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Activists Deface Portrait of Balfour, Who Supported Jewish Homeland

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A pro-Palestinian group slashed and spray-painted a century-old portrait of Arthur James Balfour at the University of Cambridge on Friday, defacing a painting of the British official whose pledge of support in 1917 for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” helped pave the way to Israel’s founding three decades later.

The group, Palestine Action, said in a statement that the destruction of the portrait in Trinity College, Cambridge, was intended to call attention to “the bloodshed of the Palestinian people since the Balfour Declaration was issued,” particularly in light of the current conflict in Gaza.

A spokeswoman for Trinity, whose alumni include King Charles III as well as Balfour himself, said in a statement on Friday that the college “regrets the damage caused to a portrait of Arthur James Balfour during public opening hours” and that it had notified the police. A Cambridge police statement said officers were on the scene to investigate a report of “criminal damage.”

Palestine Action posted a video of a protester first spraying the portrait, painted in 1914 by Philip Alexius de László, with red paint and then slashing it with a sharp object. The group’s statement said Balfour had given away the homeland of the Palestinians — “a land that wasn’t his to give away” — touching off what it described as decades of oppression.

Since Oct. 7, when Hamas militants invading southern Israel killed approximately 1,200 people and abducted 240 others, Israeli bombings and invasions have killed more than 30,000 people, according to Gaza health officials.

Defacing art has become a popular protest tactic in recent years. It is perhaps most closely associated with environmentalists, who have targeted paintings by van Gogh, Vermeer and Monet. This year, two women from an environmental group entered the Louvre and flung soup at the Mona Lisa. Most of the paintings that have been targeted were covered or protected in some way, and very few were damaged.

In recent weeks, pro-Palestinian protesters have targeted art in New York.

This week, a few dozen demonstrators disrupted the opening of an Israeli artist’s show at a Manhattan gallery, Hyperallergic reported. Last month, protesters interrupted a conversation featuring an Israeli artist whose drawings depicting Oct. 7 are being exhibited at the Jewish Museum and dozens chanted “Free Palestine” in a demonstration at the Museum of Modern Art.

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