The 'greatest miracle': Israel at 70

To me the resurrection of the State of Israel in 1948, 2,000 years after her forced demise at the hands of the Romans and subsequent occupations by Christians and Muslims (culminating in the British occupation from 1922-47) is the greatest miracle the world has known.

It's greater than the invention of the wheel, the discovery of penicillin, the lives of the Buddha and Jesus, the words of Shakespeare, Robert Browning, George Eliot, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, the music of Bach and Mozart and anything the 20th and 21st centuries have to had to offer.

ReutersAn Israeli girl plays with an inflatable hammer during celebrations marking Israel's 70th Independence Day.

If you are sceptical, as many will be, just compare the progress of Pakistan, founded in the same year – how are Christians faring in Pakistan and how are Christians faring in Israel?

Today, April 20, is Iyyar 5 in the Jewish calendar. Today Israel is 70 years old. She was founded on this date 70 years ago, which coincided with May 14, 1948. But this date has a special resonance for Jews. April 20 was the birthdate of Hitler. Israel's 70th birthday celebrations are a fitting response to his attempted extermination of our people. It is also my English birthday. I am not much younger than the State.

I would like to quote from the book whose publication in February last year led to my association with this website.

In that book, an eyewitness account is given of the effect Ben Gurion's Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel had on the young man who would become the greatest rabbi of recent times, Chief Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen of Israel's third city, Haifa.

Having been smuggled into the Old City of Jerusalem during the War of Liberation against the British in 1947-8, Shear Yashuv, aged 20, describes how he managed to hear on the radio the Declaration of Independence by David Ben Gurion on Friday, 5th Iyyar 5708 (14th May 1948).

'At about 4 pm I was part of a small unit operating a most primitive mortar in the German Courtyard of the Batei Machse complex, facing Bet Rothschild. That very moment, a special session of the Emergency People's Council had been hastily convened in the auditorium of the Tel Aviv Museum. David Ben Gurion, his gravelly tones thundering with emotion, was reading out the declaration of the establishment of Medinat Israel. Courtesy of the defence forces, we were able to hear this live historic broadcast on the radio. It was completely quiet in the Jewish Quarter except for the sounds we could make out of the shots being fired by Arab marksmen, which were blending in with the dramatic words of Ben Gurion:

"Eretz Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and national identity was formed. Here they achieved independence and created a culture of national and universal significance. Here they wrote and gave the Bible to the world."

'Ben Gurion continued reading the entire text with great solemnity. Then we he reached the words: "By virtue of the natural and historic right of Am Israel, the Jewish people...we hereby proclaim the establishment of the Jewish State in Eretz Israel (The Land of Israel), to be called Medinat Israel (the State of Israel)": tears of joy streamed down our cheeks.'

But it is what happened next which was truly remarkable.

'As soon as the battle started, a proclamation was issued by the senior rabbis of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City... Two ultra-Orthodox rabbis worked together at this seminal moment with our commanding officers and the heads of the local residents of the Jewish Quarter. Together, they summoned the community to join them at nightfall for a thanksgiving prayer service in the Yohanan ben Zakkai Synagogue. This site was like a natural shelter, as it was below street level. Moreover, according to ancient tradition the shofar of Elijah the Prophet was thought to be buried here.

'When night fell, the battle abated. The Arabs...temporarily abated their onslaught. I was therefore able to enter the underground Ben Zakkai Synagogue complex for a short time in full battle gear. The candelabra were all lit with oil, shining a special light throughout. In all four synagogues of the complex could be heard emotional and joyous prayers and songs for the occasion. Among them we sang of the great scholar Bar Yochai girding himself with strength and fighting the battle of Torah. Psalms were also recited for the victory of our fighters and the salvation of the besieged city.

'The prayers and songs intensified my belief and faith, as well as my will for victory. The possibility that Jerusalem, our courageous stronghold, might fall, did not enter my head. I was sure we would be able to hold our own, or even win outright.

'The climax came after we recited the Amidah, the Shemonei Esrei, when one of the rabbis...banged on the table. At this point, at the behest of the senior rabbis present, the chazzan [cantor] started to recite the Hallel prayer together with the blessings as is the practice on the 1st night of Pesach. On this all the rabbis were of one mind. Everyone joined in reciting the Hallel prayer, praising the great miracle of the re-establishment of Medinat Israel as a sovereign country after 2,000 years of Galut (enforced diaspora). We gave thanks to the Holy One, Blessed be He, for this great miracle which He had performed for Am Israel, his very own people. For we were confident (in the words of Psalm 94:14) "that the Lord will never abandon His people, nor will He ever forsake His inheritance".'

And so it has proved over 70 years of numerous wars, including the ongoing battles against the State of Israel to revile the one who was rejected which has now become the cornerstone of the world.

This festival of Israel's independence has become part of the general synagogue liturgy, with a haggadah (emulating the Pesach narrative) and its own prayer book.

As it says on the Seder night: 'Why is this night different from all other nights?' we can truly ask ourselves 'Why is this State different from all other States?'

After 70 years of existence Israel's population has increased tenfold from 650,000 to more than 6.5 million (thus replacing those who were exterminated by Hitler and his allies in the Shoah). Today, the Jewish population of Israel comprises 42 per cent of the world's Jewish population of 14.5 million. This is an increase of 26 per cent since 1948, when two thirds of Europe's Jews had been exterminated by Hitler and his allies.

But we are still 2 million short of the 16.6 million Jews who were alive in 1939.

If present trends continue, more and more Jews will leave Europe and by 2025 the population of Israel will surpass 10 million, still a tiny country by the world's standards, but certainly not to be ignored.

Dr Irene Lancaster is a Jewish academic, author and translator who has established university courses on Jewish history, Jewish studies and the Hebrew Bible.