The modern state of Israel, likely the most complicated and controversial geopolitical entity in the world today, was born 70 years ago on May 15, 1948. Many have described the history of its existence, settlement and survival as miraculous.
And, given that Bible prophecy reveals a Jewish political presence in Jerusalem and the surrounding area in the end time, and given that this development seemed unlikely if not impossible for centuries, it is quite sensible to recognize the hand of God at work in bringing this about. God declares that He brings to pass what He has foretold (Isaiah 46:9-11).
The dreams of a people would at last begin to be fulfilled with the remarkable events leading up to 1948 and in the years since. Yet there is a much greater fulfillment still to come.
What is the story behind the formation of the Israeli state? Many readers will be somewhat familiar with the Jewish nation’s existence in the Holy Land at the time of Jesus Christ and the apostles, but what followed after that? The amazing story is a remarkable testimony to God’s faithfulness in bringing about what He promised and foretold.
The Jewish people saw their ancient presence in the land formerly known as Canaan, and in New Testament times as Judea, Samaria and Galilee, as a fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham—the territory referred to as the Promised Land. And even after the Romans cast them out, the Jewish people continued to look to God’s promises and prophecies of bringing the tribes of Israel and Judah back to the land.
Observant Jews, those who continued to follow Jewish religious traditions, retained a deep longing to return to their homeland. Their annual Passover and Yom Kippur (or Day of Atonement) services typically ended with the plea, “Next year in Jerusalem!”
After so long, the dreams of a people would at last begin to be fulfilled with the remarkable events leading up to 1948 and in the years since. Yet, as the Bible reveals, there is a much greater fulfillment still to come.
Near the end of His ministry, Jesus foretold the temple’s imminent destruction (Matthew 24:2). The plight of Jewish exile from the land of Israel began in A.D. 70 at the hand of the Roman emperor Vespasian through his son and successor Titus, who was then a general, just 40 years after Jesus spoke those words. The city of Jerusalem and the temple of God where Jesus had worshipped and taught were destroyed.
The Jews expected the Messiah to be a nation-restoring king who would set them free from Roman rule—not the sacrificial Lamb of God sent to free them from a spiritual slavery they were ensnared in yet largely ignorant of.
The Jewish desire for independence from Rome ultimately led to uprisings that brought about their own undoing, and to this day the Arch of Titus stands outside of the Colosseum in Rome as a testament to the conquest that initiated 1,800 years of “Diaspora”—the dispersion and scattering of the Jewish people out of the land of Israel. The building of the Colosseum itself was funded by the spoils of the war with the Jews.
Another Jewish attempt to cast off Roman rule 65 years later, the Bar Kokhba revolt of A.D. 132-135, was crushed by the Romans under Emperor Hadrian. This resulted in the expulsion of the Jews from Jerusalem, which was transformed into a pagan city with a pagan temple atop the Temple Mount.
The centuries dragged on, and the Promised Land was eventually conquered and subjected to Muslim rule, which would last for many more centuries. It seemed impossible that Jewish rule could ever be reestablished there.
The Zionist movement
It’s important to understand that, from the Roman destruction of Jerusalem onward, the Jewish people were persecuted almost everywhere they went—not just under Roman paganism but under the often-antisemitic version of Christianity that succeeded it. Through the Dark Ages, the later Middle Ages and even the Renaissance and Enlightenment, the Jews continued spreading out in search of peace, but found none.
By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, anti-Jewish pogroms—large-scale, targeted rioting and persecution against the Jews—spread across the Russian Empire.
In 1896 Theodore Herzl, a Jewish political activist of Hungary and Austria, summarized the downtrodden condition of the Jews in his famously influential pamphlet Der Judenstaat (“The Jewish State”), stating:
“In countries where we have lived for centuries, we are still cried down as strangers, and often by those whose ancestors were not yet domiciled in the land where Jews had already had experience of suffering.”
Herzl has been called the father of Zionism—the movement to reestablish a homeland for the Jewish people, Zion being a name for Jerusalem. His passionate advocacy for a Jewish state was instrumental in what would shortly unfold. But to make his vision a reality required something more than ideals: his dream needed international political support.
That political support took a distinctive step forward more than 20 years after Herzl’s Der Judenstaat in the wake of political upheaval in World War I. By that time, the Muslim Ottoman Turks had ruled over the Holy Land for more than 500 years. Herzl’s proposal was to humbly petition the Turkish Sultan for the land or else purchase it from him, but the British defeat of the Ottomans in World War I changed the conversation—decidedly in favor of the Jews.
From the British Mandate to statehood
In 1917, while British forces were wresting the Holy Land away from the Ottomans a year before the end of the war, British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour’s famous Balfour Declaration proclaimed, “His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” Soon thereafter, Britain was entrusted with governance of the area under a League of Nations mandate in 1920.
Sadly, the declaration’s hopeful words would hang impotently in the air for nearly 30 years against the stark contrast of terrible developments across Europe—culminating in the rise of Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler, his conquest of the continent and his atrocious, systematic ethnic cleansing of the Jews.
The Holocaust claimed more than 6 million Jewish lives and caused inestimable suffering. Against this backdrop and after so much trauma, the newly created United Nations passed a resolution in November 1947 to divide the land of Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state, with the hotly contested city of Jerusalem designated as a special international city not belonging to any nation.
The Jews had hoped, waited, worked and lobbied for this moment, and set about quickly to organize and establish a government.
The degree of preparation for this moment in the 52 intervening years between Herzl’s Der Judenstaat and the founding of the modern state of Israel must not be overlooked. Had the Jews regarded their goal any less seriously and tangibly, their new nation would quickly have met its end at the hands of the larger, stronger Arab countries surrounding them.
Immigration throughout the British Mandate period—often done illegally to bypass limits Britain imposed—supplied the land with a Jewish presence capable of sustaining and defending itself. The Jewish inhabitants formed a fighting force called the Haganah, meaning “The Defense,” that later served as the organized foundation on which the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) was built.
These pioneers faced immense hurdles. Forbidden from manufacturing their own weapons and ammunition, they carried out covert manufacturing operations, often putting their own lives and freedom at risk, preparing for the inevitable necessity for national defense if they did in fact obtain statehood.
Beyond these pragmatic efforts, the cultural unification of the country is largely indebted to a man named Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who revived the Hebrew language and made it complete, adaptable and useful for modern purposes.
It’s important to understand that Jews would come from all over the world with diverse native languages, cultural nuances and religious perspectives. The introduction of Modern Hebrew inspired unity and cooperation that gave rise to a distinctive Israeli culture. This pivotal development coupled with the eagerness of the Jews to shed their prior national affiliations in light of their universal persecution facilitated a true cultural melting pot that has continually strengthened the nation.
Immediate conflict with the Arab world
When the 1947 UN resolution passed, the Arabs in and around Palestine mobilized for war, determined to drive the Jews “into the sea,” as it was frequently put. This struggle has not ceased since Israel’s inception.
Fighting began following the resolution with the 1947-48 Civil War under what was still the British Mandate, with Jewish and Arab communities clashing, the latter with help from foreign Arab forces. The next phase, the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, came after the birth of Israel and continued into the next year. Jordan, Egypt, Syria and Iraq sent in expeditionary forces, fortified by troops from other Arab countries, but the Jews emerged victorious.
The outcome lay to rest the question of whether the Jewish state would persist—but it also resulted in the displacement of some 700,000 Arabs from the area of Palestine who fled to the surrounding Arab nations. (Seldom mentioned is the fact that from the late 1940s to 1972 a similar number of Jews fled or were expelled from Muslim countries in the Middle East and North Africa and resettled in Israel.)
The refugee influx strained the Arab countries under an unusual dilemma: Granting them citizenship and assimilating them would upset their own delicate political balances and also be tantamount to admitting Israel’s right to exist. The descendants of this original refugee population have multiplied into a stateless nation of millions who are still fighting—both politically and literally—for the reversal of their exile and establishment of a Palestinian state.
What is amazing to most observers is that Israel, being completely dwarfed in every respect by its enemies, managed to not only survive its first military conflict but also to build a thriving and stable democracy capable of defending itself time and again.
In the ensuing decades, Israel’s story would be a cycle of constant provocation and war from its neighbors on every side. The most significant and impactful of these was the 1967 Six-Day War, which clearly distinguished Israel as the dominant military force in the region, a standing it still maintains.
In June of 1967, as Egypt blockaded Israel’s Red Sea port of Eilat, Arab leaders announced their determination to wipe out the Jewish state. As armies from Egypt, Jordan and Syria gathered in position for an attack, Israel launched a devastating preemptive strike and gained a miraculous victory no one could have predicted. Israel not only repelled armies on three fronts simultaneously, but also tripled its land area in the process, seizing the Golan Heights from Syria, the Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula from Egypt and—most importantly—Jerusalem and the area known as the West Bank from Jordan.
This resulted in the displacement of another estimated 250,000 Palestinian refugees while at last allowing Jews to freely return to and settle in Jerusalem. For Zionists, Jerusalem was the ultimate prize and the answer to more than 1,900 years of praying, “Next year in Jerusalem!”
Trouble at the borders and tenuous peace
But peace in the modern state of Israel has always been short-lived. In 1973, Syria and Egypt launched a surprise attack against Israel on the Day of Atonement, an annual Holy Day of fasting known to the Jews as Yom Kippur, initiating the Yom Kippur War. An additional 100,000 troops from Arab countries were sent to aid the Egyptian and Syrian forces, along with weapons and financial support.
Israel’s very survival was at stake. Its forces successfully scrambled to recover lost ground in the first few days and reached a ceasefire within the month after the loss of thousands of lives on both sides.
The hope of peace materialized on Israel’s southern border in 1979 when Israel reached a treaty agreement with Egypt. Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula, captured from Egypt 12 years earlier in the Six-Day War, in exchange for free passage of Israeli ships through the Suez Canal.
In the process, Egypt became the first Arab nation to officially recognize the state of Israel—a move that brought censure from the Arab world, resulting in Egypt’s exclusion from the Arab League for 10 years. Moreover, Egypt’s president, Anwar Sadat, was assassinated in 1981 by the Egyptian Islamic Jihad in reprisal for the treaty, his general tolerance of the Jewish state and, by extension, his perceived lack of commitment to the Palestinian movement.
Lebanon, to Israel’s immediate north, struggled with its own internal political turmoil that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives in the Lebanese Civil War from 1975 to 1990. During this time, the Lebanon-based Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) carried out raids and attacks against Israel’s northern border towns, drawing retaliatory campaigns from Israel into Lebanon in 1978 and 1979.
A fully declared war broke out in 1982 to root out the PLO and put an end to its repeated attacks on Israeli civilians. After expulsion of the PLO from Lebanon, the terror group Hezbollah became the chief militant anti-Israel organization within Lebanon’s borders.
To the east, Jordan eventually came to peace with Israel in 1994, effectively giving up its claim to the West Bank and Jerusalem but advocating that these become part of a separate Palestinian state.
This hotly debated strategy, known as the two-state solution, seeks a mutual agreement to form separate Jewish and Arab states in the land of Israel as envisioned by the 1947 UN Resolution. While many attempts have been made, proposals have been consistently rejected by much of the Arab world that would prefer to see the Jewish state eradicated rather than coexist with it.
The Golan Heights area, situated in Israel’s northeast, has long been the sticking point of disagreement between Israel and Syria. Before the 1967 war, Syria, then in possession of the area, repeatedly shelled Israeli settlements in the lowlands below, leading to intermittent skirmishes. Since capturing the Golan Heights in the 1967 war, Israel has built substantial settlements and populated the area.
Just one year ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared: “The Golan will always remain in Israel’s hands. Israel will never withdraw from the Golan Heights.” This settled view of the disputed territory was made possible by the Syrian civil war, which has distracted Syria from the issue for the past seven years while allowing Israel to solidify its claim to the area.
With its immediate neighbors engaged in larger issues of their own, the most vehement and tangible external opposition to Israel’s existence today comes from Iran. Though Israel and Iran have not gone to open war against each other, Iran is one of the many Muslim countries that contributed troops and resources to Israel’s enemies over the years. And now the world watches apprehensively as Iran’s rhetoric intensifies while its nuclear and missile programs steadily develop.
Threats from outside of Israel have been mitigated somewhat through Israel’s technological advancement, a strong alliance with the United States and sheer determination to survive. However, the threat of terrorism from within Israel’s own borders has also played a significant role in the nation’s development.
Trouble and threats from within
Two territories that Israel captured from Egypt and Jordan in the Six-Day War—Gaza and the West Bank—became entrenched strongholds of Palestinian nationalism. Israeli settlement of these areas has been met with heavy resistance from the majority-Arab population and resulted in international condemnation. With millions of Arabs referred to as Palestinians living within Israel’s borders, the internal tension within Israel ranges daily on a scale from “palpable but stable” to “explosive and deadly.”
The Arabic word intifada, which means “uprising,” accurately describes the groundswell of these people’s protest demonstrations that broke out across Israel from 1987 to 1993. Sparked by frustration with Israeli settlement construction and continued military occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, this period came to be known as the First Intifada.
These protests often brought responses from Israeli police and military forces that resulted in violence, and over this six-year period about 1,600 Palestinians and 275 Israelis were killed. While the First Intifada was characterized mainly as a grassroots protest movement that often escalated into violence, the Second Intifada was marked by deliberate attacks against Israeli civilians to take lives and inspire fear.
The Second Intifada raged from 2000 to 2005, with the loss of life of some 3,000 of those on the Palestinian side and 1,000 Israelis. It began when former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount—a provocative gesture used by the leaders of the Palestinian movement, claiming Israel was maneuvering to take control of the Al-Aqsa compound, to foment violence that included a deadly wave of suicide bombings.
Bombings of cafes, public buses and even dance clubs became commonplace, and it left an indelible mark on the country’s internal security protocols —resulting in restricted movement within Israel of those designated Palestinians, vehicle search checkpoints, the erection of high walls separating Israeli and Palestinian neighborhoods, and the near ubiquitous presence of police and military personnel in public areas. Whereas Israelis see these measures as necessary and justified—and they did end the deadly wave of suicide bombings—the Arabs see them as demeaning, oppressive and racist.
The end of the psychologically devastating Second Intifada resulted in what may be seen as a small victory for the Palestinian cause: Israel evicted all of its own citizens from Gaza and demolished the controversial Israeli settlements that had been built there. But rather than producing peace, this withdrawal emboldened Hamas, a radical Palestinian terrorist organization turned political party, to challenge the Palestinian Authority—the administrative body formed out of the PLO to govern the West Bank and Gaza subject to Israeli martial law.
After a brief and bloody clash, Hamas took control of Gaza. In response to repeated rocket and mortar attacks on nearby Israeli settlements, Israel waged two heavy military operations against Gaza in 2008-09 and 2014. In 2006, similar rocket activity from Hezbollah in Lebanon ignited yet another war on the northern front that has since remained relatively quiet.
Recent conditions in Israel
My wife and I moved to Tel Aviv in 2015 at the beginning of what has been called the Knife Intifada or the Wave of Terror—a series of lone-wolf Palestinian terrorist attacks throughout Israel. While a number of contributing factors have been suggested and debated for the Wave of Terror, this movement was partly in response to renewed accusations that Israel planned to seize control of the Temple Mount.
On a number of occasions we ate in restaurants where a dozen people were killed or injured the very next evening, or walked through peaceful city squares where stabbings and car-rammings took place just the day before.
To a degree Israeli culture has become desensitized to, though fed up with, this seemingly endless routine. And generally life carries on as usual in spite of whatever disruptions these may cause—yet with ever-heavier security present.
Hope for a two-state solution is waning in the public arena, with both Israelis and those on the Palestinian side losing confidence that the growing breach between them can ever be healed. Moreover, the ongoing drama over the Temple Mount remains a central issue, with deliberate provocation from extreme Israeli Zionists periodically fanning the easily ignitable flames. Israeli settlement of the West Bank areas—frequently done in contravention of legal rulings and without permission of the Israeli government—adds yet more fuel.
And while the external threats to Israel’s security are seemingly at bay, the international view of the Jewish state has dramatically reversed since the 1947 UN resolution. No other country on earth receives nearly the degree of criticism, outrage, targeted sanctions and boycotts as Israel.
For example, out of all of the humanitarian crises and dictatorial atrocities in the world today, the UN General Assembly in 2016 adopted 20 resolutions against Israel and a total of only six for all other countries combined!
Modern Israel’s place in Bible prophecy
Much like the miraculous nature of Israel’s establishment and survival, the hatred it endures from the world defies rational explanations. Students of the Bible, however, recognize that this attitude is a fulfillment of the same Bible prophecy that shows how Jerusalem would once again become a focal point of the world’s attention: “Behold, I will make Jerusalem a cup of drunkenness to all the surrounding peoples . . . I will make Jerusalem a very heavy stone for all the peoples; all who would heave it away will surely be cut in pieces, though all nations of the earth are gathered against it” (Zechariah 12:2-3).
Our visit to Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust museum, was perhaps one of the most impactful and insightful experiences that my wife and I shared while living in the country. After so many centuries of persecution of the Jewish people and its culmination in the Holocaust, it’s no wonder that Jews today largely see the state of Israel as a necessary matter of self-preservation—a safe haven for the Jewish people, wherever they may be. It’s horrible that Herzl’s words were proven to be so true.
While Herzl’s vision for a modern Jewish state may be described as prophetic, it’s important to realize that Israel’s position in the world today is in fact a component and fulfillment of Bible prophecy, confirming the veracity of the Word of God.
That is not to say that Israel has been justified in every military action or has assurance of God’s protection and immunity to any attack, but rather that God has permitted and guided world events according to His larger plan. In fact, that plan shows that very dire circumstances lie ahead for the modern nation of Israel and the city of Jerusalem.
Speaking of the coming devastating and terrible time of the end, Jesus warned that “when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation is near . . . For these are the days of vengeance, that all things which are written may be fulfilled” (Luke 21:20-22). The Bible further tells us that “half the city will go into captivity” (Zechariah 14:2).
Many see the return of the Jews to the land in the past century as the fulfillment of God’s promises of a second Exodus to bring the Israelites back to their homeland (see, for example, Isaiah 11:11-12). However, we should understand that the Jewish presence in the land of Israel today is not quite yet the dream of ages realized.
A portion of the Jews resettling the land remains a far cry from the wonderful future God declares in prophetic passages. These include bringing back all the tribes of Israel, not just the Jews, and having them living securely, safe from all enemies. It involves pouring out His Spirit upon them and granting all a deep understanding of His truth, with worship restored at a new Jerusalem temple and the whole world looking to them as an example to follow.
Today, not only are the Israelis in perpetual danger, but the Jewish people are still prevented from freely worshipping God on the Temple Mount as they lament its desecration by Muslim shrines. The plea of “Next year in Jerusalem” is still uttered by millions. Clearly the Israelite return is far from complete.
Of course, it was certainly vital for Jews to have a controlling presence in the Holy Land in order to fulfill particular end-time prophecies, such as those in the book of Daniel that indicate a reinstitution of sacrifices, stating that these will eventually be cut off at a time of invasion and severe tribulation. But again, the very fact that this terrible time is yet ahead shows that the great promises of Israel’s restoration to the land in perpetual peace, prosperity and safety have not yet come.
Thankfully, these promises assuredly will be reality. In the meantime, we should observe that the state of Israel’s formation 70 years ago and its continued existence have been according to God’s plan—and consider that greater developments in this plan lie ahead! We should pray fervently for the wonderful age beyond today—when all of Israel will flourish and be received as a blessing by the whole world.
And as we contemplate the dark times that will precede this awesome future, let us all be on guard, assured by evidence of the clear hand of God in history that He will indeed confirm His Word in the future.