Spurs And The Y Word: Fans In The Dock

The Prime Minister is a man of the people only when it suits him, and what suits is when votes might be at stake. He’s hardly the first politician to attach himself temporarily to sport as a way of proving his street cred and he won’t be the last. He tipped up at a few Olympic events and suddenly became a Blues fan when the late-running 2012 Champions League final provided an unexpected G8 photo opportunity. Angela, I’m with you all the way on that one.

So when in September last year he pronounced upon the long-running dispute over the use of the Y-word at Tottenham Hotspur, he was focussed less on the good of the national game and more on his intended audience, those involved in the debate around free speech and the readers of the Jewish Chronicle, where the interview was published and whose editor happens to be a Spurs fan. Yet there’s no doubt he stuck a chord with many of us.

“There’s a difference between Spurs fans self-describing themselves as Yids and someone calling someone a Yid as an insult. You have to be motivated by hate. Hate speech should be prosecuted – but only when motivated by hate.”

He’d better change his legal advisers. Although the PM would have been thoroughly briefed in advance on the topic, the Metropolitan Police beg to differ. Last week three Spurs fans, Gary Whybrow, Sam Parsons and Peter Ditchman, were charged with using threatening, abusive or insulting words and are due to appear in court on February 4th. The BBC report a Met spokesperson as confirming the alleged offences were racially aggravated and charges brought under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. Perhaps they could call DC as a character witness.

I don’t know anything about the precise circumstances of this case but it is possible to talk about the whole issue of active police intervention in what goes on amongst football fans, which has implications not just for Spurs supporters but for fans of football all over the country.

The debate over Spurs’ fans use of the Y word has been part of my consciousness and identity for the entire time I have been a Tottenham supporter, which dates back to the mid sixties. It’s hard to know when it began. Spurs have always had a loyal following drawn from the Jewish community in north London, which persists to this day. Tottenham itself has had a large Jewish population ever since substantial sections of the community moved from the east End in the early years of the twentieth century encouraged by employment in Jewish-owned businesses based in what is now Tottenham Hale. It was easy to walk up the High Road after schul on Saturday or even, and don’t tell the rabbi, to hop on a tram. Many used their precious leisure time to watch the Spurs, to be part of the local community, to fit in. By the mid thirties, some accounts state a third of the crowd were jewish. That proportion seems inflated but it’s certain the links with the community have lasted almost as long as the club has been in existence.

The explanation of why Spurs are the yids lies outside the club and its fans, however. Arsenal also have huge support within the same north London community. Both clubs have had Jewish representation at board level. The Manchester clubs have a jewish following too. The origins of the term lie in the pernicious, consistent abuse of Spurs supporters from other clubs, especially at away matches. Tracing the origins is difficult. Talking to a couple of long-standing Jewish fans recently, one said it began from Charlton supporters, a mild-mannered bunch there are too. Another watched the 1967 Cup Final from the Chelsea end and vividly recalled the remarks at the final whistle that the ‘the yids have won it.’ After my piece in When Saturday Comes on this topic, a contributor to the letters column blamed Alf Garnett for popularising the term, but I suspect that may have emerged as authentic bias from actor Warren Mitchell, who would have heard it regularly when he came to the Lane as a fervent Tottenham fan.

As a young impressionable jew, I heard the abuse develop in the early to mid seventies and I saw the response. Instead of marginalising the Jews amongst their number or blaming them for provoking trouble and – literally in those days – aggro, Spurs fans chose defiance and reclaimed the word to neutralise its negativity. Claiming class consciousness is pushing it but there’s no doubt that White Hart Lane was notable for an absence of the casual racism sadly rife in football grounds at the time.

I understand that there is a legitimate counterargument, that the use of the word ‘yid’ cannot be justified. It carries a long, sorry history of anti-Semitic abuse and is seen as profoundly abusive to this day by large sections of the Jewish community. It is also argued that Spurs fans cannot reclaim a word that never belonged to them.

Remember that there is no agreement over the use of the word amongst Spurs fans. Many Jewish supporters, including people who regularly and loyally read this blog and whose views I utterly respect, do not want to hear it at the Lane.

These objections are far more substantial than pointing to the culture of instant outrage and offence that prevails in social media, twitter especially. This week the words of national treasure Stephen Fry have been quoted in support of the view that outraged people can feel what they like but this does not give them rights, that being offended has no meaning other than as an expression of an individual’s feelings. “I am offended by that. Well so f**king what.” I agree but this debate has real heft, formed over decades of anti-Semitism. It’s not about Baddiel, newspaper columnists or even the Chief Rabbi – it has history and substance.

I cannot escape that context. It has over-riding significance for me. As the response was formed in fan interaction, I was there. I don’t use the word yid to describe my identity as a fan. Don’t know why, not something I have thought about, but ask me and I am a Spurs supporter. But I defend the use of the word by Spurs fans. I get the debate, the balance but come down firmly on the side of ‘no objections’.

I might fast become the minority if the FA and the Met have anything to do with it. The one point of agreement for everyone involved in the debate is that there are grey areas of interpretation. Nothing is cut and dried. Back last autumn, around the time of the PM’s comment, the FA deliberated on the matter at length. Their report as described in the papers contains a balanced summary of the debate.  However,  the FA chose sides, concluding, “The FA considers that the use of the term ‘yid’ is likely to be considered offensive by the reasonable observer.”

It is likely they were conscious not of anything happening on social media but problems around the alleged use of racist and discriminatory language in other prominent cases. Then, significantly, their definition was endorsed by the Met, declaring before the West Ham home league game that fans who use the language could be committing an offence under section 5 of the Public Order Act. A year before, the police publicly stated that fans would not face prosecution in these circumstances. Now, saying the word itself was enough. Only the FA’s reaction has changed, nothing else. Context was erased from the equation.

The law under which the Tottenham Three have been charged refers to section 5, which enables action against words and actions that are ‘threatening, abusive or insulting’. The phrasing of the FA ruling is deliberate and careful. Section 5 requires that offence must be caused. However, this does not mean one or more people present have to be offended before action is taken. It’s another moment in the spotlight for the reasonable man, presumably on top of if not the Clapham omnibus then the 279 to Edmonton.

My understanding is that the element of ‘insulting’ is shortly going to be removed from the law although ‘abusive’ rightly remains. In reality, an insult and abuse might run close together. When this becomes the case, a lawyer I have spoken to suggests that someone using the insult ‘yid’ would not be a criminal act. However, someone being abusive towards a Jew because they are Jewish could be liable for arrest. Again this is not cut and dried. The thorny problem of the definition of abuse remains.

As it stands, we stay with ‘abusive or insulting’. I have no idea about the circumstances of the arrest of these three men, although I believe they relate to two separate incidents, i.e. they weren’t arrested at the same time. Whatever was going on, they were not the only three Spurs fans to use the word in and around White Hart Lane. It seems to me that the FA and Met have ruled on the definition and it is this that will be tested in court.

I have deep misgivings about this case. All Spurs fans are vulnerable if the word is used. I don’t accept that the use of the word devoid of context is abusive. As Spurs fans, it seems highly unlikely they were directing the word as a term of abuse towards other Spurs fans, let alone Jewish people. If it is the word that counts in the absence of context, what happens if I as a Jew use it outside the Lane during a conversation with my yiddisher Spurs pal Dave? We’re a long way from abusive or insulting.

Another decision has been made here. Spurs supporters have been charged, not those of opposition supporters who routinely abuse us. I could mount a case that hissing noises, songs about concentration camps and Nazi salutes in the High Road are abusive and insulting, and not just to Jews but to other minorities. The FA has adopted a position so contorted that they are gazing up their own backsides.

The Tottenham Hotspur Supporters Trust have tracked this case and have pointed people in the direction of advice and representation. They say that, “It remains our firm belief that, used in a football context by Tottenham Hotspur supporters, there is no intent or desire to offend any member of the Jewish Community.” I agree wholeheartedly.

I wonder too about any wider implications for fans in general. The police these days have a sophisticated approach to policing football matches. This implies an interventionist approach at odds with current tactics. After all, police at grounds all over the country have let anti-Semitic abuse directed towards our supporters go past without any action. I have asked police officers in the past why this is. They reply that they can’t prove that any one individual is the culprit. yet the police around our club have made a decision relating to three fans. Also, those officers are acting on orders, which I suggest revolve the idea common in the football policing which is, keep a lid on trouble, if it is in one place it can be controlled and don’t provoke anything more.

Will these tactics change, in the Met and/or elsewhere? Will fans of other clubs be in danger of a word being taken as indicating a possible breach of the law? it seems a reasonable question.

Finally, evidence from twitter suggests this has not increased popular understading of the issues or decreased anti-Semitic abuse one iota. Every day there are examples of fans of other clubs using the Y word as abuse. When challenged, they often dismiss it as not being anti-Semitic, ‘it’s what you call yourselves’, ‘it doesn’t mean anything.’ They are wrong of course but there’s precious little evidence of progress. Plus we return to the problem that this goes unpunished yet three Spurs fans are in the dock. I remain extremely uncomfortable about the whole situation, for Spurs fans and others. I fully the appreciate the deep and complex debate, but to me, in the end this is plain wrong.



20 thoughts on “Spurs And The Y Word: Fans In The Dock

  1. Completely agree with the entire article. I was stopped outside the Emirates for singing the songs and warned I could be arrested. Yet I was no more than a foot away from maybe 20-30 Spurs fans singing the same songs and the police did and said nothing. The officer’s first words to me were “Let’s be frank, you’re not Jewish, are you?”, to which I replied “I have long standing Jewish links in my family, so yes I do” (My family are Efiks from Nigeria, the links can be found everywhere, including Wikipedia). He turned stony faced and just told me not to sing it again, then walked past the 30 Spurs fans singing and did nothing.

    It seems to me the police have been told “Come down on Spurs fans hard so that we can justify arresting other fans for singing it as an insult”. It makes no sense to me that we get legitimate abuse when going away with Spurs in other cities yet three Spurs fans are arrested and are in court for singing it as a badge of honour. I just hope the test case goes well and justice prevails.


    • Your experience just shows the absurdity of trying to enforce a law that is unenforceable on a consistent basis. I can’t say too much about court cases that are pending and I know nothing of the circumstances of the arrests. However, your experience confirms my suspicions that officers may choose to approach individuals rather than the group.

      Interesting that the officer commented on whether or not you were Jewish. Perhaps if everyone says that they are Jewish roots, they won’t be arrested….!

      Regards, Alan


  2. My worries on this matter is our board. It seems they are against the word Y!d as our badge of honour. The reason I believe this is because they have not defended us fans for singing this, and the 3 due to appear in court. We need more advice and clarity from the board on this matter, as I think this will get a whole lot worse.
    Also me being a Cypriot Greco y!d, could I put an official complaint against the Spammers for singing forever flowing bubbles 🙂 .


    • You could try it….!

      For once the club have respected the supporters. I would not expect them to defend the individual fans, especially as the case is pending – there are limits on what anyone can say or do publicly. But prompted by the Trust, they have co-operated with that survey and have said they respect the use of the word as it stands by our fans.

      Regards, Alan


  3. Well played, Alan.

    I’m very uncomfortable with the use of the Y-word. My Jewish friends, who are mainly Spurs fans, have good reasons for not liking the use of the Y-word, and that’s good enough for me.

    Although I’d never use the word myself, I no less uncomfortable with the actions of the police in this and other similar cases. I really don’t think they know what they are doing.

    We are now in the ridiculous situation where there is endless discussion of the use of the Y-word by Spurs fans and virtually no discussion of Nazi salutes, hissing and racist chanting by other fans.

    Without wishing to turn this serious issue into a playground argument about who said what first, it cannot be the case that this is only about what Spurs fans chant. This is where David Baddiel and his supporters have gone wrong for they have made it so.

    This should have been a wider campaign against continued racism on the terraces in football grounds, not how one set of fans behave. Football is deeply partisan and otherwise calm and rational people adopt deeply entrenched positions very quickly. The whole campaign against the use of the Y-word by Spurs fans, which feels one-sided and partisan, has been a complete balls-up and Baddiel et al must take some responsibility for this.


    • Thanks Russell. Agree completely re how this issue has been badly handled by the FA and the Met. It has become seen as a partisan club/tribal issue, whereas a point not made too often is that it affects fans in general and as you rightly say does nothing to get at the root cause of the abuse.

      Re Baddiel, I am in a minority of one amongst Spurs in saying I take his basic argument seriously – he has a legitimate point that has been swallowed up in the very tribalism we are discussing. It’s not the strength or otherwise of his point, it’s that he supports Chelsea. Baddiel first commented on all this because he was having a go at Chelsea fans sitting behind him who were using anti-Semitic abuse. Now I should add two things. One, he has contributed to this by increasingly fractious debate where it is clear he has become tired of repeating the same points over and over again in the face of abuse he doesn’t deserve. Search on my blogging pal Greg’s Dispatches site (in the links section) where he becomes quickly exasperated with Greg’s reasonable approach.

      Two, I understand what Baddiel is saying but don’t agree. He finds himself dangerously close to the FA contortions I described – it’s our fault if Chelsea and other fans abuse us. Not quite what he says but it is a consequence of his argument.

      Thanks for your contribution, Al


  4. This is a really well thought out piece as always. I can’t say that the songs define me as a Spurs supporter (I’m not Jewish) and I’d be quite happy for all the songs to stop. Equally I’m not offended by them nor do I think they set out to cause offence.
    However, it’s completely barmy that Spurs fans are being taken to court. It’s a poorly judged piece of policing by the Met and also yet another PR own goal by the FA and Spurs themselves who started a consultation then put it in the drawer claiming legal reasons. Complete lunacy.


    • Thanks as ever Pete. For once I feel inclined to blame the Met and the FA on this one, rather than the club. Would love to know what conversations have taken place between the club and the FA….

      Regards, Alan


  5. Good article, it’s certainly a very complex issue. Personally I have always been uncomfortable with fans use of the word and would rather they avoided it. Also if you argue it means “Spurs fan” then it gives other clubs’ fans an excuse to shout abuse and claim it has no racial connotations.

    On the other hand in Spurs’ case I don’t feel those supporters who use it have any sinister intent. This should not be a matter for the police, more one for fans to discuss. As you say, they should start policing other clubs actual anti-semitism.


    • Thanks both for this and the mention re the Stubhub article. Must put a link up on the blog, should have done that earlier.

      Sums it up – agree with what you say.




  6. Unfortunately David Baddiel spoke out not as a representative of the Jewish community but as a Chelsea fan. And in doing so is supporting the right wing views of Combat 18 first seen in the Shed in the 1970s. All three of London’s National Front clubs Millwall, West Ham and Chelsea (in that order) have always targeted Tottenham which was and is a natural ‘landing place’ for London’s ethnic minority separated from the then ‘London Docks’ and ‘London Dockers’ by Hackney marshes.
    I have been going to the Lane since the 1960s and over the years have been accursed of being a Pa**y, Ni**er, and J**ish lover by fans of these clubs. From 1912 Tottenham was a prominent Irish club and even used ‘McNamaras band’ as the theme tune:-
    “The English Premier League football team Tottenham Hotspur F.C. adopted the song as their club anthem, with one verse changed:”

    Oh the whistle blows the cockerel crows, and now we’re in the game,
    It’s up to you, you Lilywhites, to play the Tottenham way.
    Oh there’s many a team from many a town and some are great and small,
    But the famous Tottenham Hotspur are the greatest of them all.

    Also at this time (1909) Tottenham signed the first Afro-Caribbean outfield player in the league (Walter Tull) and as a result attracted a large Afro-Caribbean following this ‘double-whammy’ made then a target for the right wing/NF Dockers of East London. This was still prevalent in the 1970’s when ‘Sammy’ was the leader of the Park Lane and racist abuse often using the ‘N’ word was aimed at Spurs supporters.

    From the 1930s Tottenham became linked with the Jewish community of Stamford Hill simply because of the London transport network and “Does your rabbi know you’re here?” used to be a song Spurs fans were taunted with.
    However since the Second World War, when most London Jews have lived in north London. It could be argued that Arsenal have embraced the Jewish connection more enthusiastically than their rivals.

    In November 2005, Alan Sefton, the overseer of “Arsenal in the community”, announced that the club would be setting up five soccer schools across Israel. Arsenal are already involved in working with a number of primary schools in mixed Jewish/Muslim areas of London, and children are encouraged to co-present religious festivals before playing football together. Sefton played down the claim that Arsenal had launched the initiative because he and several of the club’s directors, such as David Dein and Daniel Fiszman, are Jewish.

    With Thierry Henry the charismatic front man for the Let’s Kick Racism Out Of Football campaign, the Gunners appeared to be the most forward thinking of all clubs in the battle to fight racial intolerance. Yet despite the club’s programme in Israel and the explicit warnings in and around Highbury that “racist and foul language will not be tolerated”, vast numbers of Arsenal fans continue to use the word “yiddo” freely in chants during games.

    Max Hyndes is lobbying the club in an attempt to persuade them to clamp down on the use of the word: “It started out as an insult to the large contingent of Jewish fans who went to watch Tottenham and was also part of a reaction to the large numbers of Jews who came to this country after the Second World War. I’ve always laughed inwardly at the belief many Arsenal fans have that Spurs are ‘the Jewish club’, as Arsenal also have a massive Jewish following.

    “The word ‘yid’ is often used as a derogatory term. You’re deliberately drawing attention to the fact that someone either looks different, behaves differently, or follows a different religious orientation to yourself. That – to my knowledge – is a form of prejudice. The chanting at Highbury used to be far more unpleasant than it is now. Up until the mid-1980s, you’d get songs about ‘gassing the yids’, ‘Spurs are on their way to Auschwitz’, and a hissing noise from thousands of fans to copy the noise of gas being slowly released. Is laughing about ‘gassing the yids’ as offensive as calling someone a ‘nigger’?

    But three decades ago Spurs fans began to adopt the word “yid” en masse, as a code of honour and to “protect” their Jewish fans from Arsenal, Chelsea, West Ham and Millwall fans’ anti-semitic chanting.
    This taking back the ‘power of abuse’ by Spurs supporters has upset the majority of the right wing supporting community which includes members of the establishment, the judiciary, the police and the FA, that is way Spurs supporters have been arrested for using the ‘Y’ word as a badge of honour and no rival supporters have been arrested since 1908 for racist abuse against Spurs supporters, today we know this as institution racism.

    “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live up to its creed- that all supporters are created equal and should be treated equal- to treat one set of supports with prejudice, violence, dislike, discrimination is disappointing.
    Still I have a dream…………….”


    • One of the fantastic things about this blog is the quality of the comments but you have surpassed expectations – thank you.

      Spurs have also had strong scottish connections on the field, going way back to the nineteenth century. In my time we’ve always had a non-judgemental view, less prejudice.

      Arsenal have a huge jewish support – shows how the source of the y word is purely abuse. Arsenal acknowledged Yom Kippur in their programme 8 years before Spurs did.

      You and I, we can dream together.

      Regards, Alan


  7. Well reasoned, well written and highly relevant especially coming from a Jewish person who has enough years under his belt to have seen this topic evolve.
    I’m not Jewish although was brought up in the East End and attended a school that was, at least, 50% Jewish. When the school burned down (accident honest) we were re-directed to Stamford Hill synagogue for a few terms. I can, therefore, claim an understanding of Jewish culture and what being Jewish means.

    Back in the 60’s, the term ‘Yid’ had only one context. It was quite simply an intended insult to a Jewish person. Coming so soon after the war, the insult was particularly poignant. It was soon picked up by football fans who were indulging in a more aggressive form of support and Spurs fans were a target to tempting to resist. The response by Spurs fans in adopting the term and therefore neutralising the insult was both genius and effective.

    Language evolves and with it the meaning of words change, The term ‘gay’ being a perfect example. It began as an adjective meaning frivolous then became a derogative term for a homosexual before being adopted by the homosexual community in the same way as Spurs fans did with ‘yid’ word. Gay is now a wholly acceptable and positive term for a homosexual person. Win win. But there are dark forces afoot who apparently don’t want the same thing to happen with the word ‘yid’.

    I try to put aside my Spurs allegiance and judge the issue in an unbiased way and from all angles. II have discussed the issue with many people, Jew and non Jew alike and have yet to find anyone who doesn’t share my view which is that Spurs fans are acting in a positive way which reduces the potential for anti semitic behaviour.

    Further, I am alarmed that the police are responding to pressure from groups with a vested interest and seeking to arrest people for a crime where there is no victim. The Met police stated, in a meeting with THST that they considered the word ‘yid’ to be offensive in ANY context. This means that just by saying the word you could be open to prosecution. This sounds more like persecution to me.


    • Thanks for such a thoughtful comment, and I agree. So many of us able to weigh up the complexity and come to a different conclusion. Shame the FA and Met could not deal with the complex situation as ably as we can.

      Regards, Alan


  8. As a non-jewish fan myself, I’ve always felt it’s not really my place to use the Y-word. But that’s just my personal decision and, certainly, given that it’s used in a completely non-offensive way by Spurs fans (both jewish and not), there is clearly no intent. I totally agree that the FA and the Met are completely misguided in the stance they are taking. As always Alan, you are spot on here.


    • Thanks Barry, much appreciated. Writing this from beginning to end brings into greater relief only one thing – how misguided this is. As you say, it is hard to justify their decision in any way. See the comment at the top – picking on individuals not groups.

      Regards, Alan


  9. Hello Alan,
    I remain convinced that the Met/FA are deliberately targeting Spurs fans so as to be seen to be doing something about abuse in football grounds.
    All fans recieve abuse, some of it vile.
    Pundits and ex pro’s dutifully ignore it, the hypocrisy is sickening.
    I no longer use the Y-word, I’m not Jewish and have no personal axe to grind regarding this issue.
    But have we really reached a stage whereby Spurs supporters who describe themselves as Yids are arrested, while those who for example, scream abuse at Liverpool supporters about high unemployment through a torrent of expletives remain free to continue.
    I am totally confused about what constitutes racial abuse and I have a feeling that those who look after our game would struggle to define it aswell.


    • Well, I think we can get close enough to defining racist abuse to take action, and Y word used by Spurs fans is not it.

      On twitter, someone who read the article reminded me that the FA took context into consideration in the Suarez case, but not with us. Interesting.

      Regards, Al


  10. Hi Alan,
    I’m Sparticus!
    Shame the Met weren’t on the 7pm train from Liverpool St to White Hart Lane the night of the League cup match against West Ham. The vile abuse the little anti-Semites were screaming would have had the prisons overflowing. Oh! but hold on a minute, what they dish out is ok, isn’t it? It’s only the people who stand up for themselves that are the real problem in society.


    • Just the sort of thing that leaves me angry and exasperated – no action taken against these people, Spurs fans arrested.

      I was going to use the Spartacus gag but another blog beat me to it. Anyway, I’m Spartacus.

      Cheers, Alan


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