Hard-line proposal over Israeli anthem branded ‘outrageous’

Ben Lynfield, in Jerusalem

Ben Lynfield, in Jerusalem

If the new proposal aimed against the Arab minority passes Israel’s parliament, then sportsmen including Celtic midfielder Beram Kayal could lose their places on Israel’s national teams.

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Like the overwhelming majority of the 1.6 million Arab citizens of Israel, neither Mr Kayal, nor the other two Arabs on the national football team, Iyad Hutba and Talb Tawatha, sing the national anthem, HaTikva (“The Hope”). It speaks of how “the soul of a Jew yearns” for Jerusalem and hopes to return to Zion, but ignores the Arab minority, which makes up about a fifth of the population.

“There is no doubt that it is a great privilege to represent Israel,” said MP Michael Ben-Ari. “Whoever has this privilege must know to respect the national anthem, the flag, and the values of the state of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

“It is inconceivable that a player, however talented he may be, will not know how to sing the national anthem.”

The attempt to exclude Arabs from national teams is part of a larger shift to the right in Israeli society, in which the Jewish majority, faced with growing international isolation and stalemate with the Palestinians under the hard-line policies of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is settling into a siege mentality emphasising Jewish values and nationalism at the expense of democracy and minority rights.

“It is alarming, we are on a slippery slope,” says Uri Dromi, former spokesman for Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister assassinated by an extremist in 1995. “Deep inside something is deteriorating.”

Nearly one-third of the Knesset’s MPs has signed as a co-sponsor of separate legislation that makes Israeli democracy subservient to the state’s Jewish identity. It would allow Jewish residential areas to bar Arabs, rescind Arabic’s status as an official language and make ancient Hebrew law one of Israel’s sources of legislation.

Mr Dromi believes the national anthem bill is “outrageous” as it targets sports, an area where Arab citizens were seeing some success in integrating.

“You can’t really blame them for not singing HaTikva. It is really a Jewish anthem only, so you have to practice some common sense. I think a verse needs to be added to it that this is a country where other people also live.”

Abed Anabtawi, spokesman for the Committee of Arab Local Authorities in Israel, said of the bill: “It is ideological coercion that goes against our historical narrative and our very existence in cultural, historical and social terms. An apartheid state is being established here.’’

Uzi Dan, a sports columnist for Haaretz daily newspaper, wrote that the main losers if Mr Ben-Ari’s legislation passes will be the national football team., which, he argued needs the minority players more than they need the national team.

He said: “It is dependent upon them, it requires them, and it is much worse off without them.”

Celtic’s Mr Kayal said he was “forbidden” to talk about the issue. However, he previously has said: “It is everyone’s right to say or propose what he wants.

“It is a superfluous proposal. I don’t think it will become law.”