The miracle of the Balfour Declaration: 100 years on, Israel is a flourishing democracy

Picture the following scenario. It is October 2006: the 2nd Lebanese War with rockets hammering down from Lebanon is over – we hope – and I am on my way to spend Shabbat with the Chief Rabbi of Haifa and his wife.

The Chief Rabbi wants to find out about the Church of England and how it differs from the Catholic Church – if at all - and whether it is worth the Chief Rabbinate of Israel having bilateral relations with this Church whose Synod has recently chosen to boycott the State of Israel at the say-so of the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem.

A new friend from the synagogue, ultra Orthodox and wearing a wig, joins me on my walk down Einstein Street, and suddenly a car screeches to a halt practically at her feet on the pavement. Shabbat had already begun, so I sense trouble.

A gigantic man in beach-wear, half her age, jumps out of the car and lunges at her. I look round for a police officer. None in sight: this is Shabbat after all (not like here in Broughton Park, Salford, where they are busy protecting us from incipient Muslim extremists). But then the lunge becomes a bear hug and she reciprocates.

'Was that your son?' I ask. 'No,' – she says. 'That was my boss.'

Reuters

Or take another scenario. It is 7.00 am and I am on the bus descending the Carmel for a morning swim at the beach when out of the window I see a woman in a burka stumbling on the pavement.

Suddenly a dozen cars screech to a halt on the busy main road which has witnessed many accidents. From all directions, young Israeli women on their way to work jump out of their cars and rush to help a fellow Israeli in distress.

These scenes are almost unimaginable anywhere else in the world and could be multiplied a thousand-fold. Because, whisper it not in Gath, but the modern State of Israel is the best-integrated country in the world, with minority groups thriving at every level and in every walk of life.

And this couldn't have happened without the Balfour Declaration in which 8 people were key: four of whom were Jewish and four of whom were not.

The four Jews were Theodore Herzl who in 1897 established the First Zionist Congress and said 'If you will it, it is no dream'. He died in 1904.

Rav Kook, first Chief Rabbi of Israel under the British Mandate, who said, 'To a life of creativity I call you — to the broad vistas of the Lord'.

Russian Jewish scientist Chaim Weizmann was invited to Manchester University in 1904 to develop their organic chemistry department. Weizmann ended up producing the plastic substance that helped the UK win World War I and told Balfour that the State of Israel was a must for the Jews and that 'You are meeting the wrong sort of Jew'. Balfour agreed and Weizmann became Israel's first President.

And Chaim Bialik, Israel's national poet, who in 1904 wrote to his fellow Russian Jews after the latest pogrom, and following the story of Abraham, 'Look into yourself and go' from your present state of misery into a new state of being and a new land.

PixabayTel Aviv

And the non-Jews were Winston Churchill and Arthur Balfour who were local Manchester MPs and met Weizmann up here in this industrial city.

There was the Liberal C.P. Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian, who met Weizmann through his doctor wife Vera, the pioneer of mother and baby clinics up here and introduced him to the Liberal establishment.

And then there was Lloyd George, steeped in the Bible, who felt that the Welsh and the Jews had a great deal in common.

Much has been written about the flaws of the Balfour Declaration, but I recently interviewed Dr Naomi Cohen (widow of Chief Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen – teacher of both Jonathan Sacks and the present Chief Rabbi Mirvis).

When Shear Yashuv was born, his birth was registered as 'Palestinian, November 4th 1927.' You can find this fact and his birth certificate on p. 28 of his biography.

Naomi arrived in Israel from America aged 19 in 1949 and when I asked her why everyone in the UK is obsessed with the 'poor Palestinians', she attributed this to the British colonialist mentality in which the Jews must always be kept in their place and their statehood not really acknowledged. What some have called 'the insufferable effortless superiority of the British.'

But apart from the grinding poverty which she encountered among Jews in Israel on her arrival in 1949, what she said always kept people together and 'makes it a wonderful place to live' is the shared love of children. 'Whether you are Jew, Arab, or Druze, you love children – the children of others as well as your own.'

'And', she added, 'whatever the failings of successive Israeli governments, they are better than Arab governments, and everyone knows this.'

Today, Israel is still a country the size of Wales, but with nearly 9 million citizens – around 23 per cent of whom are Arabs. It is a country of start-ups, literacy, vibrancy, argument and debate. It has a citizen's army which binds the country together and democratizes immigrants from all over the world.

The State of Israel has retained her democracy against all the odds, determined not to be exterminated by its millions of enemies, either by physical force or by propaganda – not least from this country.

ReutersIsraeli soldiers of the Search and Rescue brigade take part in a training session in Ben Shemen forest near Modi'in.

And Israel has also given the world the beautiful new language of modern Hebrew, based on the Bible but on other sources as well.

Israelis are the most quarrelsome and argumentative of people, but when you ask them, what is their greatest success story, they claim that together with their staunch democracy of which they are justly proud, it is the rebirth of their ancient biblical language in ever new forms to produce the modern Hebrew language of Ivrit.

Who for instance could fail to be moved by the word 'ramzor' – 'hint of light' for traffic light, or 'chashmal' – the 'speaking silence' (part of the biblical prophet Ezekiel's vision) for 'electricity'?

Yes, Israel represents for many that hint of light and that electricity that we all need in life. And Naomi's husband, the former Chief Rabbi of Haifa, said it best when he stated: 'It is not only the Creation of the State of Israel which is the miracle but the fact that we keep going despite the hatred of the world who would like to see us destroyed.'

And the Balfour Declaration which took place on November 2 1917, whose 100th anniversary we now celebrate, was an essential part of the miracle - the beginning of the flowering of our redemption.

Dr Irene Lancaster is a Jewish academic, author and translator who has established university courses on Jewish history, Jewish studies and the Hebrew Bible. She lives in Greater Manchester and is chair of the Broughton Park Dialogue Group which just celebrated its ninth anniversary.

Lifestyle