Prestigious Science Institute in Meltdown Over ‘Alleged Peaceful’ Palestine Cake Sale

Ever felt threatened by a walnut slice?

by Simon Childs

27 June 2024

A slice of cake. Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto
A slice of cake. Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto

After nine months of war, there is five times as much debris in Gaza as there was after the battle of Mosul in Iraq in 2017. The population there has been “almost entirely disposed of means to provide for their livelihoods”, according to Maryse Guimond of the UN Women Palestine Office. The medical situation is brutal. Access to what remains of the hospitals is so fragile that pregnant women have reportedly been requesting early caesareans for fear of not being able to deliver safely later. Health workers have the time and resources only for life-saving and limb-saving operations.

With those appalling facts in mind, we turn to a prestigious biomedical research centre in London that has been sent into meltdown over carrot cake, after some staff felt threatened by a bake sale for Palestine. A threatening bake sale insinuates Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood going on a rampage with a custard-tart launcher and an all too literal death by chocolate, but the banal truth of this story is arguably even weirder.

The Francis Crick Institute is the largest facility of its kind in Europe. Its staff do heroic research work helping to treat and prevent diseases – the kind best fueled by numerous cups of tea with door-stopping wedges of cake. As such, every few weeks or so, the staff hold bake sales for various humanitarian causes – for homelessness, for Ukraine, for the earthquake in Turkey and Syria and so on. They have become something of a tradition at the institute.

But when staff organised a bake sale for Gaza, it turned into a sticky mess.

The poster advertising the sale was illustrated with a dove of peace. Posts on workplace messaging app Slack told colleagues that the organisers intended to “create a safe space where people can discuss the current situation and connect with others who may be impacted.” Organisers agreed not to share a briefing – a dispassionate list of facts and figures about the horrifying scale of the destruction in Gaza – on the orders of management, who said that it might be distressing.

When the bake sale came round on 13 March, there were over 20 kinds of cake. A source at the institute, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions, told Novara Media that the lemon drizzle was “sweet, tangy and succulent in equal measure – falling apart on the plate.” Over £2,000 was raised for Medical Aid for Palestinians (Map).

A few staff members at the centre did not feel able to indulge in the mountain of sweet treats, however. The Crick’s HR department received complaints about the sale, claiming it made some staff feel unsafe. One complaint shared with event organisers by HR spoke of being disturbed by an “alleged peaceful bake sale”. Someone sharing feelings of trauma about such an innocuous event deserves sympathy, but we can still wonder whether the Crick handled this particularly well.

No specific threats from the day of the sale were detailed by management. But the apparent offence came in the build up. On Slack, someone had shared a Guardian article by Jewish-Canadian author Naomi Klein about the Oscars acceptance speech by Jonathan Glazer, director of the film Zone of Interest. Glazer had argued against his Jewishness “being hijacked by an occupation which has led to conflict for so many innocent people, whether the victims of 7 October in Israel or the ongoing attack on Gaza.” The article asks, in the face of an “ambient” genocide, “what do we do to interrupt the momentum of trivialisation and normalisation?”

If one possible answer to that question was “hold another bake sale”, then staff at the Crick were out of luck. Initially, HR informed the organisers that further bake sales for Gaza were not allowed, and that sharing information about Gaza was in breach of the Crick code of conduct.

An open letter against the censorship was signed by 152 employees, saying that the idea that a bake sale was threatening “adds to the dehumanisation of Palestinians” and could create an environment where “certain communities feel unsafe and are afraid of formal repercussions for expressing their views.”

The letter also pointed out the “active role that Jewish members of staff had in organising the fundraising for Palestine”, adding that assuming Jewish members of staff have a “proscribed view of the state of Israel” is antisemitic.

Paul nurse (R) with Ukraine's President, Volodymyr Zelensky. Photo: The Francis Crick Institute
Paul Nurse (R) with Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelensky. Photo: The Francis Crick Institute

Paul Nurse, director of the Crick, responded by sending an all-staff email confirming that a second proposed cake sale had been stopped and that the Slack channel used to organise it had been closed.

Nurse asked staff to “reduce the temperature of discourse” and suggested that funds could instead be raised for Médecines Sans Frontières and the British Red Cross as both have a “stated commitment to independence, impartiality and neutrality in situations of conflict”. Map also has a stated commitment to neutrality. As Nurse’s email doesn’t specify what precisely is wrong with the organisation, staff have been left wondering if it’s the word “Palestinians”.

Awkwardly, Nurse is absolutely the wrong person to preach about keeping opinions on conflict to oneself. He could hardly have been more outspoken about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as an ambassador for United 24, a government-led fundraising platform created to “unite the world around supporting Ukraine”. He has made a number of media appearances talking about the destruction he has seen in visits to the country, he has met Vlodymyr Zelenskyy and his work on Ukraine is promoted by the Crick Institute’s website.

Appearing on UTAV English, a Ukrainian government funded media channel, he compared Russia’s militaristic leadership to a “cancer” and warned countries that had not condemned Russia: “Get off the fence – this war is a barbaric war of aggression that is not justified and by sitting on the fence you taint your own reputation.” You have to wonder whether the same is true of institutions that censor their staff.

Simon Childs is a commissioning editor and reporter for Novara Media.

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