Yesterday I attended my degree-award ceremony at Coventry University in the UK. Because of the close ties (both geographical and institutional) between the two bodies, all the degree ceremonies take place in the august setting of Coventry Cathedral. The original cathedral was destroyed in a German bombing raid on the city during World War II. Interestingly, the Church took the decision not to rebuild the original structure, but to build a modern cathedral beside the ruins of the old, and to establish the cathedral as a monument to peace and reconciliation. The two – old and new, ruined and re-built – today stand side by side. It was because of the connection to the cathedral, that the university opened its Centre for Peace and Reconciliation Studies several years ago.
The majority of Coventry’s students graduate in ceremonies in November each year. The July ceremonies are mainly for post-grad and foreign students. And what a wonderful, colorful collection we were. We may all have been wearing traditional gowns, hoods and caps, but the dress and languages spoken by our accompanying guests revealed the incredible variety of the student body, as did the list of names published in the award ceremony booklet.
As I sat through the proceedings, I couldn’t help reflecting on the outcry heard in recent weeks in Israel over the decision taken by more than one university faculty not to sing the national anthem at the end of their degree ceremonies. The decision was taken at least partially in order not to alienate the substantial numbers of Arab students graduating in these institutions. One of the sillier articles I read on the subject implied that these Arab students should shut up and learn to live with HaTikva, just as the non-Protestant citizens of Great Britain have to put up with God Save the Queen. That set me thinking about two main issues of belonging and national anthems.
Firstly, we cannot be surprised that Arab citizens of Israel cannot identify with HaTikva, an anthem of Jewish longing for a national home. Whether this means we have to change it is a separate question. Our first step should be to recognize that we would like Arab citizens to feel a sense of belonging in Israel. There are all sorts of ways in which we could promote this feeling – and perhaps first and foremost would be to do away with state discrimination against Arab citizens. State symbols can be important too, but equality is much more important. The reason the symbols are significant is because they signal recognition – if Israel made its minority citizens feel as though they belonged, the state symbols would feature less prominently as a source of tension.
The second thing that was clear to me was the fact that in Britain, the national anthem would not be played at a university ceremony of this nature – I doubt it even occurred to anybody as a possibility. The national anthem is just that – a national anthem. It is played at State occasions and National events. I can barely remember actually being present at events when God Save the Queen was sung. It certainly was not sung at yesterday’s graduation – and in fact even the Dean of the Cathedral went out of his way to welcome all the participants, of many faiths and nations, in his greeting, which had no religious content whatsoever, despite the setting.
One of the images which will stay with me is that of numerous Muslim women, who seemed perfectly comfortable putting their mortarboards on top of their head-coverings. What would it take for our own minority groups to feel at ease with their hybrid identities, managing to combine them in ways that would make them, and us, feel at home?