An event celebrating the centenary of the Balfour Declaration brought hundreds of students and activists to the streets.
Although the organisers are a separate commercial entity from the university, many people expressed their outrage at the University of Manchester for agreeing to host the Balfour 100 event. It was advertised as a commemoration of a century since former British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour announced support for a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine.
The BDS campaign termed this event “a mockery of the suffering of Palestinian people” and “greatly disrespectful” in an open letter to Vice Chancellor Dame Nancy Rothwell, urging the University to disallow the event from taking place on campus. The University’s statement in response claimed that they did not endorse or have any connections to the event, and that they allowed third parties to hire their premises provided they complied with their Code of Practice on Freedom of Speech.
The University’s Code of Practice on Freedom of Speech states that: “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.”
Activists from various pro Palestine groups had initially planned to protest the event outside Whitworth Hall. However, one day before the event, they were informed that the event had been relocated to a venue in Deansgate.
This did not stop the 300 protesters from across the UK from marching down Oxford Road past Whitworth Hall to the new location, chanting and waving flags and banners. Organisers of the protest stated that “although this is a great victory for our campaign, the university itself did not cancel it and was from the beginning happy to host this celebration having had communications with the Israeli embassy [sic].”
“There has been increasing conditions imposed on Palestinian student activists and the University’s connections and investments in the Israeli arms trade remain to this day.”
Protesters were seen on Oxford road waving Palestinian flags, and holding up banners, the largest of which read ‘Shame on MCR University Complicit in Israeli War Crimes’. Palestinian music could also be heard playing loudly, along with drumming and chants of “Viva Viva Palestina” and “Hey, Ho, occupation’s got to go”.
Some protesters were seen holding up coffin shaped boxes, while others had fake blood painted on their faces and clothes depicting the suffering of Palestinians under Israeli occupation.
Police vans and police personnel as well as University security personnel were seen attempting to regulate the march, but protesters refused to cooperate with their attempts at control. As the march began, police officers on foot attempted to divert and contain the crowd, but they continued to march, eventually obstructing most of Oxford Road where people could be seen waving, cheering and honking from cars. The march included two speeches, one given by a former schoolteacher who had lost students to bombings in Palestine.
One attendee described it as a “peaceful protest”, adding that “it was big, visible, and impactful.”
“It’s significant for us to protest it because it’s a symbol of Britain’s direct role in Palestine’s current situation, and our government and university’s ongoing complicity in the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.[sic]” she added. A university spokesperson declined to comment on this particular allegation.
At event venue, protesters gathered and obstructed the main entrance, forcing Israeli ambassador to the UK Mark Regev to enter the event via a side entrance. They began to chant “shame on you” and “your tickets are covered in Palestinian blood”. It was later reported that attendees heard the chanting, and some were delayed from entering the building due to the protest. The event, however, continued, with protesters remaining outside until after it had ended, despite police and security personnel attempting to convince them to leave.
In a tweet from North West Friends of Israel, it was discovered in a two minute video clip, that Regev gave a speech about the protest, calling the peaceful protesters “extremists”.
— NW Friends of Israel (@NorthWestFOI) October 31, 2017
“If you are demonstrating against the Balfour declaration, you’re basically saying that Balfour was wrong and that the Jewish people have no right to a National Home.” Regev said.
He added: “It’s not about settlements. It’s not even about the future establishment of Jerusalem in peace. They are exposing themselves for being extremists.. You don’t want reconciliation with Israel, you don’t want peace. You believe Israel has no right to exist”
One of the main organisers of the event were the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign (BDS).
Activist and part time BME officer Sara Khan said: “The BDS movement, modelled in part on the successful campaign against apartheid South Africa, is a call from 170 Palestinian civil society organisations to boycott, divest and sanction the Israeli government, and all Israeli companies and institutions that are complicit in the violence, oppression, and military occupation faced by the Palestinian people.”
In December 2016, the democratically elected senate of the Students’ Union, passed a motion in support of BDS, despite Jewish students expressing concerns over their safety. The BDS campaign at the University claims to be against all forms of discrimination, and demands that the university complies with its socially-responsible investment policy, which states that it will end any links or contracts with companies and institutions that are complicit in human rights abuses or have ties with the arms trade.
Another student attendee at the protest spoke to The Mancunion, saying: “I think it sent a very clear message to the university, and to all other institutions complicit in Israeli war crimes – the students and the people of Manchester stand with Palestine, stand against apartheid, and stand for human rights, and we will be heard.”
In a recent article for The Mancunion, Lawrence Rosenberg, Associate Director of the Pinker Centre and the former President of Manchester University Jewish Society (JSoc), argued that people shouldn’t protest the celebration of an attempt to end Jewish persecution.
“The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a tragedy. Palestinians have undoubtedly suffered. Israelis have also suffered. But to end this conflict, both sides must learn to live with one another — and understand each other’s narratives. It is futile to look back at the past — or even try to reverse history.
“But this isn’t going to happen by protesting a private ceremony. The only way to peace is for both sides to recognise the other side’s existence; for both sides to sit down together, and to see how we can finally end suffering for all.”
The organisers of the event (who are completely separate from the University of Manchester) have been contacted for comment.