Adam Sutcliffe, Professor of History, King’s College London

My research is on Jewish history and on Jewish/non-Jewish relations. I’ve written on the history of antisemitism. I’ve also written and edited a book on the history of philosemitism – the tradition of western idealisation and identification with Jews. This is often overlooked, but it plays an important part in the history of Jewish/non-Jewish relations, not least in the mentality that led to the Balfour Declaration of 1917.

It is to remind us of that, and of Britain’s role in the increasingly catastrophic situation in Palestine-Israel ensuing from that Declaration, that the Balfour Project has the name that it has. That spirit of holding ourselves to account to the history that our country is involved in brings us here today. Philosemitism and its history are part of that.

Recently I have written about the abuse of the concept of antisemitism, and most distastefully, the abuse of the memory of the Holocaust and the pedagogy around it to cast a chill over criticisms of Israeli actions and over solidarity with Palestinians. This is being done by promoting tendentious definitions of antisemitism, arguing that entirely legitimate criticisms of Israel are antisemitic, losing any sense of proportion in relation to the racism and hatred experienced by other minorities, and suggesting, as our Health Secretary has said, that bans are needed on the simple wearing of a Palestine flag on a badge, because they might make Jews feel unsafe.

I am Jewish. Since October I’ve been marching in the large Palestine solidarity marches through central London, usually as part of a sizable Jewish block, as we call ourselves, numbering several hundred. Far from feeling unsafe, we’ve met the warmest of welcomes.

I find it distressing that sections of our media and our politicians prefer focusing on claims that certain people feel unsafe rather than highlighting the situation of millions of Palestinians now trying to survive through a situation in which they manifestly are desperately unsafe. Our focus today is primarily not on dynamics in the UK, but on what is happening in Palestine. But we here are mindful of our responsibilities as citizens for the role that our country and other western countries could play in finding a way forward.


Andrew Whitley, chair of the Balfour Project

This is our seventh annual conference, and the timeliest. As we mark eight months of the worst violence between Israelis and Palestinians since 1948, let us reflect together on the appalling cost in human lives: the dead, the missing, the injured, the children who are orphaned or maimed for life. The many innocent victims are why the Balfour Project has consistently demanded an immediate ceasefire as well as the release of all hostages and those arbitrarily detained. Please join me in a minute’s silence to remember them.

We have no crystal ball to tell us where things are heading. There are contradictory signals. Israeli officials have warned that the war could continue for the rest of the year. At the same time, there are hopes that the mediators may broker a new ceasefire. Whether that will result in a complete halt to the fighting remains unclear. UN Secretary General António Guterres was right. The events of 7 October did not happen in a vacuum. The Nakba didn’t end. It continues.

We seek hope in the midst of the darkness, and practical actions. With your help, we want to prioritise and complete the draft action plan shared with you. Taking forward these demands will be at the top of our charity’s agenda.

Our next government takes office on 5 July. The challenge for us is to define those steps that must be taken urgently to help end the fighting, then provide Palestinians and Israelis alike with the peace, security, and justice they both need and deserve. The security of one side cannot be prioritised over the security of the other. Hitherto the United Kingdom has tamely followed the line set by Washington. In doing so, I believe it has made a mockery of our country’s claim to stand for the rule of law. We need to work together to ensure that this will change. 

Much disinformation aimed at inflaming public opinion and discrediting certain actors, especially the UN, has been spread deliberately from the outset. Starting with the Hamas attack against Israeli civilians living near Gaza, one atrocity after another has been committed, including most recently in the Nuseirat camp in Gaza, which I know well from my own work there. 

Graphic images of the grievous harm being done to civilians wound all our souls. Crude insults are being thrown around. Those condemning Israel’s actions in Gaza as breaches of international law are slurred with being antisemitic, thus devaluing the real antisemitism that does exist. Islamophobia is also on the rise, and just as repugnant. Heroic organisations like UNRWA, the agency for Palestinian refugees, are falsely labelled as terrorists. Almost 200 UN staff have been killed over the past eight months. Our Government has still not resumed its funding to the Agency, despite it having been cleared of allegations against it after two independent inquiries.

As part of our advocacy work with parliament and government, we at the Balfour Project met Andrew Mitchell, the international aid minister responsible, twice over the past year to discuss the future of UNRWA and the importance of providing it with adequate UK funding as well as political support, as its existence is under challenge from Israel. We’ve also called for a halt to arms sales to Israel and for the UK to respect and uphold international law and its instruments such as the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice. 

The Sunak government rightly championed legal accountability against Putin over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but then failed to apply the same standards over the devastation of Gaza and its population by Israel saying, “We don’t accuse our friends of breaking international law.”  Those double standards have been applied to the treatment of refugees from the two conflicts. While Ukrainians without any natural connection to this country have – rightly in my view – been given a generous welcome in Britain, Palestinians from Gaza with immediate family connections here are being rebuffed. Children in need of urgent medical treatment, which generous donors wish to fund, cannot get here. This is shameful.

What are the wider implications of the Gaza war for democratic societies and the basic freedoms we often take for granted, but should not? According to the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of expression and opinion, Irene Kahn, the Gaza war is becoming a global crisis for freedom of expression, with huge repercussions. 

We in Britain have not been immune to that threat. Until a few days ago Leveling Up Minister Michael Gove was still pushing hard to pass legislation to prevent public bodies, including universities and local councils, from taking ethical investment decisions related to the Occupied Palestinian Territory. Our Government sought to override the longstanding legal distinction between Israel proper and Palestine. The UK was facilitating and protecting the settlement project that threatens to make a two-state solution impossible, while ignoring the UN resolutions which the UK itself had crafted and endorsed. 

With the main opposition parties and groups such as the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, the Balfour Project strenuously resisted the legislation. As the Conservative Party had the votes to ram the bill through the Commons, we played for time, to prolong the parliamentary process. When Mr Sunak called an election, that pernicious bill was one of the casualties. Chalk that up as a small victory. More are needed.


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