For a period of over ten years I wrote a commentary column in the Jerusalem Post. Allowed to spread my wings, I went beyond my own professional field of geopolitics and borders and offered comments on issues relating to the Jewish world and other topics of personal interest. In what was almost 400 columns, on only two occasions did I actually cut out the original newsprint column, frame them and out them on my office notice board. The second of these dealt with the important culinary topic of the Jewish origins of fish and chips.
But the first of these, written almost exactly ten years ago, dealt with the topic of “Tottenham Yids”, being a Jewish supporter of the English football (sorry soccer to my American readers) club Tottenham Hotspur, known for its significant Jewish support because of its location in North London, where seventy percent of the small Anglo Jewish community reside. I argued at the time that I could see absolutely no problem in the fact that the clubs supporters had adopted the term “yid” as an affectionate name for the club, in direct contrast to the way it was used against the club by racist supporters of rival London clubs, notably Arsenal and Chelsea.
It was a tongue in cheek piece, showing how the term “yid” could be turned around and be used in a positive and inclusive way and that the very fact that tens of thousands of fans could chant “Tottenham yids” or the term “yiddo” at players who had scored goals, should be taken for what it is – a piece of banter which actually made Jewish supporters feel welcome, rather than excluded, at the club.
Ten years on and the debate around this term has not subsided. Given the rise of anti semitic sentiment in the UK as a whole, especially within the Labour Party of Jeremy Corbyn – a party to which most Anglo Jews used to be proud to belong and be active but have now left en masse – the use of the term “yids” by Tottenham supporters has once again been highlighted.
In a recent blog in this paper, respected journalist Alex Brummer argued that Tottenham fans who were happy to use the term, and even to join in the singing, were living in a state of denial and that, in effect, they were contributing to the growth of ani semitic and racist sentiment at major sporting occasions. This follows on a similar editorial which was headlined in one of the Anglo Jewish newspapers some months ago, on the very week that the club itself sent out a detailed questionnaire to its season ticket holders and club members, surveying their attitudes to the use of the term and asking them whether they think it should cease.
Some community leaders, rightfully concerned about the growth of anti semitism, have also taken this up as cudgel, as though the affectionate use of this term is at the root cause of what has become a much deeper social malaise in the United Kingdom during the past decade, of an extent that we who grew up in the Britain of the 1960’s and 1970’s were not subject to. It has even been taken up by the World Jewish Congress, after having received selective information about the use of the term, in an attempt to show that they are sensitive to new forms of anti-semitism around the world and not just in North America.
It is perhaps not surprising that three months after the club sent out its questionnaire, nothing more has been heard and its results have not been published. Because it will be obvious that almost all of those who took time out to respond to the survey, including a large number of Jewish supporters, all stated categorically that the use of the term “yid” in this context, was not felt in any way to be anti semitic or objectionable, and that they were opposed to any attempt to artificially force the fans to stop using or chanting the term during matches.
The survey itself was constructed poorly. Not only was it far too long, repetitive and tedious but it used every possible means of rhetoric and repetition of questions in different forms to try and convince the respondent that the term was negative and should not be used. It included a number of quotes from prominent journalists and football fans who had previously written on the topic, but selectively used quotes which portrayed the term “Tottenham Yids” in a negative way, completely ignoring the equally many articles which have ben published arguing the opposite. It was out to engineer a result which it clearly did not achieve, and hence the silence from the club about the survey results.
Some years ago, the police tried to prosecute two fans who had used the term at a game, for anti semitism and racism. They were forced to drop the case after hundreds of fans, including many prominent Jewish supporters of the club made it clear that they were prepared to give evidence on behalf of the defendants, to show that they were not in any way troubled or insulted by the use of the term – on the contrary many have made it clear that they feel included as a result of the way that it is used.
It is quite clear that were any further attempts made to select two or three, out of tens of thousands, supporters who use the term to praise the players on the field, the result would be the same. Many would jump to their defense and the case would be quashed.
That does not ignore the fact that fans of rival clubs have picked up on the term in a derogatory and anti-semitic fashion (including the fans of rivals Arsenal who have just as large a Jewish fan base as does Tottenham) and the attempt to differentiate between the way it is used by supporters of different clubs is a dilemma which is almost impossible to resolve.
The idea, as suggested in the questionnaire, that the positive use of the term by Tottenham fans therefore opens the door for fans of other clubs to use it in a negative and anti-semitic fashion, is a warped rhetoric, which is used as an excuse by Jewish supporters of other clubs for the inexcusable behaviour of their own fans.
The fact that one of the most notable proponents of banning the term, David Baddiel is a fervent supporter of Chelsea, who many see as one of the most racist fan groups in the UK, has weakened, rather than strengthened, the desire to deal with this problematic issue. And that in a club which is owned by Russian Jewish philanthropist, a proud Zionist and now an Israeli citizen with a second (third) home in Israel, Roman Abramovitch, who has spearheaded the campaign to rid football of racism and anti-semitism. If there ever was a club in denial, then it must surely be Chelsea, where the words and deeds of its owners are in stark contrast to the actions and chanting of its supporters. Perhaps they should start dealing with the problem at home before missionarizing to the elites and the decision makers.
Football, as the famous Liverpool manager of the 60’s and 70’s Bill Shankly, once said, is more important than life itself. Britain’s current Chief Rabbi , the admirable Ephraim Mirvis is well known for his strong support of Tottenham and is occasionally to be spotted sitting in the stands (never on a Shabat course), while his predecessor Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks is also known for his equally fervent support of Arsenal. Rabbi Mirvis went as far as making a comment to this effect in his installation address just a few years ago, before a crowded synagogue of Rabbis, Jewish lay leaders and other dignitaries – an event badly arranged to take place the same afternoon as the big Tottenham – Arsenal grudge derby game, when most of the attendees would have preferred to be at another arena. It is understood that some did indeed leave the Chief Rabbi event early in order to make it to the game in time (names not to be published).
No doubt about it, sport has a major impact on society at all stratas. It is as powerful, some would say more powerful, force than organized religion. What happens at sport, not just amongst the players but also – and perhaps even more significantly – amongst the hundreds of thousands of supporters throughout the world, impacts societal norms and ways of thinking. But, it should not be used as an excuse for resolving major issues which need to be resolved elsewhere. Those who label the tens of thousands of proud Jewish supporters of Tottenham as living in denial, are themselves in denial of the fact that the community leadership is struggling to come to terms with institutionalized anti-semitism in place they never dreamed of ten to twenty years ago, and are seeking scapegoats.
Nor do i want to deny the fact that anti-semitism is rampant, even unkowingly, amongst many sports fans. Just recently, I called out the administrators of one of the Tottenham chat sites – Audere et Facere – for allowing an anti semitic joke (targetted at Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy and his perceived financial stringency) to be posted. When they refused to remove it, I publicized the fact on other Tottenham chat lists. the result was that the administrators of the group were subject to criticism, the post was removed, and I was forcefully removed from the list for “bullying” them into forcing them to act. At the same time they made it clear that racist and anti-semitic remarks were unnacceptable and would be removed in the future.
The silence of the club and its Jewish owners, Daniel Levy and Joe Lewis, in releasing the full results of the poorly constructed survey, are perhaps the clearest indicators of this – they are being forced into a situation which they know they will not be able to control. The fans have now taken to chanting en masse “you will not tell us what to sing”. Any attempt to forcefully ban the use of the term will probably bring about an increased use of the term, even by those who may not have participated in the singing in the past. Attempts to go further and prosecute Tottenham fans for using the term will result in long lines of fans, especially Jewish fans, who will jump to their defense.
Living in Israel, I retain my Tottenham season ticket and try to arrange and engineer my work trips, and sabbatical research to the UK, to get in as many games as possible. Sitting next to my Jewish neighbours at the stadium, trying hard not to discuss Israeli and Jewish politics with them instead of concentrating on the players on the field, having a ticket network exchange list (allowing us to legally transfer tickets for games which we cant attend) composed of many Jewish supporters, wishing each other Shana Tova and Mazel Tov prior to the Jewish festivals and on family occasions, arranging for taxis to get people from their synagogues to the stadium in time for the big European game against Bayern Munich immediately after Rosh Hashana (although most Tottenham fans will wish they had missed that game owing to the disastrous result), even recently holding a Maariv minyan at the stadium so someone could say kaddish, we are most certainly not in denial. It is common place to see fans attending the games with kippot, and even some Haredim from the nearby Stamford Hill community – they do not feel any threat, as they would do at other football stadia, and this is due to the positive way in which the “yid’ term has been adopted by the fans.
Indeed the only thing still missing from the impressive new Tottenham stadium is a Kosher fast food outlet, which are so common at American sports stadia.
We are proud Tottenham Yids. The ‘we” includes many Jewish community leaders and prominent personalities (the Chief Rabbi, the editor of the Jewish Chronicle and many other well known British personalities in all walks of life) who fight anti Semitism where it is to be found. As someone who has been actively involved in the anti BDS activities within British academia and promoting Israel-UK scientific cooperation, I am the last person to deny the evil and vicious growth of this form of anti-semitism which has to be combatted wherever it is to be found – but we don’t believe that a group of football fans should be made to feel guilty about what is, at the end of the day, a red (or should it be blue) herring