Supreme Court Justice Joubran Stands but Does not Sing HaTikva

Supreme Court Justice Salim Joubran

Christian-Arab Supreme Court Judge Salim Joubran sparked a small controversy at the end of February during when he stood for the national anthem but did not sing the words. The Deputy Prime Minister and fellow judges defended his actions as fair and respectful to the State of Israel, but several right wing MKs called for his dismissal and cited his behavior as a reason not to respect the Supreme Court. The New York Times dubbed the bru-ha-ha “a kind of Rorschach inkblot test about the nature of Israeli democracy.”

MK David Rotem (Israel Beiteinu), chair of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee and member of the Judge Selection Committee, said he wanted to fire Salim Joubran and said he would discuss the matter the following day with the Minister of Justice, Ya’akov Ne’eman. MK Avigdor Lieberman, finance minister also joined the chorus, saying that Joubran had a split personality and that one cannot be a supreme court justice while shunning Israel’s national anthem.

MK Michael Ben-Ari (Ichud Leumi) also condemned Joubran’s failing to sing the words. He attempted to propose a bill that would require sitting Supreme Court judges to have previously served in the IDF but the bill was rejected. Joubran, being Arab, was exempt from IDF service when he was of service age.

But several others, among them deputy Prime Minister MK Moshe Ya’alon (Likud), defended Justice Joubran and argued that failing to sing the words does not indicate disloyalty. The words are problematic for non-Jews because they talk of a historically rooted Jewish hope rather than an Israeli hope. A non-Jew can’t sing about “our 2000 year longing” without hypocrisy. Even if he or she fully accepts the Jewish right to a homeland, that doesn’t make the longing their own historic longing. Although the value of hope is universal, the specific historic hope mentioned in the song is specific to the Jewish portion of the Israeli public. One can support the state without necessarily identifing with the specific experience of the Jewish people. Out of respect for this, non-Jewish citizens are required to show respect for the anthem, but not to sing it. They must stand along with other Israeli citizens when the anthem is sung. If they are police, military officers or prison officials they must also salute, but they need not sing.

MK Zahava Gal-On (Meretz) accused critics of focusing on symbolism at the expense of substance: “to put a Supreme Court Justice through Kahana’s and Liberman’s loyalty tests is meant to undermine democracy, a regime that has more respect for people than for symbols”.

Fellow Judge Elyakim Rubenstien wrote a letter to his fellow judges in support of Joubran, saying ““I can attest to his integrity as a justice, and as a loyal citizen of the State of Israel, who represents our country abroad with dignity and success… Arab citizens shouldn’t be required to sing words that do not speak to their hearts and which do not reflect their roots,”. Joubran has been serving in the Israeli Supreme Court since 2003. In 2004 after a year as temporary judge, he was given a permanent appointment.

A former judge who worked with Joubran when he was a judge in Haifa prior to his joining the Israeli Supreme Court also spoke up in his defense. Former Haifa District Court Vice President Menachem Ne’eman spoke in favor of Joubran’s integrity and distanced him from certain Arab MKs that have been extremely critical of Israel in past months:

we must remember that Israel has a 20 percent minority, and it is obvious that they cannot identify with the contents of the anthem. One cannot expect people to act against their own believe and sing along to things they do not identify with. They do, however, need to respect the occasion, and Judge Joubran did just that. … [he is] a reasonable person …. if the Israeli Arab representation in the Knesset acted more like him, the situation would look entirely different. (Source: HaAretz)

Another Arab Judge who temporarily served on the court, Abed al-Raham Zoabi, observed that the notion of a “loyal Arab minority” had not been in the original writers minds. To encourage non-Jewish identification with the anthem, the words should be modified to speak of an “Israeli soul” rather than a “Jewish soul.” Both Rubenstein and Ne’eman expressed support for the current words and preferred the compromise of respectful silence.

Media and blog reaction was mixed and echoed many of the themes in the responses of judges and MKs. Some agreed with the right-wing MKs who condemned Joubran, seeing the national anthem as a litmus test for acceptence that Israel is not only a state but a Jewish state. Some, along with MK Gal-On, saw the bru-ha-ha as a test of democracy. Gideon Levy wrote in HaAretz that Justice Joubran reminded lovers of democracy that “the supreme test of democracy is how it treats those who don’t join the choir. ”

Others expressed satisfaction with the current compromise of respectful silence. Noah Kleiger writing in Ynet said

These people [non-Jewish Israelis] are for the most part fine Israeli citizens, yet we should not demand that they sing words that belong to Jews alone.

But others like Justice Zoabi, called for a change in the words of the national anthem to reflect the diverse character of Israel’s citizens. HaAretz wrote an editorial saying:

The time has come for Israel to consider changing the words of its anthem, so that all Israelis can identify with them. But until that happens, we need to allow anyone who chooses not to sing the anthem to do so, without becoming the target of an ugly witch hunt by the nationalist right.

Justice Zoabi and HaAretz’s suggestion may seem radical, but they raise an interesting question: is there a way that the Jewish state can stay specifically Jewish and yet include the hopes and dreams of all Israelis?

Jews aren’t the only people in history who have ever longed for a land. They are not the only people that have faced hardship and destruction. Our story of the Exodus has been a touchstone for people around the globe, Jew and non-Jew. The story is not one bit less Jewish for that fact. Rather it raises our importance. From our particular experience of a Jewish people has grown a hope that people of many cultures and nations can share.

Should we not find a way to make our longing for a home land something with which all who live in this land can identify? Does changing “Jewish hope” to “Israeli hope” really make the song any less Jewish? Do not all loyal Israelis, Jew and non-Jew love this land and long for it?

Does being a light unto the nations mean being in the spotlight with everyone saying “That’s Jewish” or does it mean casting one’s light out so that everyone shares in it and can say “That’s mine”? Which is the greater influence? To be a light to others or to have the light shine on oneself?

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