The first time I ever wore a kippah in public was at a criminal law lecture in London. I sheepishly entered the lecture theatre, totally consumed by self-consciousness. I was relieved when a fellow (non-Jewish) student shared his surprise about my revelation: “Hey Jonny, I didn’t know you were Jewish — good for you.”
Sadly, not every subsequent reaction was so enthusiastic. Soon after that lecture, someone on the Tube looked menacingly at me and my kippah before treading slowly, yet deliberately on my foot and then alighting the train. The first of many unpleasant encounters resulting from a seemingly innocuous head-covering. But it is one thing absorbing abuse for the crime of being Jewish oneself, but when your kids start to be vilified it is altogether more painful.
My 17-year-old son was recently walking with a friend in north-west London, days after Hamas’s atrocities in Israel had reignited the conflict. A man shouted at my son: “Yahud (“Jew” in Arabic), free Palestine!” What exactly did my son have to do with “Palestine”?
It is sad yet admirable that my son has learnt at his tender age how to respond to such Jew hatred. When he was just 12, he was on a bus on the way home from school, wearing his kippah. A fellow Jewish passenger told him, “You shouldn’t be wearing your kippah on the bus; it could get you into trouble.” My son responded with defiance: “I’m proud to be Jewish.” He taught me that instead of succumbing to fear, we can choose to stand tall, unwavering in our beliefs and steadfast in our heritage. But there are other unsung heroes in the most unexpected places.
I work for The Abraham Effect — a unique organisation dedicated to sharing Jewish values with pupils who attend non-Jewish secondary schools in the UK. This week, since the Hamas attacks, attendance at our classes has been remarkable. At Harrow School, participation was at a record high. We ran out of kosher pizza after devouring five boxes. As I recited prayers for the fallen and the injured in Israel, a few of the boys took out their kippot from their pockets and placed them thoughtfully on their heads. I bore witness to a profound galvanisation of Jewish identity among these young students. They displayed dignified resistance amid the barbarism and the perverse celebrations of those who supported the perpetrators’ inhuman brutality. The same togetherness was palpable during my visits to St Paul’s School and Westminster School days later.
Next week, I will be speaking at a vigil organised by the Jewish Society at North London Collegiate School. The first of its kind. One of the students asked me why there was such an outpouring of solidarity for the people of Ukraine when Russia invaded, yet there were numerous anti-Israel rallies in Britain, despite such irrational evil being perpetrated against innocent Israeli citizens, including the beheading of Jewish babies.
This past week, in the face of Jew hatred, instead of retreating into the shadows, I have seen so many who are proudly embracing their Jewish identity. We simply refuse to let the actions of a brainwashed death cult and its supporters mar the rich tapestry of our heritage and faith.
In the face of bigotry and adversity, Jewish students are not cowed. Instead, they are engaging in meaningful conversations about their identity, dispelling myths and stereotypes and fostering dialogue to promote understanding and harmony. It is in the classrooms and community centres that the future of our society is being shaped. The resilience of these young students gives me hope in this darkness.
Rabbi Jonathan Hughes is CEO of The Abraham Effect