World War I and the Origins of Israel’s Most Famous Song

June 2, 2023 | Lenny Ben-David
About the author: Lenny Ben-David is the director of publications at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the author of American Interests in the Holy Land Revealed in Early Photographs (Urim). He is at work on a book about World War I in the Holy Land.

By April 1918—as the final year of the First World War ground on—Jerusalemites had, in the words of Lenny Ben-David, suffered “starvation, locust plagues, and diseases spread by Ottoman soldiers, such as cholera, typhoid, [and] malaria.” Yet that baleful year was also one of joy because of the British liberation of Jerusalem from Ottoman rule, and the promise of the November 1917 Balfour Declaration. That joy inspired one Jew, as Ben-David writes:

In 1918, a music teacher and cantor in Jerusalem, Avraham Zvi Idelsohn, transcribed an old tune (nigun) of the Sadigorer Ḥasidim (from today’s Ukraine) and composed a song to celebrate the liberation of Jerusalem and the Balfour Declaration in 1917. It was called “Havah Nagilah”—“Let Us Rejoice!”

The song, with phrases from Psalms, caught on among all Jewish residents of Eretz Yisrael, from the ultra-Orthodox to the socialist kibbutzniks. But the music did not stop at the Mediterranean shores. It became an anthem at Jewish celebrations around the world. Its versions included orchestral, ḥasidic, rap, klezmer, and rock. It was recorded by stars such as Ray Charles, Drake, Frank Sinatra, Harry Belafonte, Josephine Baker, [and] various orchestras and choirs, and even played at sporting events such as hockey games, baseball’s seventh-inning-stretch, and the Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman’s floor routine in 2012.

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