You don’t have to be a sports fan to have been intrigued by the biggest story in the National Football League the past month.
Colin Kaepernick, the now back-up quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers made a stand (or a kneel, per se) in support of the imbalance he sees in how African Americans are treated in the United States by refusing to stand for the US national anthem before games.
Kaerpernick, who is of mixed race, stated that he will not stand for the anthem of a country that does not offer African Americans proper respect and equal treatment.
The response has been mixed, with either loud voices calling Kaepernick’s actions a distraction to his team or screams from patriotic Americans raucously booing the quarterback any chance they get for betraying his country.
A seemingly small few have supported his right to take a knee (although his jersey soon became the hottest on the market).
I am not here to get into a debate over the Black Lives Matter movement or even to discuss the issue of equal rights in the United States. That’s for another forum.
While I appreciate all sides of the argument around pro athletes using their platform to make political statements, my take on this issue lies within the question of what a national anthem is supposed to represent.
Whether you agree with Keapernick’s opinion on the state of affairs in his country or not, a national anthem is a show of pride, of patriotism, of love and affection for the country you live in. It is a way to say “I love you” to your country.
But if you are not proud of the country you live in, pay taxes in, work in, contribute to society in, then you should not be expected to unconditionally stand and sing her praises.
Just as a child who is abused by her father should not be expected to unconditionally say “I love you” simply because he is her father, citizens of the United States should not be expected to sing The Star Spangled Banner unconditionally if they feel their community is being abused by their country. Nor should they be asked to leave “if they don’t like it.”
Kaepernick, and the many athletes who have since followed his lead, are staying. And they are asking more from their country if their country wants them to stand and say “I love you.”. Kaepernick has stood in front of any microphone that asks the question and stated exactly what he expects for from his country. He is not proud to be an American right now and he is not wrong to feel that way.
I have also heard many argue that the singing of anthems are a time to show respect to the many men and women who have given their lives for their country, and I respect that take. However, I also suspect those men and women would be rolling in their graves right now if they knew what the country had done with those rights and freedoms they fought to defend. Did they die so that political corruption and immoral behavior would lead the way in their country? Did they die so that America would have only two legitimate political choices at each election? So that children would be born into homes that identified themselves as either Republican or Democrat regardless of the petulant child that was leading their party
I’d like to think not.
Rather than starting every conversation on the topic with the words “I’m proud to be an American, but…”, ALL Americans should be demanding more from their country.
Clashes with police, race wars, mass shootings, ridiculous gun control debates, and the ultimate embarrassment of Donald Trump being considered a legitimate candidate to run their country are embarrassing for the so-called leaders of the free world.
I respect any American for feeling proud of many of the things their country has stood for over the years. More specifically, I respect the challenges of managing the responsibility of playing the worldwide role the USA accepts on a daily basis. But today, in the United States, it is ok not to be so proud.
Standing for a national anthem should not be a requirement of being a citizen of a country. Doing what you can to support, advocate for or improve that country should be. Kaepernick’s actions were designed to instigate much-needed debate and awareness in his country. This will serve them far better than unconditionally standing for a song.
Let’s hope he decides, once again, to stand proud.
With Liberal MP Mauril Bélanger’s private members’ bill seeking to change the lyrics of O Canada having advanced to its second reading, I am thinking about another anthem close to many readers’ hearts: Hatikvah. With Yom Ha’atzmaut having recently passed, the content of Hatikvah deserves some reconsideration.
Bélanger’s amendment would make the Canadian national anthem more gender-inclusive, changing “in all thy sons command” to “in all of us command.”
As reported by CBC News, Bélanger said, “As Canadians, we continually test our assumptions and, indeed, our symbols, for their suitability.” He continued: “Our anthem can reflect our roots and our growth.”
It’s a statement that is rife for comparing with the Israeli experience. Israel’s Jewish state-building origins have long been challenged by the country’s democratic requirements.
When it comes to inclusiveness, Bélanger knows of what he speaks. Over the last several months, Bélanger has been an especially unifying figure in the corridors of Canadian power, having been recently diagnosed with ALS. Not long ago, my own synagogue in Ottawa honored him in a highly moving ceremony that easily transcended whatever residue of partisan divisions may have remained after what was an unusually divisive Canadian election.
Despite being written in the highly gendered language of Hebrew, Hatikvah doesn’t suffer from gender exclusion (its gender inflections are mostly in the neutral “we” form). But there is a different gap in its inclusiveness: the 20% of Israeli citizens who are Arabs. Reports about swearing-in ceremonies of Knesset members or Israeli judges from time to time include a mention of an Arab or Palestinian honoree walking out or simply refusing to sing.
Writing in the Forward in 2012, Philologos (a pseudonym for Hillel Halkin) proposed changing Hatikvah’s lyrics to make them more inclusive. “It’s unacceptable to have an anthem that can’t be sung by 20% of a population,” he wrote. “Permitting [the minority] to stand mutely while others sing is no solution.”
Philologos’ fix is simple. Change Yehudi (Jewish) to Yisraeli (Israeli), and le’Tzion (to Zion) to l’artzeinu (to our land). Close the song with “in the city in which David … encamped.”
It’s an idea that is top of mind for Israel’s Arab MKs, such as Yousef Jabareen, who told me in a 2015 interview that he believes Hatikvah should be adapted “to accommodate both national groups.” He added, “The Arab minority are not just another minority. They are a native minority. They were there before the establishment of the state of Israel.”
When thinking about any type of policy change, it’s important to consider who stands to gain and who stands to lose. Given that a recent Pew poll found that 79% of Israeli Jews feel they “deserve preferential treatment,” it’s clear that Jewish Israelis are comfortable with their position of privilege – whether legislative or symbolic – in Israel. It stands to reason that any erosion in perceived privilege might be seen as a threat.
Israeli Jews may not embrace these sorts of changes. Neither, when it comes to changing O Canada, do some Conservative MPs, citing no need to bend to “political correctness,” as Larry Maguire said. Another MP, Kelly Block, said she does “not believe the anthem is sexist,” according to CBC News.
However, there is something powerful about allowing for expanded boundaries of inclusion. Further enfranchising those who feel excluded can help buttress the institutions that constitute the state, and the costs would be relatively low.
By their design, national anthems are meant to express the will of the polity. Those who wield power might want to think about the effects of the content of national symbols on those who don’t feel represented by them. When it comes to nation-building, casting a net that extends to the edges of the polity bears fruit for democratic functioning and civic identity.
Mira Sucharovis an associate professor of political science at Carleton University. She is a columnist for Canadian Jewish News and contributes to Haaretz and the Jewish Daily Forward, among other publications. This article was originally published in the CJN.