By political rank, Jo Johnson, the Universities Minister, was the biggest name at Limmud, and drew the biggest crowd for his session on free speech on campuses. The smart leaking of the text of his talk to the national newspapers on Christmas Day ensured the sort of media coverage more commonly associated with his brother, Boris, the Foreign Secretary.
The media interest came as something of a surprise to the festival organisers, who had not had the benefit of a tip-off from Mr Johnson’s office of his intention to use his slot at their event to grab some headlines.
With requests flooding in from the BBC, ITV, Channel Four News and others for access to the festival site, the Limmud press team, led admirably by Hannah Gaventa, swung into action.
Despite fears that the event was about to be hijacked for the government’s political purposes, Mr Johnson’s speech and subsequent question and answer session passed off without incident, in no small part due to his monotone responses about “regulatory framework” and “consultations”.
The hairiest moment came when he told the crowd of his intention to “go vegan, you cow-sucking perverts”. Fortunately, that was the genuine title of a session due to follow his own on the festival programme. Crisis averted.
One of the most fascinating figures I heard at the festival was Jon Lansman, the man behind the hard-left grassroots pro-Corbyn Momentum group.
The majority of those in the packed audience were Labour supporters, but that did not ensure a friendly welcome for the former kibbutznik. He was regularly heckled despite providing well thought-out and seemingly sincere answers to tough questions about Jew-hatred in the Labour Party.
The hour also turned out to be one of the funniest. There were repeated laugh-out-loud moments when Mr Lansman outlined his strong belief that the Conservatives had as many problems with antisemitism as the Labour Party, and then suggested it was “wrong” to think he had ever been in control of Momentum.
Besides Limmud, the only other conferences I’ve regularly attended are the political parties’ annual efforts. The Jewish version is in many ways far more impressive. The Limmud handbook and app are both works of art — superbly put together, they help the festival run like clockwork. It may be difficult at times here to walk two yards without having to stop to chat to someone whose great-uncle you once sat next to in shul, but this Birmingham conference has the immense benefit — for Jewish political correspondents at least — of providing a feeling of belonging, something sadly sorely missing these days on the wider scene.