If you don’t know who Rachel Riley is, it’s time you do. I first became aware of her when I was watching a British TV show called 8 out of 10 Cats Does Countdown. It is a comedic (and naughtier) version of the British staple Countdown, a daily game show that involves word and number puzzles. Rachel is the co-host/assistant — but she’s also a legitimate mathematician with a degree from Oxford. For a while I knew her as the math genius who is beautiful and funny and glamorous.
But lately, she has also become a huge activist against anti-Semitism, especially in Britain, and deserves to be recognized for her bravery.
Rachel, who now identifies as an atheist, grew up in a non-religious Jewish household. She said of her upbringing that her mother “did a lovely bagel spread… with the Ashkenazi foods” when people came around, that she called her grandfather Zaida, and that her family “went to shul once a year on Yom Kippur.” She’s also said that a big part of her Jewish identity was knowing about the Holocaust from a young age. “It has always been on my radar. Doesn’t matter your religion… what you believe… what you do, having one Jewish grandparent… people felt entitled to be able to murder you — that has been part of my Jewish identity for a long time.”
When I first encountered her, Rachel didn’t seem like a very political person. Her Twitter feed was full of Manchester United, dirty words from Countdown, and helping kids with their math homework.
That all changed in 2018.
Full disclosure, as an American, I am not an expert on the British political system or structure. I do not have to be, however, to know that there is a very big anti-Semitism problem in the Labour Party, under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn denies this, of course, and his followers are quick to defend him.
British Jews have rallied together to combat this rise in anti-Semitism in many ways. They protested in front of Parliament, and the three leading Jewish newspapers even ran a joint op-ed about the problem.
Rachel saw all of this happening and decided to use her voice and speak out. She began tweeting about the problem in September of 2018.
Another game of spot the difference between Labour leaders… @MayorofLondon vs Jeremy Corbyn. https://t.co/lqYCwrCubz pic.twitter.com/8YfWs9gipR
— Rachel Riley (@RachelRileyRR) September 11, 2018
Sadly, the hate quickly followed. Since her initial tweet, Rachel has received daily abuse online. People have called her a liar, a bully, ignorant, and stupid. She has even received death threats. People are also contacting her employer online, trying to get her fired.
Not all the response has been hateful, fortunately. Rachel has also received a lot of support from the public as well.
More power to you both – just very sad you are going through this. https://t.co/pW1TtRzCBQ
— Lorraine (@reallorraine) January 10, 2019
Recently, she was a guest on the “Ways to Change the World” podcast. The whole thing is worth a listen, because it really showcases how amazingly inspiring Rachel is. It would have been so simple for her to stay quiet and not have to deal with all the abuse she’s getting. She knows the hatred she is going to receive every time she tweets. But she speaks out, even though it is a risk, because she considers the rise in anti-Semitism more dangerous.
“It’s scary, and a sad state of affairs where you have to be brave to speak out about antisemitism in the UK in 2019,” she said on the podcast. Rachel insists she “won’t be silenced just because [she] is being abused or being slurred or told [she] is stupid or worthless.”
On January 22, Rachel skipped the National Television Awards (kind of like the British Emmys) where 8 out of 10 Cats Does Countdown was nominated for an award. According to Rachel, she could “choose between the NTAs, a Man United event, or going to the government to speak at an antisemitism event for the run up to Holocaust Memorial Day.” How many celebrities would make that choice?
The speech I just delivered at @HolocaustUK’s event.
Important #WeRemember and learn from the mistakes of the past, huge thanks to everyone who continues to spread this message.#BeLouder against antisemitism.#EnoughIsEnough 🙏❤️ #HMD2019 pic.twitter.com/3RzAMCcjEE
— Rachel Riley (@RachelRileyRR) January 22, 2019
Not only is Rachel inspiring for speaking out about anti-Semitism, she is also an incredible role model for young kids, especially girls. She uses her job and fame from Countdown as a way to go into schools and talk to them about education and career opportunities in STEM. She is aware of her status as a role model and that we need to highlight and celebrate more female role models. Young girls need to know that they “can be emotional and be a scientist, that it is not just old white guys in lab coats and beards.” She also breaks down stereotypes, saying that scientists don’t have to just wear lab coats — she loves dresses and makeup and proves that mathematicians come in all shapes and sizes.
Much as I appreciate being called Tory, brainwashed and thick, I don’t have any party loyalties, I form my opinions based on available evidence. Religion wise, I choose Man United. Life wise I choose the options without intolerance, hatred and fear. #AntiSemitism
— Rachel Riley (@RachelRileyRR) September 11, 2018
Rachel is just so inspiring to me. It would have been so easy for her to stay silent and not get involved, to avoid all the abuse she is getting. Instead she uses her platform to give voice to an issue that many would rather sweep under the rug. More people deserve to know who she is.