Once again, the Y-word has raised its head as a topic of controversy in football. And once again, Spurs are set to address the issue. For the unfamiliar, it revolves around the right of fans of Tottenham Hotspur FC to chant the first half of the word Yiddish in apparent support of their team. Some, like Jewish comedian David Baddiel, believe it is antisemitic, and question its continued acceptance, likening it to a team whose fans chant the N-Word. Others, including many non-Jewish fans, talk of the chant as a term of endearment, or of reclaiming a word that had been used as abuse from others.
As a Jewish Spurs supporter, I’ve found myself musing over the term’s nature more than most – while unconsciously joining in with the chants on the terraces. When I was 21 (more than a decade ago), I wrote an article for the Huffington Post, in which I defended the fans’ right to use the word. Baddiel, author of recent acclaimed book Jews Don’t Count, called my article ‘sweetly misguided’ at the time. It was chastening, but looking back, I can see what he meant. The Athletic writer Charlie Eccleshare, for example, points out that there has never been an example of people from outside of a minority stepping up to reclaim said minority’s word. Ideally, this would happen from within the group itself. So, it is far more complicated than I surmised, and must also be considered within the framework of the ultra-sensitive society we now inhabit.
Interestingly, when I was growing up, I was never called the Y-Word. Antagonists and racists didn’t seem to need another word for Jew. Don’t get me wrong – those words are as plentiful as they are inventive and hurtful, and would be an intriguing Mastermind category for Mel Gibson. (He had a particularly repugnant one for Wynona Ryder.) But ‘Jew’ was enough in and of itself to provoke shame in me and my fellows. The word itself is curt and booming; it rhymes with ‘boo’; it starts with something like a jeer. I find myself referring now to ‘Jewish people’ or even ‘people of Jewish origin or ethnicity’, to take the sting out of a word that should – like any other minority label – evoke pride.
Growing up, the word didn’t have much meaning to me outside of football. Like with Jew, it is indeed a curter and more impactful take on a longer ‘ish’ word. But that word – Yiddish – was to me just a funny German-sounding language, snippets of which ricocheted across the Friday night dinner table of my childhood. My grandparents lovingly referred to me as a lobus, which I imagined as some lobster-like creature, but actually means a mischievous person with bags of chutzpah.
For Baddiel and people of his generation, I must accept that the landscape may have been different. I’m aware that in the decades preceding my time on this planet, racism was more barefaced, even if it continues to bubble beneath the surface today. Like Baddiel, my dad grew up in working class surroundings. He was one of the few of his ethnicity at his school, and suffered for it (six million wasn’t enough, etc.) – though he never complains now. Later, he changed the family name from Goldstein to Gold in the hope of curbing discrimination.
It is worth noting too, that while I write of a bygone time as though unrecognisable today, Jews remain pro-rata the most discriminated-against ethnicity in the UK and the US by a great distance. And nowhere have I personally experienced it more than in football stadia. I recall being just 8 or 9 years old, and watching Spurs play away at Chelsea with my dad and little brother, when a great hissing noise filled the stadium. We promptly left, my dad explaining the fans were mimicking the hiss of the gas chambers. Since then, I’ve often winced upon hearing rival fans talking about how they gave the Yids a good beating on the weekend. Sometimes, as campaigners against the accepted use of the Y-Word rightly claim, Yids becomes Jews, as in, ‘We’re going to smash up the Jews.’.
This is why the Y-word is – and I shudder to write such an overused word – problematic. And yet, I can’t say that I am necessarily in favour of banning it. I agree with Baddiel that, were this an offensive term from any other ethnicity, it would likely have been weeded out long ago, even if the origins of the Y-Word are not as hurtful as those of the N-Word. The Athletic writer Charlie Eccleshare is also not wrong when he writes that typically it is enough that some people from a minority are offended for that word to be banned.
But is offence enough for censorship? The problem is that, in many corners of our society, it is. And nobody wants to be left behind.
Rightly or wrongly, football – like most money-making endeavours with an image to uphold – has become consumed by pageantry and gesture in the name of social justice. It began not on the Woke Left, but with a topic closer to the Right: Remembrance Day. Over the years, it turned predictably from a poignant commemoration of the fallen to a witch hunt, as eyes scoured coaching and playing staff for anyone not wearing a Poppy (such as Northern Irish player James McClean).
Now, to attend a sporting event in which 22 people wallop a ball around for 90 minutes is to pledge allegiance to a growing number of social movements. I attended a Spurs game a few weeks ago. Before the game had even started, I’d stood for a two-minute rendition of The Last Post (uniformed military personnel in attendance), held a one-minute applause for a death of a person with whom I was unfamiliar and took the knee in spirit with the footballers in support of BLM. Three social movements down, and a ball hadn’t yet been kicked in anger. That’s not to mention the myriad banners and flags around the stadium devoted to miscellaneous movements.
As with any ideological movement, these come from a good place. Racism must be condemned; war commemorations bring us together and remind us of the past; and tributes to the dead serve that same purpose. But the problem with a business – football in this case – that tries its hand at politics and social justice is that it hurts all the more when someone is left behind. As Baddiel’s book purports, it is often the Jews.
This is why a cricket player who rightly complained about the way he was racially abused might not have considered the pain that would be caused by his antisemitic online posts. It’s why, say, BBC presenter Reggie Yates can advise rappers to avoid teaming up with a ‘fat Jewish guy’, and continue to work for the BBC. Personally, I believe in second chances, and would want said cricketer and TV presenter to be able to make amends. But this has to work fairly across all transgressions of identity lines.
I find myself naively wishing football were as it once purported to be: a flawed-but-rare escape from stringent societal rules and the orthodoxy of the day. Without all the racism and hooliganism, that is. At the same time, I relate to my fellow Jewish people in wondering why – if the sport is to be devoured by such piety around group identity – it doesn’t apply to us.
I can’t say whether the Y-Word should be banned. Depending on context and intent, it doesn’t offend me personally. In fact, I rather like it – I see it as a form of camaraderie and acceptance. I’m averse too to censorship, and the banning of words. At the same time, I can’t ignore the incessant antisemitism aimed not only at the small portion of Spurs’ Jewish fans, but also at its chairman, Daniel Levy. And, in a society that today insists on righteous ceremony, sacredness of identity and castigation of those who don’t toe the line, the continued tolerance of the Y-Word on the terraces can’t help but feel like Jews Don’t Count.