By: Sara Cohen  | 

Am Yisrael Chai: Our History, Our Tears, Our Hope

In the many pro-Palestinan protests, rallies, and demonstrations that have occurred since Hamas attacked Israel on October 7th, the chant “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” has been used with reckless abandon, while the outcry repeatedly expressed at pro-Israel gatherings is “Am Yisrael Chai.” The Hebrew words translate to “the nation of Israel lives.”

Since October 7th, “Am Yisrael Chai” has become cemented in the everyday terminology of the Jewish world. It is now a greeting, a parting phrase, used at the conclusion of a speech, painted on poster boards, and lastly, a spiritual song. Although the words themselves are not derived from the Bible or any other ancient sources, the expression is a modern response to the tumultuous Jewish experience.

In 1945, shortly after the liberation of the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen, the remaining survivors sang Hatikvah. After the anthem, the British army Chaplain, Rabbi Leslie Hardman, cried out, “Am Yisrael Chai! The children of Israel still liveth!” In reaction to the darkest period of Jewish history, in the place that was the site of millions of Jewish deaths, the ground still soaked with Jewish blood, the Jews said, “Am Yisrael Chai.”

Two decades later, when Jews worldwide began to protest for their brethren who were trapped behind the Iron Curtain, “Am Yisrael Chai” became their battle cry. In 1965, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach was asked to compose a song that would become the anthem for this cause. The words are simple, “Am Yisrael Chai. Od Avinu Chai.” The nation of Israel lives. Our father still lives.

Their meaning, however, is not.  

These words followed the protests for Soviet Jewry as well as the 1973 Yom Kippur War. A decade later, at the 1983 Eurovision Contest, the Israeli performer Ofra Haza chose to sing “Chai.” The competition was located in Munich, Germany. Almost forty years after the Holocaust, Israeli voices sang about how the Jewish nation is “Am Yisrael Chai.” The lyrics included: “I'm still alive, alive, alive / The people of Israel live / This is the song which Grandfather sang yesterday to Father / And today I.” 

Since October 7th, this has become the anthem for the Jewish people once more. Its significance is rooted in its message. “Am Yisrael Chai” is a reaction to antisemitism worldwide. Hamas attempted to eradicate the Jewish state. Antisemitism has reached new heights. Some have argued that ‘the golden age of American Jewry’ has ended. However, the Jewish people sing out that they are still alive, now and forever — the Jewish nation will always live. It is an anthem, a coping mechanism, a source of comfort, unity, and armor. Many have tried to annihilate the Jews and many have failed. As it is written in the Passover Haggadah, “For not only one (enemy) has risen up against us to destroy us, but in every generation they rise up to destroy us. But the Holy One, Blessed be He, delivers us from their hands.” 

This is the response to Jewish tragedy, to Jewish history itself. It is sung, essentially, as a “stick it” to all enemies. It says: “You thought you succeeded? You thought we disappeared? No. We are here and we are strong.” The chant is now especially meaningful for many Jews worldwide. 

Jessica Friedman (SCW ‘24), studying Jewish education, said to her, “Am Yisrael Chai” means “supporting Israel even though I am in the diaspora and in any way I can, and also loving every single Jew because they are a Jew.” While Erin Grossman, a student at Rutgers University studying mechanical engineering said, “I think that it is a statement of Jewish longevity.” As a Jew who attends a secular college, Erin has felt the rise of antisemitism in her daily life. “Unfortunate things keep happening to us but we persist.” To her, this phrase essentially means that “the Jewish people will always be.”

Logically, it does not make sense. Rationally, the Jewish people should have vanished long ago. We are a tiny nation with endless enemies. We have faced exile, prejudice, discrimination, violence, the Crusades, the ghettos, the Inquisition, pogroms, the Holocaust, 1948, 1967, 1973, countless terrorist attacks and finally, October 7th. The persistent survival of Am Yisrael has become a question that has boggled both Jewish and non-Jewish minds for centuries.

Over a hundred years ago, American author Mark Twain wrote: “All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?” This is the essence of what is so special about the Jewish people and our newfound slogan. The very fact that Jews say, shout, or cry, “Am Yisrael Chai” is a miracle in itself. 


Photo Caption: “Pro-Israel supporter holding sign at a Los Angeles Rally”

Photo Credit: Lev Meir Clancy