Students at the University of Manchester have organised a protest against the university allowing celebrations of the Balfour Declaration on campus, organised by pro-Israeli groups.
The Manchester Balfour 100 event is set to commence on Tuesday the 31st of October at the University of Manchester’s Whitworth building. It is part of a number of events marking a century since former British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour released a statement on the 2nd of November, announcing support for a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine, then under the Ottoman Empire with a Jewish population of 90,000.
According to a section titled ‘Manchester’ on the official Balfour 100 website, zionist groups were established in Didsbury by Jewish businessman Chaim Weizmann after the first world war, and it was in fact philosopher and former professor at The University of Manchester, Samuel Alexander, who arranged the meeting between Weizmann and Balfour. For supporters of the Zionist cause, this was imperative to the creation of Israel in 1948.
However, for Palestinians, this has led to the loss of land and illegal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, with collateral damage including the expulsion of around 800,000 Palestinians and the destruction of approximately 400 villages over the last 50 years.
The University’s decision to allow celebrations to take place has stirred outrage from students, academics, and activist groups on campus including the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, the BME Campaign, Action Palestine, and the ‘Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism!’ Campaign.
These groups have organised an ‘Apartheid Off Campus’ protest outside the hall on the evening of the celebrations. Over a hundred students have confirmed attendance to the Facebook event, with students from Sheffield University’s Palestine Solidarity Campaign sending a coach of supporters to join in. A rumoured total of around 200 students are expected at the protest.
The University’s Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Campaign, which was recently endorsed by the Students’ Union, has also written an open letter to Vice Chancellor Nancy Rothwell, entreating her to consider revoking the right to hold the celebration at the University and to cancel the event.
“Celebrating the Balfour declaration is a mockery of the suffering of the Palestinian people, and is greatly disrespectful for Palestinian students at the university who have, alongside their families, been forced to live their entire lives under the boot of the Israeli army.
“A large number of students have expressed fear for their safety with Israeli security personnel roaming our campus. By allowing this event to take place and hosting the Israeli embassy, the university is failing to uphold its basic duty of care to staff and students.”
The letter was signed by activist groups and campus and other student societies, including the Arab Society, Islamic Society, Sri Lankan Society and Tamil Society.
Senior Professor of Sociology at the University, Nick Thoburn, said he was “dismayed” that the institution had allowed the event to take place on its campus, which he said commemorated the moment Britain, “with its imperial chauvinism and entitlement, knowingly gave the green light to the ethnic cleansing of Palestine.”
“That this could be a cause for celebration, hosted in whatever way by a British University, when the consequences then and now have been so devastating … is indicative of the contempt that Israel and its advocates hold both for Palestinians in the region and in exile,” he added.
The Mancunion contacted the University for a statement, and was informed by a University Spokesperson that: “The University allows some of its premises to be hired by third parties for external events, provided that the events in question comply with the University’s Code of Practice on Freedom of Speech.
“This [Balfour 100] event is one such commercial booking and it has no connection to, nor is it endorsed by, the University.”
According to a representative of The University of Manchester’s Jewish Society (JSoc), “This event is not a student event and is a Jewish communal event. We support the right of Jewish students to attend and the wider Balfour campaign is to celebrate the British support for Jewish self-determination.
“The student Balfour campaign aims to commemorate the role of the British government in backing the Jewish struggle for self-determination.”
These sentiments were also echoed by organisation North West Friends of Israel, who, when contacted by The Mancunion, stated that Zionism was one of many nationalist movements at the time, concluding that “It is absolutely natural for the Jewish Community of Manchester to celebrate the centenary of Balfour given the close affinity that community has with the Jewish State of Israel.”
In the past, pro-Palestine events held and organised by student groups have been disrupted and cancelled, with University administration imposing strict guidelines on speakers.
The University statement continued: “The University will not suppress freedom of thought and expression, consistent with the Statement on Academic Freedom. However, the University has a duty to ensure, wherever practical, that such thoughts and expressions do not go beyond the articulation of points of view and do not constitute incitement to riot, insurrection, racial hatred, religious hatred, sexual harassment or other activities (beyond the right of peaceful protest) which are likely to cause a breach of the peace or public disorder or otherwise to be unlawful.
“The University will not unreasonably refuse to allow events to be organised and held. The expression of controversial views which do not breach the law will not constitute reasonable grounds for withholding permission for an event.”