Rachel Riley has been targeted by antisemitic abuse online - but she’s far from the only woman to face such vitriol. Stylist investigates.
Countdown presenter Rachel Riley had never been a target for antisemitism. That is, until last year.
Growing up with a Jewish mum in Essex, she had never experienced racism or discrimination. “It was not on my radar,” she told Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy. “I thought, like many others did, that something like the Holocaust meant that antisemitism wouldn’t exist anymore.”
But last year, that changed. After seeing negative comments about Jewish people spreading across social media, Riley started tweeting about British antisemitism. But discussing the subject publicly turned her into a target. She’s since been sent pictures of children at concentration camps and her account has been inundated with abuse and conspiracy theories. Last week, she revealed that the messages she has received have become so threatening, she’s been forced to hire extra security.
The presenter, who celebrated her 10-year anniversary on Countdown in January, has been able to use her public profile to catapult this conversation into the mainstream, and she’s spoken about antisemitism on Channel 4, ITV’s Lorraine show and The Times.
But the abuse Riley receives is far from unique. Rather, she has become representative of Jewish women across the UK who experience the internet as a toxic place, where antisemitism is used as a weapon to punish them for talking about politics.
Across Europe, Jews of all genders feel increasingly targeted. A 2018 report found that almost 90% of European Jews felt antisemitism in their home country was rising, with 89% most worried about abuse on social media. Here in the UK, four out of five Jews believes antisemitism to be a major problem in British politics – the worst record in the whole of the EU. Even more worryingly, almost a third are so afraid that they are considering leaving Britain altogether.
And for women, online abuse has an extra dimension. When researchers at American media watchdog MediaMatters looked at 4chan – an online forum with a reputation for racism – they saw that the number of antisemitic posts that were also misogynistic had drastically risen, growing by 180% between 2015 and 2017.
That harmful combination of antisemitism and misogyny has inevitably filtered onto more mainstream social media sites. Jewish MP Margaret Hodge doesn’t monitor the abuse she receives on Twitter, but her assistant tells Stylist that “there’s a distinct overlap between antisemitism and misogyny” and that “often both feature in the same sentence”.
Luciana Berger is the Labour MP for Liverpool Wavertree, and at one point in her career she received 2,500 racist messages in just three days. She describes social media as the modern-day equivalent of the Nazi-era German newspaper Der Stürmer, which was viciously antisemitic.
She has witnessed the surge in online abuse first hand. “Regrettably it’s gotten worse, and both the volume and toxicity has increased,” she told Stylist. “In the wake of the very divisive EU referendum… people are even more venomous both in what they say, and how often they say it.”
Berger, who is Jewish, has been targeted repeatedly by internet trolls, with six people convicted for sending her antisemitic abuse. She receives racist abuse both in response to her comments about antisemitism, and also in reply to her politics in general. In December, she took screenshots of a selection of the messages she has received, some of which called her a traitor and an agent of the Israeli government. “This idea that I’m somehow answerable to a foreign power is a big antisemitic trope,” she says.
Deborah Lipstadt, an author and professor of modern Jewish history at Emory University in Atlanta, told the New Yorker that we are witnessing “a perfect storm”, where antisemitism is being shared across the political spectrum, by both the left and the right.
In the UK, people are more used to accepting that there is antisemitism on the far-right than admitting its presence on the far-left. After Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was accused of antisemitism in a series of scandals, Jewish women reported how his supporters would disrespect their testimonies.
Sara Gibbs, a Jewish comedy writer for TV and radio, says online antisemitism exists alongside a narrative that Jewish people are exaggerating the scale of the problem. “It’s an atmosphere of disbelieving and undermining”, she tells Stylist. “People are lecturing Jews about what is and isn’t antisemitsim. It’s the sort of thing that wouldn’t happen with another minority, especially on the left.”
And it’s not just the issue of deliberate and targeted abuse that is at play here. A poll released on Holocaust Memorial Day last Sunday revealed that 5% of Britons do not believe six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, while one in 12 believes the genocide has been exaggerated.
The results demonstrate the lack of education some people have on antisemitism. Online, this means that many people are invoking imagery or stereotypes without even understanding their far-right or Nazi origin.
Gibbs mentions a friend who posted a cartoon on Facebook about the Israel-Palestine conflict. For Gibbs, criticism of Israel’s policy towards Palestine is legitimate, but using stereotypes used by the Nazis is not. Her friend’s post referred to the ‘blood libel’ myth, based on deeply offensive and unfounded conspiracy theories that Jews use children’s blood for religious rituals.
“People who are well meaning and want to campaign for Palestinian rights can slip into antisemitic tropes because of groupthink,” she says. “My friend couldn’t recognise that reference – it’s not part of the fabric of her upbringing. I see a lot of that.
“People would be horrified if they realised what they shared is antisemitic, but often it’s so normal they don’t recognise it.”
However, the sheer volume of antisemitic abuse on social media can make these platforms a difficult place for Jewish women to be at all.
Rosa Doherty, a reporter for the Jewish Chronicle, has to be on Twitter for work. For her, abuse on the platform is a predictable response to anything she writes about antisemitism.
“There are regularly times when I think, ‘I’m not going to say something, because what’s the point?’” she says. “You don’t want to encourage the abuse. I have colleagues who are more outspoken, and have long debates with racists, and it looks exhausting.”
Doherty doesn’t post about politics on Facebook. “It’s where my family and friends are,” she adds. “[So] I don’t post out of fear, because I don’t want to know if anyone is antisemitic.”
It’s this silencing affect that Danny Stone, director of the Antisemitism Policy Trust, an organisation that educates policy makers about antisemitism, is worried about.
“This abuse is preventing women who want to get involved in public life from speaking out, because when they do so, they’re being attacked in most vile way,” he tells Stylist. “We want full access to public life for Jewish women.”
There is currently no consensus on whether this toxic online atmosphere should be blamed on politicians or those responsible for running the various social media platforms. Until there is, Rachel Riley is rallying Twitter users to #belouder and call out antisemitism when they see it.
As she said on Channel 4: “If good people stay quiet, then all you’re hearing are extremist voices.”
Images: Getty, Unsplash