It would take a heart of stone, Oscar Wilde once perceptively wrote, not to laugh at the death of Little Nell.
And indeed Dickens’ mawkish description can only evoke hilarity these days as the inevitable shuffles into meltdown. So it is with part of the boycott student movement, whose latest whine has prompted me, at least, to think: “Aw, diddums”, and perhaps offer a reassuring pat on the shoulder before thinking that:
a) I don’t know where said shoulder has been and b) It’s probably an exceedingly politically incorrect thing to do.
The problem, apparently, is that, for once, things are not going all their own way on campus. I have no less authority than the virulently anti-Israel publication Middle East Eye for this, which reports with great sorrow that “pro-Palestine activists on British university campuses fear a crackdown is taking place against them following the cancellation of several events affiliated to the Israeli Apartheid Week initiative and increasing regulation and monitoring of their activities”.
Well, you can imagine my heartbreak on reading this. A hilarious film accompanies the article, in which an earnest young Muslim woman claims with a completely straight face that Palestinian activism is seen as “threatening” and then in the very next frame we are shown hundreds of the usual suspects waving Palestinian flags and shouting “Free, free Palestine”, as though we were viewing an innocent summer picnic, and not, indeed, a deeply threatening atmosphere for Jewish students.
A bewildered Brit appears next in this film, a keffiyeh draped around his neck while his head sports a tweed flat cap. You need to sort out your fashion priorities, mate, I thought on first viewing, this is not a Miuccia Prada catwalk with you looking ever so edgy. You just look a twit. And he tells the camera: “They just gave a blanket ban and said that there was no way our event would be allowed to take place.” And, honestly, I thought he was going to burst into tears and I might have joined him, had I not been laughing so hard.
Let us not pretend that all is sweetness and light on Britain’s campuses and that the tide has been completely rolled back. But for the first time in years, some universities have got the point and — whether they were forced into it or not, it scarcely matters — have begun to draw a line in the sand as to what can and cannot take place on campus in the name of the much-abused free speech. Even Middle East Eye breaks the pretence and calls the erection of a fake checkpoint on one campus — banned by the university – a “stunt”.
Many of these stunts are part of the increasingly unpleasant annual Israeli Apartheid Week, a vile hurdle for Jewish students to face every year. It’s way overdue that university authorities, rather than wash their hands of what takes place on their premises, should confront the student organisers and make it clear what is and what is not acceptable.
I don’t want to prevent pro-Palestinian students expressing their views. But nor do I want Jewish students reduced to quivering nervous wrecks, afraid of crossing areas of their campus, uncomfortable in some places about wearing their kippot, and worried about lack of support from the faculty, who should be helping young people, not hindering them.
So let’s hear it for the death of Little Nell, and all who sail in her. About time.