Antisemitism and football: time for action

26 Nov 2012 by CST

Events in Rome and London this week have put the focus of football racism onto the question of Jews and antisemitism.

Both cities saw antisemitic abuse directed at fans of Tottenham Hotspur, a club long associated, rightly or wrongly, with having a Jewish fan base, and whose fans self-identify as ‘Yids’. In Rome, Spurs fans were attacked in a vicious planned assault by far right hooligans from Lazio and Roma, who shouted “Jews” during the attack. Two Roma fans are now facing charges of attempted murder for stabbing a Spurs fan. At the game itself, Lazio fans chanted “Juden Tottenham” and waved Palestinian flags – the latter not itself an antisemitic act, but clearly done with antagonistic intent.

In London yesterday at a Premier League match between Spurs and West Ham United, West Ham fans chanted “Adolf Hitler, he’s coming to get you” and made hissing noises to imitate gas chambers. Enough West Ham fans joined in for this to be audible to journalists sat in the Press Box 60 yards away.

UEFA and the FA need to take urgent action regarding Lazio and West Ham respectively, to ensure that the perpetrators of the racist chanting are identified and that this does not happen again. Mere condemnation and paltry fines will not have an impact and we have already sought meetings with the FA, the police, Spurs, West Ham and other interested parties to see what steps need to be taken.

The response of West Ham manager Sam Allardyce, claiming that he didn’t hear the chanting and that “it is the least of my worries at the minute”, is simply not good enough. It would not be acceptable for a manager to claim not to have heard the chanting of monkey noises at a black player that was clearly audible to others in the stadium. This is no different.

While the issue of racism in football has hardly been out of the news over the past year, most of the cases have involved individual comments or gestures by players or fans. The days of massed racist chanting at English football grounds were thought to be long behind us. Events at White Hart Lane yesterday show that this is not the case, and the battle to kick antisemitism out of football is several years behind the work to kick out other forms of racism.

Antisemitism at the Premier League level often revolves around Spurs. Clearly, any effort to rid the game of antisemitism has to start by focusing on the antisemites. People chanting about Hitler or making hissing noises should be arrested, charged and banned for life. There are some good examples of clubs taking this sort of action, and others where the punishment has been far too weak.

The role played by Spurs fans’ use of ‘Yid’ is more complex and subtle and needs to be addressed differently. Spurs fans say that they use the word in a positive way, as a badge of honour in response to antisemitic taunts directed at them by fans of opposing clubs. They are clearly not using it to offend Jews and in this respect the calls by some people for Spurs fans to be arrested for antisemitic chanting miss the point entirely.

However, with the exception of Orthodox Jews who speak Yiddish, most Jews view ‘Yid’ as an antisemitic word. For much of the 20th century it was a common term of abuse directed at Jews. Oswald Mosley’s thugs used to paint it on walls all over the East End of London. It is not used as frequently today but it nor has it disappeared: CST receives several reports every year from Jewish people who have been called ‘Yid’ in the street, or in school, or in other places with nothing to do with football. Beyond White Hart Lane it is still a term of antisemitic abuse.

Most Spurs fans are not Jewish. Arsenal probably have a similar proportion of Jewish fans and the two Manchester clubs also draw strong support from their local Jewish community, as do Leeds United. Jews are represented at boardroom level at many clubs. So the notion that Spurs are a particularly ‘Jewish’ club compared to their rivals is something of a myth. This means that when Spurs fans call themselves ‘Yids’ it is not the same as when members of an oppressed minority ‘reclaim’ an offensive word, as has happened with ‘queer’ or the N-word. Some Jewish Spurs fans love the fact that Spurs identify as ‘Yids’ while others feel very uncomfortable about it.

If Spurs fans did not sing about being ‘Yids’ then it is likely that there would be much less antisemitism in football grounds than there is. It is part of the dynamic of football crowds that if one set of fans sing about a particular part of their identity, opposing fans will twist it back against them. When Spurs fans sing about being ‘Yids’ it encourages opposing fans to think that ‘Yids’, and therefore Jews, are a subject that it is OK for them to sing about too, but in an abusive way. It does not in any way justify opposition fans being antisemitic – but it does perpetuate it.

If we want to have zero tolerance of racism in football then that has to include antisemitism; and if we want to rid football of antisemitism then the word ‘Yid’ does not belong in football grounds, whoever uses it and for whatever reason. Spurs fans can be Jewish or pro-Jewish without singing about ‘Yids’.

This does not mean that Spurs should be blamed for provoking antisemitism, which would be completely wrong. Nor does it mean that the primary responsibility for ridding the game of antisemitism falls on their shoulders. The fact that most Spurs fans are not Jewish should make no difference to how such gross racist chanting and abuse is treated. Antisemitic chanting towards mostly non-Jewish Spurs fans is just as much an offence – both legally and morally – as it would be if it were directed at a visiting Israeli team, for example. Even if Spurs' entire team, support and board of directors were exclusively Jewish, it would not, in any way, legitimise antisemitic chanting towards them. This also applies regardless of whether Spurs fans sing about being Jewish or not.

Recent controversies over racism in football involved individuals and were not about Jews, but antisemitism directed at Spurs is the most widespread example of football racism in this country. It is a crowd phenomenon, in which large sections of opposing fans conduct mass chanting about gassing and Hitler. This is extreme racism that must not be excused away as mere crowd ‘banter’.

We saw, rightly, the outrage of the FA and its member clubs at racist abuse directed against England’s Under 21s when they recently played in Serbia. It has even been suggested that English teams ought to refuse to play Serbian opposition. Nobody within 'the football family' has yet suggested that Spurs should refuse to play their matches, but real action needs to be taken and the vicious cycle surrounding Spurs must be reversed as a matter of the utmost urgency.

In all of this, Spurs fans need to show more understanding that their use of ‘Yid’ causes problems for Jews. And if identifying as ‘Yids’ is a relatively recent response to antisemitism from opposing fans, then it is not an immovable part of the clubs’ identity. Calls for Spurs fans to be arrested or ejected from grounds for calling themselves ‘Yids’ are misguided, but ultimately part of the work to rid football of antisemitism needs to involve Spurs fans voluntarily dropping the word from their songbook.


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