In Depth

Manchester University under fire for event celebrating Balfour Declaration

Palestinian students say permitting pro-Israel group to celebrate Zionist milestone on campus is insensitive and disrespectful

The University of Manchester has been accused of being “totally disrespectful” to Palestinian students for allowing an on-campus event celebrating one of the founding events that led to the creation of Israel.

The Manchester Balfour 100 event, which will be held on the main campus by a pro-Israel group, is part of several commemorations planned around the UK to mark the writing of a letter considered to be one of the milestone of the Zionist movement.

In 1917, foreign secretary Arthur Balfour released a public letter which committed the British government to helping to establish a “national home” in the historical region of Israel, then part of British-controlled Palestine.

The anniversary is a day of celebration for Zionists - but for Palestinian nationalists and their advocates, the Balfour Declaration marked a shift in Western policy which would ultimately lead to the displacement of Palestinian people to carve out modern Israel.

The university said the space had been hired by a private group and that the Balfour 100 event “has no connection to, nor is it endorsed by, the University”.

However, Ayham Madi, a Palestinian student at the university, told Al Jazeera that he was hurt and offended that the university would sanction the hiring of a campus building for a “totally disrespectful” celebration.

“My grandfather owned land in Palestine and it was taken away from him with no right to do so, my father was born in a refugee camp and spent most of his life in one,” he said. “All this is as a result of the Balfour Declaration.”

An umbrella group of student organisations has written an open letter to the university, demanding that it cancels the event at the earliest opportunity.

Although Balfour’s declaration specified that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”, the foreign policy he established towards the Middle East was weighted heavily in favour of the Zionist cause.

In a 1919 memorandum, Balfour wrote that Zionism and its goal of creating a modern Isreael was “of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices [sic] of 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land,” the New Statesman reports.

Outrage over planned commemorations around the UK has sparked criticism as far away as the Palestinian territories themselves.

Nationalist party Fatah expressed “grave dismay” and called on “Arab people everywhere to demonstrate outside British embassies to express their utter rejection of that promise and its ramifications”. 

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