I stepped on to the bus with my children last week. 'Remember,' I said and pressed my finger - 'shh' - to my lips. They nodded: ‘Yes.’
As a mother of Jewish children, in Britain, the past month has forced me to have conversations with them about a distressing reality that has surpassed the fears we carry for our children as parents.
Since October 7, when Hamas terrorists barbarically murdered 1,400 Israelis and took more than 200 hostage, including babies and children, war has raged in Israel and Gaza. More than 9,000 Gazan civilians - nearly half of whom are children - have now died under bombardment from Israel, according to the Hamas-run health ministry. This level of suffering is unbearable to watch.
The war is overseas, yet here, in the UK, antisemitism - racism against Jews - has spread like a disease. It has rocketed by over 500% (increasing to over 1,300% in London.) More than 1,000 hate incidents against British Jews have been recorded since 7 October, say a Jewish charity, which is a record number. Kids are not protected from this. There have been as many hateful incidents recorded against Jewish schoolchildren in four weeks as there were in the first six months of the year: as parents, we face the complex and painful task of shielding them.
It is not an easy one: In schools, swastikas have been painted on toilet cubicle doors, a Jewish child was singled out by his teacher to tell the class what he thinks of Israel and a schoolgirl was called a Jewish ‘cow’ on the school bus, according to reports logged with the Community Security Trust, the charity responsible for the security of Jews living in Britain. In religious neighbourhoods, a schoolboy in Manchester was called ‘You f*cking little ginger y*d’ from a passing vehicle; other children were told by a man on a London Underground platform ‘I don’t want to be in a carriage with you f*cking Jews’.
How do I keep my sons, all three under 11-years-old, safe when I have no power to hide or control the fact that racism is surging around us? How do I know how much to tell them to keep them vigilant while keeping the worst of it from entering their minds, which are too little to process the extent of this discrimination? And how do I teach my boys, who I have educated to be tolerant and empathetic, why more people than ever in the streets and the schools they go to are now acting differently towards us or might say something threatening?
Sometimes it involves hiding who we are - like when we step onto public transport and say ‘shh’: Let’s not talk about the bat mitzvah we danced at over the weekend or the adverts showing games they’d like for Chanukah just now; let me not call my son by the name I gave him and love because it holds his Jewish heritage; let’s not reveal who we are here, it’s safer that way, as our bus goes past the stop that has posters of kidnapped Israeli-Jewish children torn down and defaced, or the one that had ‘kill more Jews’ scrawled across a flyer earlier in the week. They are old enough to see with their own eyes that things are not normal.
Last week, it was logging into a security briefing for parents with children at non-Jewish schools, for whom government ministers and anti-racism experts are so concerned. They spoke to us about how to call out the hatred they know us to be facing with courage each day we send our children out of the house. The other day it was hoping the children had not noticed that two parents who usually speak to me at the school gate now diverted their gaze when I said ‘hello’.
Other times, for friends with teenage children, it is restricting their social media use or helping them make sense of things when pupils they thought were friends share something antisemitic or glorify the terror attacks with a meme that is wracking up likes. And for those who have children at Jewish schools, it is messaging them with a reminder to take off their kippah (skullcap) and hide their blazer under their coat as they walk home from school; it is helping little ones understand why they practised for an invacuation at school or it is sending a WhatsApp message warning other parents that cars waving flags and honking horns to intimidate families are circuiting the school security fences again and hoping they have stopped by pick-up time. 'When will it be safe for me to walk home again?' my friend’s son asked her last week.
Secure places are not so secure for us anymore. We have the immense privilege of not bearing the reality, fears and pain of the Gazan parents whose babies are dying helplessly in their arms or the mothers and fathers of Israeli children who were tortured, killed or taken hostage. Most Jews in Britain know Israelis grieving such tragic losses. We are a small religious diaspora (0.2 per cent of the global population) with a single, troubled and fought-over homeland, the safety of which many of us regard as intrinsically linked to our own, wherever in the world we live, by virtue of its establishment after the Holocaust.
Our small numbers mean that, regardless of any political view we may or may not take, individually, on the conflict, we are all touched by it. Our children are speaking to cousins and friends in bomb shelters while we, their parents, comfort friends and loved ones in mourning. Some among us are mourning as well. Racism must not be allowed to compound that grief - or the pain that all right-thinking parents around the globe feel when they see humanity of any race or religion or across any divide suffering in the way we are all seeing now.
Antisemitism is a pernicious, millennia-old form of racism. It has taken little for it to emerge from where it lurks, just below the surface, and it is an inevitability that it surges in Britain whenever conflict erupts in the Middle East. Its reach, this time, is unprecedented, and so is its impact on our children. In facing this, we don’t tell our children ’shh’ because we are not proud of our identity: we are a joyful, resilient people raising children who will be the same and stronger still, even as the horrors of the past, the disease of antisemitism, remind us it is ever present in their future. We say 'Shh' because we are scared for their safety.
For now, in their ‘now’, we prioritise their personal safety, just as we all teach our teenagers to track their friends or walk well lit streets on a night out. We all wish we lived in a society where the evils that necessitate those things do not exist - racism is no different. At a time when I am calling on everything in my power to my protect my children, explaining to others what it is like to be Jewish in the UK right now is simply one more thing that I can do.