The girl carrying the poster hissed at me as I started taking photographs. “What side are you on? What side are you on? I refuse to let you use my image!”
And she marched up to one of the already unhappy middle-aged security men and insisted that he “dealt” with me, shouting ever louder, “I know my rights! She can’t use my image! Make her delete the pictures!”
The apologetic security staffer then stood over me and forced me to delete pictures of the hissing girl. Here we were in 2018, as at bile-filled an event as I can ever remember, otherwise known as a university campus where a demonstration was taking place against an Israeli speaker.
As it happens I was perfectly within my rights to take pictures of her and many of the other demonstrators, who had no compunction about using their own cameras to take visual evidence of who had filed in to the Great Hall of King’s College, to hear a relatively anodyne address by the former deputy Israeli premier, Dan Meridor.
Basically, if you are over 16 and you are demonstrating in a public place, then you take your chances, Young Hisser.
I have taken part in numerous demonstrations in my time – though I must admit it’s not my favourite way of expressing opposition. But when I was a student, long ago, I was involved in the Soviet Jewry campaign and once even managed to get physically lifted by the cops after a group of us staged a sit-down occupation at the Tass (Soviet news agency) offices in central London.
What I don’t remember from my demonstrating days is the overweening sense of entitlement as expressed by Young Hisser and her keffiyah-clad friends. Most people (well, me and my crowd) laughed at the recent exhortation by the National Union of Students that people should use “jazz hands” rather than applause, because applause, it was explained, “could cause disturbance and create anxiety”.
I thought much of this was nonsense until I attended last autumn’s Labour Party conference in Brighton and found people complaining about the use of attention-grabbing props – such as, say, a toy Welsh dragon on a stick – so that their owners might be called to speak in debate. The dragons, and other such paraphernalia, it was claimed, made people feel “unsafe” and “inhibited”.
There is an amazing amount of rubbish spouted about what does and does not constitute “a safe space” in public, particularly on campus. And we have to cut the young some slack, because we, too, were probably as pompous and risible at their age.
What is singularly NOT funny is how our own Jewish students feel when they are going about their daily lives. Being a student should be a time of freedom and exploration, not a time of creeping around and feeling utterly “got at” and intimidated.
My heart goes out to Jewish students who face a miserable choice – identify and be attacked, or attempt to fade into the woodwork and witness the attacks from the wings. I wouldn’t blame anyone for choosing not to bear the burden of “apologising” for the whole of Israeli public policy, but it’s a choice mainly asked of students.
So some serious applause – definitely NOT jazz hands – for the Jewish students standing for NUS positions this year. And a reminder to the rest of us to do what we can to support our students, the front line in the hasbara war of words.