HaTikvah and the first Zionists
Where did the Israeli National Anthem come from and who were the first Zionists to dream of a Jewish State?
We waited for five minutes, ten minutes, in perfect silence. The theatre was packed, but our attention was focused, focused on the waiting. As the first distant wails of the siren shattered the weight of what we had all been waiting for, the theatre rose in unison, standing for a perfect minute of wailing silence.
No one clapped during the evening, despite the songs and stories being performed with incredible skill, both technically and in keeping with the sombre atmosphere of Yom Hazikaron – the Day of Remembrance for Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terror.
At the end of the commemorations, we all rose again, this time to sing HaTikvah. Every time I feel it’s not that I sing it, it sings me. My lips form the sounds of the words before my brain can even remember what the next word is. It’s a song that’s sung together, whether in the hellish nightmare of Bergen-Belsen, or right here, in a theatre in northern Tel Aviv.
In preparation for these special days, Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmut, I had been re-reading Herzl’s The Jewish State. The book itself is a volume of history. The copy I have was printed by the American Zionist Emergency Council for the 50th Anniversary of the original publication of Der Judenstaat – which was in 1946.
Herzl opens the preface with this:
“The idea which I have developed in this pamphlet is a very old one…I wish it to be clearly understood from the outset that no portion of my argument is based on a new discovery.”
Isn’t that an odd statement from someone we think of as the founder of Zionism? The Yom Ha’atzmut ceremony takes places from Har Herzl; I met a soldier at the Yom Hazikaron ceremony who received an exemption from the IDF from shaving his beard purely because it looks so much like Herzl’s. Why is Herzl saying, in the first pages of the book that the State of Israel springs from, that he isn’t actually responsible for the idea?
Where did the idea come from? Who were the first Zionists? Was it the Ukrainian Jews who founded Petah Tikvah and Rishon LeZion as mere farming settlements in the 1880s? The Spanish exiles who returned to build 16th century Tzfat? Ezra who led the return from Babylon? Or was it Moses himself, leading his people back to the Land of Israel, from where their forefathers had come?
As I looked into this more, I was surprised to discover that Herzl’s work The Jewish State, was not the first book of the modern age to call for Jews to settle in the Land of Israel. In 1880, during the Ottoman Turkish occupation, a book called The Land of Gilead was written. In it, the author Laurence Oliphant, a Scottish, Christian Zionist who came to settle in Haifa, drafted plans for the settlement of Jews in the Land of Israel, and wrote out blueprints for the economic and political development for this backwater province of the Ottoman Empire.
Oliphant was a visionary, imagining a railway system connecting Haifa to the Dead Sea, Jerusalem, Tiberius, and even to Damascus, as Oliphant envisioned a region interconnected by trade and travel. In fact some rusty tracks of his proposed Haifa to Tiberius line can still be seen in the Lower Galilee around Afula.
Sir Laurence Oliphant, who has streets named after him in both Haifa and Tel Aviv, not only wrote about promoting Zionist settlement in Israel long before Herzl, but in fact visited the Ottoman capital Constantinople in the hopes of obtaining a lease on the entire Galilee to promote settlement and alleviate Jewish suffering in Eastern Europe.
Sir Laurence was the son of Sir Anthony Oliphant, a Scottish aristocrat and British Imperial officer in Sri Lanka (Ceylon) and South Africa (Cape Colony). Laurence followed in his father’s footsteps at least partially, also serving the British Empire in South Africa, introducing tea to Sri Lanka and becoming a Member of Parliament for Stirling, the ancient Scottish Royal capital.
In 1879, Oliphant and his wife came to Haifa, and also maintained a house / community centre in the Druze village of Daliat al-Carmel, which he later gave over to the Druze community. In 1882, the Oliphant’s employed a young Jewish man from Ukraine as their personal Secretary, a poet called Naphtali Herz Imber.
In 1886, after a few years of working for Sir Laurence Oliphant in Haifa, Imber published his first book of poems, Morning Star (Hebrew – barkai). One of the poems was Tikvateinu (Our Hope), a romantic anthem about the Jewish people’s desire to return to the Land of Israel. Later it was adapted as HaTikvah, (The Hope), the national anthem of the Jewish people and now of the State of Israel.
As I stood in the theatre in Tel Aviv, singing HaTikvah and the end of the Yom Hazikaron ceremony, I thought about the origins of this special song. About the grand old house in Haifa where a Scottish Christian aristocrat and an Eastern European Jewish poet would talk long into the night about Zionism, and wonder aloud what a Jewish state might one day look like.
Just as in every generation, an enemy will rise up to try and destroy the Jewish people, it seems that in every generation, there are more heroes who rise up to try and save it. Before Herzl, before the World Zionist Congress, before the Jewish Agency or the State of Israel, two men dreamed of Jewish Independence, and because of what they did, their legacy is the roads under our feet and the song of hope we sing in our hearts.
Social Media Manager at Livnot.