even cruel to compel non-Jewish youngsters to mouth such words sanctifying the spirit of their Jewish neighbors above their own, especially where that Jewish yearning is to control the land on which Palestinians have lived for many centuries.
Surely it would be appalling to prescribe this weekly dose of glorification of Jewish nationhood for those who cannot share in its meaning. But is it any less appalling that Palestinian children are unable to share in the national anthem of their own country? These children, like several generations before them, are destined to live their entire lives as citizens of a state dedicated to the aspirations of another people, a group from which they are excluded. It’s not just the ritual song-singing; the Hatikvah is the perfect national anthem, embodying the entire noble mythology of the state, from centuries of yearning for Zion to the 20th century realization of the dream.
Among all the indignities faced by non-Jewish citizens in Israel, the inability of their children to partake in this dubious “patriotic” exercise surely does not rank near the top. Nevertheless, it is the perfect symbol of the irreconcilable conflict between the “Jewish State” and the fundamental principle of equality for all citizens that is considered inviolable in every other national context.
Some Zionists simply deny the undeniable. Israel is a “Jewish State” that provides absolute equality for Jews and non-Jews. Even Israel’s founding document, the Declaration of Independence of 1948, guarantees “full and equal citizenship” to Arab citizens. Where’s the contradiction? Others acknowledge that Jewish citizens are “more equal than others,” to paraphrase Orwell, but insist that it is natural to bestow greater rights on Jewish citizens of a Jewish State. Those “Arabs” who don’t like it have 22 other Arab states they can move to.
Then there are the liberal Zionists, people like Peter Beinart and Jerome Slater, who regret having to adopt this singular exception to their liberal principles favoring equality for all, regardless of ancestry. I see no reason to question their sincerity, or their hope that the inevitable inequalities between Jews and non-Jews can be minimized, despite Israel’s failure to do so for 63 years and its current freight-train movement in the wrong direction. But even if liberal Zionists can justify, in this one instance, a state favoring some citizens over others based upon characteristics of birth, can they imagine any circumstances in which the victims of such inequality would accept inferior status as their unfortunate lot in life? Who among us would agree to live under such circumstances? Is it not unseemly to reluctantly accept privileges for one’s own ethnic group?
This kindergarten problem will remain as long as Israel remains a “Jewish State,” even if Israel’s military occupation over millions of Palestinian non-citizens ended tomorrow and a real Palestinian State emerged. Of course, the real debate there involves the question of precisely how many nails Israel has hammered into the coffin of the two-state solution. Israel’s Palestinian citizenry will continue to be a tolerated (some times more than others) minority living as a permanent underclass in a foreign country, even though their own roots to the land go back many centuries. Israel’s non-Jewish citizens will be outsiders, and their children will know it from an early age, whenever they hear their Jewish counterparts sing the national anthem that they cannot share.