A fortnight ago at University College London (UCL), one of the UK’s most prestigious universities, a group of female academics shaved their heads in solidarity with Palestine.

Further to this, they called on their institution to boycott Israeli universities in a stance known as divestment.

At least one of those academics was of a Jewish background.

The fact of this added something deeply heart-wrenching to the event.

Another academic, a friend of mine who witnessed it described the act as visceral when seen in the flesh.

That’s a “big word” as Seamus Heaney often said of such words, especially anything relating to the heart or the inner organs.

And that’s exactly what visceral refers to – something felt in or as if experienced in the internal organs of the body.

The Merriam Webster dictionary also lists it as being related to “dealing with crude or elemental emotions”.

It’s a word often associated with sickness, just as the image of women with shaven heads is often associated with cancer. Sometimes such women shave their heads as an act of taking control of their bodies before hair loss sets in.

The use of the body as a very visible form of resistance was also part of the reason why my friend spoke of the UCL event as being visceral.

Fintan O’Toole once made a similar comment about hunger strikes being a kind of physical performance art.

For a woman to shave her head it’s much more symbolic than for a man to do the same because in situations such as The Holocaust of the Jewish people, women were often publicly and symbolically punished by the shaving of their heads.

There’s also such a scene in Ken Loach’s ‘The Wind that Shakes the Barley’ (2006).

There, British soldiers, during the Irish War of Independence, burn down a farmhouse, hold an Irish woman at gunpoint and shave her head in a very brutal fashion.

And such acts weren’t just the stuff of films and fiction.

The historian Conor Heffernan says that these things were done by both sides as “a deliberate violation of victims’ femininity”.

The early 1920s were brutal times in Ireland but nothing like the horrors that descended upon many parts of mainland Europe less than two decades later.

There’s really nothing in history that compares to the intensiveness of the industrial slaughter of the Jewish people between 1933, when the first concentration camps opened, through to 1945 when the surviving victims were liberated.

Yes, there were concentration camps that popped up in history before then, most notably those created by the British during the Second Boer War (1899-1902).

Huge numbers of people also died through colonialism but not in such a short period.

The Holocaust was the horrific end-product of centuries of deeply rooted prejudice against the Jewish people.

Echoes of that remain in everyday language and even in ancient conspiracy theories reborn in the digital age.

Until a few years ago it wasn’t uncommon to hear someone jokingly referred to as “a Jew” if they were viewed as being frugal or reluctant to part with their money.

I’ve heard such sentiments pop up in pubs and shops or general conversation – which is scary for Jewish people because these are often places where few or no actual Jews live.

The Jews have long been associated with being people of money, largely because of their historical links to the banking industry.

But some of the stereotypes and worst of all, Illuminati-type conspiracy theories go beyond simple reference to that.

Many conspiracy theories have their roots in anti-Semitism, and in the present day a world view that singularly places Jews at the heart of an orchestrated evil.

And with Netanyahu’s Israel engaged in such industrial slaughter as we see in Gaza, this has caused some people to confuse Judaism with Zionism.

These are two very different things.

Judaism refers to a religion and not a racial group.

Zionism, on the other hand, is a nationalist movement that emerged in the late 19th century with a view to creating an exclusively Jewish homeland.

Many of the advocates of Zionism are of a European or American background, rather than being part of the Jewish communities that had lived in Palestine for centuries.

A significant number of Palestinian Jews want a multi-ethnic non-sectarian state. That’s largely because Judaism is a religion of peace and compassion which features several commandments to “love thy neighbour”.

Those who live by that creed don’t want the endless wars that the likes of Benjamin Netanyahu need in order to survive.

It is possible to hate Zionism and love Jewish culture.

At one point in history, Jewish, Muslim and Christian peoples lived side by side in Palestine.

Then the outsiders began to arrive, starting to leave Europe even before the 1930s.

Those academics who shaved their heads and many others who support them have a dream of a Palestine where that happens again in the future.

But with every bomb that’s dropped and every person who’s murdered, that dream feels further off.

However, when women are shaving their heads as a public form of resistance, there’s a real sense of the tide turning.

We’re somewhere in the vicinity of that moment Seamus Heaney talked about in his poem ‘The Cure at Troy.’ That’s the moment when “The longed-for tidal wave of justice can rise up, And hope and history rhyme”.

What those female academics did was to enact a cry from the heart and in doing so inject something visceral into the grandeur of Bloomsbury – a part of London where W.B. Yeats, another of our great Irish poets, once lived.

Paul Breen is on X as @paulbreenauthor