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Acute Angles: The “Yid Army” – Pride or Prejudice?

Dear Rabbi Chaim.  As someone who, like you, keenly follows the mercurial fortunes of Spurs (North London soccer club Tottenham Hotspur for the uninitiated) from afar, I wonder what your take is about the club’s call to its supporters to “move on” from chanting “Yid Army” as, they say, the term “Yid” can be seen as antisemitic.  I had thought that “Yid” was just a way of saying “Jew”!  Aren’t those who chant it stating they are proud to be Jews or associated with a “Jewish” club?  Yours in confusion.  Danny W.

Hi Danny!

It so happens that I just came across a related news item this week. Apparently, the online version of Germany’s most popular dictionary, Duden, recently added an addendum to an entry on the word “Jew” to the effect that it could be viewed as a derogatory or pejorative term.  It added: “Formulations such as ‘Jewish people’, ‘Jewish fellow-citizens’ or ‘people of the Jewish faith’ are usually chosen [in preference to the term ‘Jew’]”

The Central Council of Jews in Germany, headed by Joseph Schuster, mounted a dignified but firm protest against this nonsense.  As a result, the dictionary deleted the addendum and instead wrote: “The words ‘Jew/Jewish’ … are widely used as a matter of course and neither are perceived as problematic.”

That sure is good to hear!  I wondered for a moment if we were to have a demand for censorship of the Book of Esther due to its frequent mention of this controversial word “Jew”! ☹

Yid is simply the Yiddish (yes!) word for Jew!  It is clearly derived from the Hebrew word Yehudi – member of the tribe of (or adherent of the faith of) Yehuda, or Judah – which Polish Jews would in any case pronounce Yhidi. From there it was a short step to drop the ‘h’ and the concluding ‘i’. Yid is thus far closer to the Hebrew than the Anglo-Saxon word “Jew”.

Are the terms Yid and Jew derogatory? As journalist Ben Rosen suggests, the problem is not with the words but the manner in which they have been appropriated and hurled like missiles at us as epithets of insult.

I would go further and say that by viewing the word Yid as discriminatory or derogatory, we are handing ownership of this noble word to anti-Semites.

Danny, you must know that I haven’t been to a Spurs match in half a century.  (In those heady days, the chant was “Glory Glory!”) But from what I can gather, the word Yid, formerly flung at Spurs supporters as an abusive epithet by rival fans, has been reclaimed by its vast “army” of Jewish supporters plus well-intentioned non-Jewish Spurs fans who have bought into the term as a positive expression of pride and solidarity!

No doubt the club’s spokespeople meant well when they issued their recommendation to “move on” from using the term. But they are sadly buying into the extreme ‘woke’ culture so prevalent in today’s society.  It is a mark of sheer arrogance, not to mention ignorance, for outsiders to presume to tell Jews how they should self-define.

I believe the fans should politely ignore the club management’s advice. If Jewish supporters of Spurs fear using the term, it will again be appropriated and used as a derogatory smear by supporters of rival clubs.

Fascinatingly, the adoption of the word “Jew” as a cultural epithet of pride by non-Jews has its origin in the Purim story!  Following the triumph of Mordechai and Esther over Haman, Mordechai “left the king’s palace clad in royal apparel … with a large gold crown …. the Jews had light, gladness, joy and honour … and many among the peoples of the land were mityahadim because the fear of the Jews had fallen upon them!” (Esther 8:15-17)

What is mityahadim?  Many printed editions of the Megila translate it as “became Jews” But the Vilna Gaon (1720-1797), picking up on the reflexive nature of the verb, understands it to mean “they professed themselves Jews”. In other words, they behaved externally as though they were Jews, without any intention of becoming serious proselytes. They became auxiliary members of the ancient Persian “Yid Army”! (Indeed, the custom of dressing up in costume disguising one’s true identity is thought to derive principally from this latter verse!)

Perhaps a more worrying contemporary parallel to this is the situation in Israel today where, because of the wide, meta-halachic parameters of the Law of Return, there are many non-Jews “masquerading” as Jews which is a thorny problem the ramifications of which could get much more vexed if the conversion laws are relaxed by the present government to a less than acceptable standard. (The chutspa of this government interference with halachic concerns is beyond the scope of this essay.)

As far as London, N.17 is concerned, however:  as long as the non-Jewish mityahadim of the “Yid Army” confine their ‘Jewish’ identification to the terraces of the Tottenham Hotspur stadium, I do not foresee any real danger of a blurring of identities leading to assimilation.  Instead, with well-meaning pals such as this, we can perhaps worry less about enemies!

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Ingram is the author of four books on Judaism and honorary rabbi of Sydney Jewish Centre on Ageing.
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