The woman sitting two rows in front of me at the Palestine Expo was wearing a designer keffiyah in chic red and white. Readers, she looked ridiculous, as did many of the pasty-skinned white English fellow travellers who bulked out the sessions at the Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre in Westminster.
There were old bocks, who looked like refugees from the Foreign Office of years gone by, florid of face and corduroyed of jacket. There were younger ones displaying their love for — wait for it—you’ll never guess — Jeremy Corbyn — on t-shirts tightly stretched over tattooed bodies.
There were ancient Anglican women, misshapen feet stuffed into sandals you almost felt sorry for, desperately enthusiastic to meet Sheikh This or Imam That. There was an odd MP or two, although to be honest in the gorgeous sunshine available on Sunday they would have had to be very odd to sacrifice a home barbecue in the back garden for hour upon hour of mostly sub-par speeches. Wait: there goes MP Andy Slaughter.
And what was I reminded of, so powerfully? Nothing so much as Limmud, our very own, homegrown educational conference which has spread its wings throughout the world. Just like Limmud, Palestine Expo was primarily run by volunteers. Just like Limmud, Palestine Expo had food and music and theatre. Just like Limmud, Palestine Expo had its share of controversial speakers, and the rooms were overflowing with people and backpacks and cameras and endless flyers for forthcoming events.
But, O Lord, it came as quite a surprise to hear the volunteers’ organiser giving an early morning pep talk to his group and have them respond with a rousing chorus not of “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn” — although it could have been — but of “Free, Free Palestine!”
That seemed to me to be the essential difference between Limmud and Palestine Expo. They had an agenda, a long, low, muttering undercurrent of resentment of a series of Thems: the government, which had seriously given thought to banning the whole event; the large and mysterious Jewish lobby, which if we had even half the power attributed to us, would be very well off indeed; and the biggest Them of all, Israel, the Oppressor, the colonial project gone mad.
And, honestly, part of me doesn’t blame the Palex crowd for this attitude, considering the rubbish fed to them as part of the Palestinian narrative of blame, in which Evil Zionists are responsible for every ill on the planet from global warming to too-tight shoes, and every other damn thing in between.
There were a couple of bright spots, however. For me, one was the very high number of absolutely lovely young Muslim girls, fresh of face and cheerful of disposition, some be-hijabed, some not, many earnestly scribbling down the contents of the lectures, others forming the volunteer backbone. Each of these young women was polite and kind and helpful — exactly like their Limmud counterparts, I would like to believe.
And the other bright spot? How absolutely appalling and vapid and — well, crapulous — was Asa Winstanley, editor of the vile Electronic Intifada website. His presentation came over like someone whose homework had been eaten by wolves, never mind the family dog.
Conclusion? Not much to fear. And perhaps — and it is a big perhaps — they’ll grow out of it.