Exclusive Rachel Riley interview on Labour anti-Semitism “I’m still shocked every day”
Rachel Riley, the television personality and mathematician best known for co-hosting Channel 4’s ‘Countdown’ show, has emerged in recent months as one of the most notable and high-profile campaigners against anti-Semitism in Britain. Ahead of the UK’s General Election on December 11 she was kind enough to speak to the Campaign Against Corbynism about her fears over a Jeremy Corbyn led Government and the mental and physical toll fighting anti-Semitism has taken on so many activists. Riley explained who she considers the Labour Party under its present leadership to be institutionally racist, fears some British Jews will question their future in this country if it achieves power and believes Corbyn personally is an anti-Semite.
This interview has condensed somewhat, but other than that is being published unedited. It takes the form of a question and answer session with our questions followed by Riley’s response.
When did you first become aware there was a really serious issue with anti-Semitism within the Labour Party?
“The first I was aware of it at all was after the demonstration outside Parliament in March 2018, the ‘Enough is Enough’ demonstration. I’m Jewish but I’m not part of the community, I’m not religious I’m secular, so I wasn’t consuming Jewish media, I just hadn’t really heard anything about it until it was on the BBC, until it was in the mainstream news. And then it was because I’m Jewish I was interested, I thought this is strange, British Jews normally keep their heads down they don’t complain about stuff. This is really unusual and the Labour Party, what on earth is this?”
“My initial reaction was is it just words? Some people can be quite sensitive to language these days, then when I started looking into it and seeing the scale and seeing how people were daily uncovering Labour social media officers who were posting on social media about cutting Zionist throats. That was one particular story that I saw and I’d seen the screengrabs of what this person was actually saying as an education officer and it wasn’t reported anywhere in the mainstream press and I realised that there was a huge problem and nobody knew about it and I just felt people needed to know about it.”
How big a danger do you think a Corbyn Government would be to Britain’s Jewish community?
“Well its already had a devastating effect on people’s mental health, the general feeling within the community is – I think the latest stats are something like 47 percent of British Jews are considering where they might move to if Corbyn got in. Most Jews in this country they’ve come here at some point fleeing some kind of persecution in their history. My family fled the pogroms in Soviet Russia. There are plenty of families who had to flee plenty of places across Europe so it’s not something people take lightly.
“I think one of the most shocking things for me was the bombing of building full of Jewish charities in 1994 with terrorists being convicted and with Jeremy Corbyn spending ten years campaigning for terrorists who were convicted for their part in bombing a Jewish charity in London to be released. It’s one of the reasons why Jewish charities, synagogues, buildings are mostly unmarked and have high levels of security these days is because of terrorist attacks. If you have somebody who actively campaigned on behalf of people who sought to kill people in these buildings what else, and people still ask you why you’re worried.”
“I met people my age and younger who had given up their studies because they received anti-Semitic abuse at uni and they realised there was a problem and decided they needed to join an organisation to fight this racism instead of carrying on with their studies and people who had given up their careers because they saw this huge problem and they saw that nobody was dealing with it so they took it upon themselves to do it and their lives are turned upside by this. So many Jewish people’s lives are turned up side down by this because they’ve had to fight by themselves for a really long time.”
Has Corbyn mainstreamed anti-Semitism within a section of the British left?
“Yer I think in some respects – they invited in people who were already anti-Semitic, they recruited support from hubs of anti-Semitism so it was inevitable that it was going to happen. But in other cases people who had no anti-Semitic bones in their body, they had no thoughts towards Jews, it wasn’t on their radar at all. But because it’s all around them, because they’re swimming in it and because there’s this narrative been created of us vs them a lot of people have picked it up and adopted it.”
“I could count on two hands the total amount of anti-Semitic incidents I had experienced in my entire life until the last year or so. And now a day doesn’t go by without something…It’s the gaslighting that’s really upsetting a lot of people. It’s the smear narrative that’s been led by the leadership…they’ve enabled it and encouraged it to grow in my opinion.”
Have you been shocked by the number of ‘liberal anti-racist’ people who have stuck with the Labour Party?
“It’s devastating seeing people that otherwise you would agree with in terms of politics, you like them as people, seeing them come out and say ‘vote Labour’…It’s clearly a price worth paying for some people. The difficulty is that amongst Labour people they blame the Jews for speaking out about this and everybody’s worried that even if Labour don’t get in the Jews will then be blamed…To blame the Jews for speaking out against the racism against them instead of blaming the people who didn’t take a loud enough stand is so painful. It’s tearing people apart, it’s tearing friendships apart. It’s horrible and you do realise who your friends are really and who’s genuinely willing to stand up against racism and who’s not.”
A recent Jewish News poll found 47 percent of British Jews would “seriously consider” leaving the UK if Corbyn becomes PM. Is this something you have encountered?
“Plenty of people. People with families, I did a charity event for my old boss and they’ve got four little children who go to a Jewish school, they want to be able to live their lives. They don’t want to live under an anti-Semitic Government. They’re wondering where they might want to go. I know people who are trying to fight online and they’re self-harming, I know one person who tried to take her own life from the abuse.”
“When there are rallies in London, I saw one in Kensington a couple of weeks ago, with people shouting ‘death to Jew dogs’ in Arabic and because they’ve got Palestinian flags you know what the Corbyn reaction would be. It would be overlooked because it’s part of what they see as a higher cause. British Jews don’t want to live their lives like that.”
“Before this all happened I was using social media for posting cat videos. Because we’ve seen such a problem and because we’ve seen such denial of the problem we’ve all felt the need to speak up. It’s a really small community really to have to speak for itself because other people aren’t willing to.”
Have you been surprised by how much abuse you’re received since you started campaigning?
“I’m still shocked every day really. I put myself out there knowing that I wasn’t political so I didn’t think I could be written off because I was from the other side. I’d been in the public eye for at that point ten years and I used my platform to promote pet charities and STEM subjects for girls…The level of abuse I’ve had - I mean I can’t post anything anymore – I literally post a picture of my Christmas tree or a picture of my three year old nephew and I get anti-Semitic abuse back. I’ve been called a Nazi, a paedophile, a white supremacist, I work for Mossad or Israel…when they’re resorting to saying my husbands a Russian spy, all this kind of crap, then I know their arguments are very flimsy.”
“It is genuinely worrying. I’ve had a few veiled death threats which I’ve gone to the police about and I’ve increased my security at work and at home because you don’t know, you don’t know if people actually believe these things written about you what them might do and it only takes one person.”
Do you consider Labour to be an institutionally racist party?
“I definitely consider them to be institutionally racist, there’s no doubt in my mind…The kind of complaints that I’ve seen Labour Against Antisemitism putting in that have been ignored. It seemed action was only taken when they were forced to in the press.”
Do you consider Jeremy Corbyn to be personally anti-Semitic?
“To start with I assumed he wasn’t an anti-Semite. I just assumed he was ignorant and needed education but the more I’ve gone on this journey - I personally think he’s anti-Semitic, if you put his actions onto anybody else…you would instantly say anti-Semitic. I think the only people are reluctant to say that is because he’s leader of the Labour Party…time after time after time he embraces anti-Semites and I don’t understand how someone who isn’t themselves in agreement with these views can accidentally find themselves sharing platforms with them time after time after time…Personally I do think he’s an anti-Semite.”
Interview conducted by James Bickerton (@JBickertonUK) – Director of the Campaign Against Corbynism