Pro-Palestinian Activists Damage Balfour Portrait at Cambridge University

The 1917 Balfour Declaration was a pivotal declaration of British support for a “national home for the Jewish people”

Triptych of woman damaging portrait of man
A video posted on social media shows a woman spraying red paint on the portrait, then cutting it with a handheld tool. Palestine Action

A pro-Palestinian activist spray-painted and slashed a portrait of Arthur James Balfour, who authored the famous 1917 letter declaring that the British government would support a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

The protester is affiliated with an organization called Palestine Action. On Friday, the group posted a video to social media showing a woman spraying red paint on the canvas before cutting it with a sharp tool.

The red paint was meant to symbolize “the bloodshed of the Palestinian people since the Balfour Declaration was issued,” according to a statement from the group. “[Balfour] gave away the Palestinians’ homeland—a land that wasn’t his to give away.”

The oil-on-canvas portrait was on display at Trinity College, part of the University of Cambridge in England. Painted by Hungarian artist Philip Alexius de László in 1914, the life-size artwork depicts a seated Balfour, a graduate of the college, wearing a dark suit and red gown and holding an open book.

After the incident, police were called to the scene to investigate reports of “criminal damage,” per the New York Times’ Marc Tracy.

“I am shocked by [the] attack in our college on our painting,” says Sally Davies, master of Trinity College, in a statement. “I condemn this act of vandalism. We are cooperating with the police to bring the perpetrators to justice.”

In a post on X (formerly Twitter), Oliver Dowden, the United Kingdom’s deputy prime minister, describes the incident as “wanton vandalism,” adding: “Perpetrators should face the full force of the law.”

Balfour was Britain’s prime minister between 1902 and 1905, and he wrote the Balfour Declaration in 1917 while serving as foreign secretary. In the missive, he announced that the British government would “view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” At the same time, he wrote, it was “clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

Balfour addressed the letter to Lionel Walter Rothschild, a Zionist and prominent leader in the British Jewish community. A few years later, after World War I, the text formed the foundations of the British Mandate, which placed Palestine, previously part of the Ottoman Empire, under British administration.

The declaration is “widely recognized as a landmark moment,” writes the Forward’s Mira Fox. It was “one of the first official statements of support for Zionism by a major government,” and it rallied support for Zionism around the world, ultimately setting the stage for Israel’s founding in 1948—and the decades of conflict that followed.

The defacement of Balfour’s portrait is the latest in a series of protests related to the ongoing Israel-Hamas war. Since Hamas militants invaded southern Israel on October 7, killing some 1,200 people and capturing 240 hostages, the death toll in Gaza has surpassed 30,000.

Last week, pro-Palestinian demonstrators disrupted the opening of Israeli artist Michal Rovner’s “Pragim” exhibition at Pace Gallery in New York, reports Hyperallergic’s Maya Pontone. Roughly 30 people wearing red shirts and veils staged a silent performance, scattering fabric petals bearing the names of Gazans killed by Israel’s military.

In February, protesters interrupted an event at the Jewish Museum in New York featuring Israeli artist Zoya Cherkassky, per ARTnews’ Angelica Villa. Activists also held protests at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof, reported Artnet’s Adam Schrader.

In recent years, famous artworks have become increasingly popular targets for activists. Usually, however, these demonstrations involve throwing soup, paint or other substances onto paintings or sculptures covered by protective glass, leaving the works unharmed.

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