The triumph of Oxford University's joke president is another symptom of disengagement

Our fetishisation of the man who promised to turn the Bodleian Library into a night club demonstrates the dearth of remotely interesting people elsewhere.

"Does this stuff just bore you?", asks an agitated Oxford don after an hour of forced discussion about the political economy of World War Two. "Is this why we now have George 'unremarkable 2:1' Osborne as Chancellor?", he goes on, disheartened by the lack of interest his undergraduates have shown in Beveridge, Keynes and Hayek. Young people, it would appear to him, even Oxford history students, have no interest in political ideas.

Yet the arguments in our defence are compelling. We explain that we have lived our whole lives in a neo-liberal, post-Thatcherite ideological vacuum. Thehyperbolic clashes of the twentieth century’s intellectual heavyweights are a world away from the monotonous, and frequently broken, promises of the career politicians that have dominated the discourse of our lifetime.

The Russell Brand episode and the enormous response it received soon becomes our tutorial’s topic of conversation. We explain how 'Brandism' is emblematic of how disengaged our generation has become. The comedian is certainly no Keynes. However, what he said was something we have never yet heard – that it doesn’t have to be like this. That there should be an alternative. Although Brand may not know what that alternative is, even the suggestion that a new idea could take root excites a generation that has only ever known a gap where the Big Ideas should be. The very fact I just felt the need to give Brand an 'ism' only goes to show our yearning for an ideology. We are bored stiff by the status quo.

Yet as the Oxford University Student Union elections demonstrated last week, this paralysing lethargy is not confined to third year history students. With a turnout of only 21%, LJ Trup, the joke candidate promising to build a monorail through Oxford and turn the Bodleian Library into a night club, was elected.

Trup’s victory was in part down to a shrewd election campaign. He eschewed the usual door knocking and leafleting. He preferred to upload a video of himself belting out that speech from Braveheart, accompanied by bagpipes and hoards of screaming students. Unconventional, yes, but it certainly caught the imagination.

He owes his new 20k salary to his main opponent, however. The outstanding favourite for most of the race, Jane Cahill was cast as the stereotypical student politician. Her painfully unoriginal 'Jane4Change' slogan, her awkward, insistent use of hand gestures while talking and her frightfully organised campaigning clique of loyal followerswere alternatively mocked andloathed by students. Trup’s rallying cry '#LJTrup4ousu4chang'’ poked fun at his well-polished rival. In the final week of the campaign, Cahill even felt the need to write an article defending the notion of a 'student politician'.  We were clearly not convinced. Cahill, rightly or wrongly, came to symbolise everything we now resent in politics.

Like Brand, Trup isn’t a genius. Unlike every other political figure, however, he isn’t mind-numbingly boring. But our fetishisation of his charisma only demonstrates the dearth of remotely interesting people elsewhere.

This election result is just another symptom of disengagement with the political class, even if this time it’s only the student political class we are rebelling against. One thousand six hundred and eight five students were willing to vote for a man who wrote his manifesto in crayon. We are that desperate for an alternative. 

The Encaenia procession enters the Bodleian Libraries at Oxford University on June 20, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Unlikely sisters in the Gaza Strip

A former Jewish settler in Gaza recalls her childhood friendship with a young Palestinian.

It was well after midnight, one summer night in 1995, when Inbar Rozy, a 13-year-old living in the former Israeli settlement of Alei Sinai in the northern Gaza Strip, heard her parents answer the phone. Sitting up in bed, surrounded by potted plants, candles and fairy dolls lit by shafts of light from a nearby security outpost, Inbar listened closely.

“I could hear everyone talking around me, making calls,” Inbar said when we met recently in Nitzan, southern Israel. When she got up to find out what was happening, her parents told her to make up a second mattress. As dawn broke, they led into the room a young woman carrying a small bag and wearing a black shirt and jeans. “She had shoulder-length dark hair dyed with red henna and beautiful eyes – big, black with thick eyelashes,” Inbar told me, smiling. “[She was] quiet. She looked scared.”

The woman was Rina (her surname cannot be given for security reasons), a talented artist in her early twenties studying at a local art college, where she had fallen in love with a Christian boy. For Rina, coming from a traditional family, marrying a non-Muslim would be strictly forbidden.

When her parents found out, they were furious and forbade her from seeing her boyfriend. But her male cousins felt this wasn’t enough. Earlier on the day the girls first met, Rina’s cousins had attempted to kill her in retribution for her perceived “honour crime”. Seeing that another attempt on her life was likely, Rina’s father called a relative, who in turn called Inbar’s father, Yossef, a friend of many years. There was no doubt she had to leave. Ironically, a Jewish settlement protected by the Israel Defence Forces was the safest place in Gaza for her to be.

In 1967, Israel seized the Gaza Strip from Egypt during the Six Day War. In time, it settled 21 communities on a third of the land, with a population of 8,000 by 2005. Soldiers guarded the settlements from 1.5 million displaced Palestinians, tens of thousands of whom were displaced in 1967 and moved to live in nearby refugee camps. In Gaza, before Israel’s ultimate withdrawal from the Strip in 2005, relationships between Israeli settlers and Palestinians were fraught. True, many Palestinians worked in Israeli settlements, earning wages higher than elsewhere in the Strip, but the two communities lived largely separate lives.

In the mid-1990s, even after the Oslo Accords, violence was simmering. Israeli military incursions increased with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. Thousands of home-made Qassam rockets were launched by Palestinian militants at settlers and those living in southern Israel. Security measures hardened. The veteran Israeli journalist Amira Hass, who spent several years living in Gaza, describes neighbourhoods that were “turned into jails behind barbed-wire fences, closed gates, IDF surveillance, tanks and entry-permit red tape”.

And yet, in spite of the forced segregation, Inbar’s family enjoyed close links with their Palestinian neighbours. Inbar’s father worked as an ambulance driver, and on several occasions he helped transport those who lived nearby for emergency medical treatment in Israel. “Every Tuesday, my father’s Jewish and Arab friends would come to our house and we’d eat lunch together,” Inbar remembered.

Given the gravity of Rina’s situation, she couldn’t leave the house. Secrecy was paramount. The girls spent weeks together indoors, Inbar said, chatting, watching TV and drawing. “I’m not sure that as a child I actually understood it for real,” she said. “She taught me how to paint and sketch a face from sight.”

Almost as soon as Rina arrived, Inbar’s family began receiving anonymous phone calls asking about her. “My dad told me, ‘Don’t mention anything about Rina. Say you don’t know what they’re talking about – because otherwise they’ll come and kill us,’” Inbar said.

While the girls got to know each other, Inbar’s mother, Brigitte, found a women’s shelter in East Jerusalem for Rina. Whereas today Gaza is closed off by a military border under heavy surveillance, at that time it was porous. Brigitte drove Rina in to the capital, where she was given a new name and identity that would enable her to begin a new life, on condition that she contact no one in Gaza.

Today Inbar, who is 33, works at the Gush Katif centre in Nitzan – a museum dedicated to the memory of the Israeli settlements in Gaza. Despite her parents’ objections, the family was evacuated in 2005. Unlike most settlers in Gaza, some residents of Alei Sinai were determined to stay on, even if that meant forfeiting their Israeli citizenship. “I have no problem with living as a minority in a Palestinian state,” one of Alei Sinai’s inhabitants, Avi Farhan, told the Israeli daily Haaretz at the time.

Inbar now lives in Ashkelon, a city of 140,000 in southern Israel, and finds the big city alienating, especially when she recalls the warm relationships that once existed in Gaza. “I’ve never felt less secure,” she told me.

Years later, she learned that Rina had developed cancer and died. “The day before Rina left . . . she drew a portrait of me,” she said, describing how her friend had outlined, in charcoal strokes, the features of the teenager. Her parents packed the portrait with all their belongings in a shipping container the day they left Gaza. Soon after, the container was destroyed in a fire.

“I think if people had given it a chance . . . they would have had these kinds of friendships,” Inbar said, looking back. “We’d get along fairly well if we didn’t look at others as the monsters over the wall.” 

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism