On Friday evening May 14, 1948, just before the Sabbath, thousands of Jewish men and women crowded the streets of Tel Aviv to witness the realization of a 2,000 year old dream.
As Prime Minister David Ben Gurion read from the “Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel,” young and old joined arm-in-arm dancing and shouting “Am Yisrael Chai – The people of Israel live!”
The armies of six surrounding Arab nations readied for war, but the children of Israel rejoiced like Miriam upon crossing the Red Sea (Exodus 15:20 ,21). Arieh Handler, one of the oldest living witnesses from that day recalls, “Despite all [our] troubles, there was tremendous excitement. People were dancing in the streets, day and night, even as the planes were bombing.”
The Jews were outnumbered and outgunned, but they were infused with an ancient hope – a hope that had weathered centuries of exile and persecution and survived the murder of six million at the hands of Hitler. It was a hope grounded in the promise of God.
“The Lord did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any other people, for you were the least of all peoples, but because the Lord loves you, and because He would keep the oath which He swore to your fathers” (Deuteronomy 7:7-8).
Much of the world expected the new Jewish State to be overrun by her enemies, but God is faithful to keep His word. Just three years after the Holocaust, in their darkest hour, God raised up the Jewish people and began returning them to the land He’d promised their forefathers. They experienced a miraculous victory against their enemies and in the following years Jews from around the world poured into the land of Israel.
It was nothing short of a fulfillment of prophecy.
“‘The days are coming,’ says the Lord, ‘that it shall no more be said, ‘The Lord lives who brought up the children of Israel from the land of Egypt,’ but, ‘The Lord lives who brought up the children of Israel from the land of the north and from all the lands where He had driven them.’ For I will bring them back into their land which I gave to their fathers” (Jeremiah 16:14-15).
Forty-five thousand Yemenite Jews who had never before seen an airplane, believed they were being carried to the Promised Land “on eagles’ wings” (Ex. 19:4). One hundred forty thousand Iraqi Jews referred to their immigration as “Operation Ezra and Nehemiah”, after the Biblical figures who led the Jewish people from exile in Babylonia back to Jerusalem.
As one immigrant said, “It is mind-blowing to see prophecy realize itself – but to be part of it leaves me speechless.”
During the six years I lived in Israel, every Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day) I was left speechless. Israelis celebrate today, much as they did on that Friday evening in 1948 – with a defiant hope in the face of their enemies. In Jerusalem’s Safra Square you’ll find several thousand Israelis folk dancing for hours, arm-in-arm in giant circles. Just down the street, crowds of young people in Zion Square dance to more up-beat music, waving Israeli flags, spraying each other with blue and white silly string, and swinging inflatable hammers – all the while shouting “Am Yisrael Chai – The people of Israel live!”
Yet in the midst of the celebration, you can’t miss the many checkpoints and heavily armed security men who stand guard to prevent terrorists from attacking. Too many times those same streets in downtown Jerusalem have been the site of suicide bombings and shooting attacks that stole the lives of so many young people.
The Jewish people are surrounded by those who seek their destruction. When they celebrate their freedom, they do so knowing that their enemies lay in wait, knowing their enemies would love nothing more than to strike them in their moment of joy.
Yet precisely because their survival is so constantly threatened, they celebrate with great passion. Every shout of “Am Yisrael Chai” is a defiant expression of the ancient hope of the Jewish people that, despite their small number and their many pursuers, “He that keepeth Israel will neither slumber nor sleep” (Psalms 121:4).
In the late 19th Century, Queen Victoria of England reportedly asked her Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli to provide evidence for the existence of God. She expected something elaborate, something philosophical, but his answer was simple: “The Jew, your majesty.”
Israel’s Independence Day is more than a celebration of statehood, it is a celebration of God’s faithfulness. The perseverance of the Jewish people is a testament to the sovereignty of God.
As followers of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, we hold on to the same promise that has sustained the Jewish people – the promise that in our darkest hour, God will come to our defense. As with the children of Israel, He will fight our battles.
For centuries the Jewish people were mocked and scorned, told by the world that God had forsaken them. But what a miraculous redemption He has begun in the life of His people! When the Deceiver comes against us with similar lies, saying that we are alone, that we have been forsaken, we have our answer. “Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; He will never leave you nor forsake you” (Deut. 31:6).
As the world around us becomes engulfed in crisis we cling to the promises of God, we continue to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem” (Ps. 122:6), and we await the realization of God’s dream for all of humanity.
Am Yisrael Chai!