Brendan O’Neill Brendan O’Neill

The disgusting defacement of Lord Balfour’s painting

(Photo: Twitter / Palestine Action)

There’s a new movement in town: Philistines for Palestine. Not content with traipsing through the streets every other weekend to holler their hatred for Israel, now ‘pro-Palestine’ activists are taking aim at art. Witness yesterday’s fevered attack on the painting of Lord Balfour at Cambridge university – an act of petulant, self-satisfied philistinism that will do precisely nothing to help people in Gaza. 

The slashing of the painting was carried out by a member of a group called Palestine Action. She walked up to the 1914 portrait and sprayed it with red paint before wielding her knife to cut it to shreds. Why target Balfour? Because he played a key role in creating the modern state of Israel. And to the manically Israelophobic left, there are few sins as grave as that.  

There was something deeply unsettling about this Taliban-style assault on a piece of art. It had a medieval feel. A clearly riled individual, under the spell of some kind of fear or animus, using violence to try to cleanse the world of a sinful image. It feels like Year Zero fanaticism, a Red Guard-style effort to scrub ‘the problematic’ from public view. 

Such wanton cultural vandalism is not ‘progressive’ activism. It’s the rage of the entitled. It’s the nihilism of bored bourgeois youths who crave something to hate in order that they might feel more alive. We’ve already seen the sons and daughters of eye-watering privilege glue themselves to art in the name of ‘saving the planet’. Now they’re upping the ante and destroying art in the name of ‘saving Palestine’. That their antics will do nothing to ‘save’ either Gaia or Gaza matters little to these people. All that matters is that they get to make a public spectacle of their personal angst. 

That’s what lies at the heart of the neo-Maoism of middle-class radicals who love nothing more than to drag down statues of slavers or slash the likenesses of long-dead colonialists. It isn’t about changing the world – it’s about centring their own feelings. It’s the theatre of self-righteousness. It seems there is no global crisis that England’s middle classes won’t happily reduce to an opportunity for public moral preening. ‘Poppy, dear, there’s war in the Middle East — fetch the tomato soup…’

This wanton cultural vandalism is not ‘progressive’ activism. It’s the rage of the entitled

The defacement of Balfour wasn’t only ridiculous, though. It wasn’t only further proof of the narcissism that masquerades as progressivism in our strange era. It also hinted at the intolerance and possibly the bigotry that lurks in modern leftism. Ask yourself: why was Balfour targeted? It wasn’t just because he’s ‘problematic’. It wasn’t only because he had iffy views, as did everyone back then. No, it was because he helped pave the way for Israel. It’s because he helped give Jews their own homeland.

The slashing of that painting was not an ‘anti-colonial’ act. It wasn’t merely a performative assault on a Dead White European Male, of the kind we’ve become depressingly used to. It was also a signal – a noisy, violent signal – that anyone involved in the creation of Israel is evil and deserves erasure from public life. It was a clamorous declaration of intolerance towards anyone who helped to found or who supports this allegedly evil state. 

The irony is too much: what will no doubt be justified as an anti-imperial act was in truth an imperious expression of haughty English disgust for a tiny state overseas. Give me Balfour’s imperial reconstruction of the Middle East over these people’s sinister loathing of Israel any day of the week. After all, creating states is surely preferable to dreaming of destroying them. 

The middle classes seem to be in the grip of a kind of Palestine mania. Their feverish obsession with Israel and the idea that it is a ‘uniquely murderous’ entity belongs less to the realm of reason than to the sphere of moral delirium. It makes no sense in normal political terms. 

When I read Pankaj Mishra in the London Review of Books say that many people who’ve seen Gaza’s ‘visions from hell’ have been ‘going mad over the last few months’, I want to ask: why did other recent wars not drive you mad too? Why did Saudi Arabia’s bombing of school buses and funerals not push you towards insanity? Why didn’t the deaths of tens of thousands in Syria? Why isn’t the current jihadist war on Christians in Africa? Why does the Jewish state’s wars offend you more than any other war?

That’s what I felt when I saw that clip of the violent defacement of Balfour. I wanted to ask the slasher: why this issue? Why does Israel-Palestine induce in you more wrath and more emotion than anything else happening in the world right now? I know why I think it does. I won’t put it in writing though.

Watch Charles Moore discuss the attack on Lord Balfour’s portrait on SpectatorTV