Kick Anti-Semitism Out of Football. But Don’t Start With Spurs Fans

Last week I went to a seminar on anti-Semitism in football. Over a couple of hours, we heard from representatives of the Jewish community, journalists, the chair of Kick It Out and a Jewish footballer, Joe Jacobson who currently plays for Wycombe Wanderers. Ranging beyond Britain and the Premier League, it revealed the scandalous inaction of governing bodies in Britain and Europe. The FA in particular does little or nothing to combat the growing number of complaints of anti-Semitic abuse KIO deal with each year.


Yet the debate really kicked off only towards the end when the elephant in the room became real – Spurs and the Y word.


A couple of things you need to know before we go any further. For Jews, ‘yid’ is a profoundly demeaning epithet, a three letter word inextricably linked to centuries of persecution. It provokes deep feelings and righteous anger from within in the community, bearing in mind that in this audience of a certain age, the Holocaust is a mere generation away. It’s not a GSCE topic but a lived experience for their family.


Also, there is an increase in anti-Semitic abuse in this country and Europe, variously ascribed to the rise of the far right, an effect of the conflict in the Middle East or part of the rise post-Brexit of overtly expressed discrimination in England. Whatever, it has always been there, lying low beneath the surface, ready to rise up.


In my time I’ve been to my fair share of meetings on anti-discriminatory practice, and I mean that in a good way. This one had an unexpected feel to it. Called by the charity Action Against Discrimination, an organisation I had not heard of before, it featured one woman, Roisin Wood, the Director of Kick It Out, on a panel of seven. The avuncular chair, a Jewish lawyer with long-standing links to the organisation, would have been the perfect host for my barmitzvah but in this setting his witticisms often unintentionally neutralised contributors’ points by diverting them in a different direction.


At one point he prefaced a question by saying he would direct it at Roisin only to turn to Times journalist Henry Winter by the time he finally finished his anecdote. Jacobson’s potential was underused. He was asked only a few times to contribute. When it came to questions, the chair took almost all from people whose names he knew. Eventually a woman spoke, then fellow Spurs fan Emma Poulton’s persistence paid off. Adroitly intercepting a potentially patronising introduction, she succeeded in sharing her academic research into the topic.


Last year Kick It Out received 79 reports of anti-Semitic behaviour and language. Every speaker on the stage and from the floor had experienced this both from within the game – Malky Mackay was sacked as Cardiff manager after discriminatory, anti-Semitic and homophobic texts – and from supporters of other clubs. Chelsea and West Ham fans were mentioned by several contributors as being the worst offenders, and this isn’t coming from me but the chair himself who is a Chelsea diehard, and David Sullivan was one of the event’s sponsors. Everyone agreed this behaviour had no place in the game.


Henry Winter was particularly strong on the disgraceful lack of action from the FA, the Premier League and FIFA, citing several examples where they have not so much turned a blind eye to discrimination as completely turned their back on it. FIFA have disbanded their anti-racism task force, while we still recall the Under 21 game versus Serbia where Danny Rose and other English black players were racially abused yet received no effective support from the FA. Winter also said that action against any fans’ anti-Semitism at club level was a priority.


Here’s a third thing you should be aware of. Passions run high amongst Jews about Spurs and the Y word, and there is serious disagreement within the community about its legitimacy.


And so the evening cranked up a notch or two when one Spurs fan, who from his comments regularly goes to the Lane, expressed his horror and fury. Yid, he said, had no place in football and anyone using it should be banned. He advised Levy to identify every fan using the word, ban them permanently and if necessary replace them with 30,000 Spurs who don’t use the Y word.


Extreme this may be, not to say unworkable, but the passions underlying it must be taken seriously. Certainly the Jewish Board of Deputies want action to be taken against anyone using the word, and Winter concluded his Wednesday Times column by calling for Spurs fans to take “a collective decision not to use the Y word.” The headline, which Winter did not write, puts it more starkly: “Spurs must ban own army from using the Y word.”


The alternative view was aired only towards the end, but talking to people afterwards confirmed my position that not every Spurs fan present (and this is a Jewish event held in north London so there were plenty) agreed. What the debate failed to take into account was context, the process by which Spurs fans became yids. Without this context, the debate is meaningless.


Some Spurs fans are Jewish. Spurs are a Jewish club. The two statements do not follow. Spurs fans were called yids by supporters of other clubs as an insult. Once ascribed this quality, abuse followed, in the same way that these fans would abuse Jewish people. Anti-Semitic abuse, in other words.


Tottenham were known as a club with a large Jewish following back in the twenties and thirties. The community of predominantly working-class Jews drawn to work in local Jewish-owned businesses like Gestetner and Lebus looked for assimilation and were welcome on the terraces on Saturday afternoon after schul. The decision in 1935 to play an international against Nazi Germany at White Hart Lane was seen at the time as provocative. But Spurs supporters were not called yids.


This came into widespread use from the mid to late sixties, alongside the rise of supporter culture, chanting and the growth of tribalism as a defining feature of being a young fan. It’s hard to define precisely when it began. Talking with fans for the chapter on this subject in A People’s History, ‘Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here?’ (an extract appeared in last week’s Jewish Chronicle) supporters all think they know when it began but in reality are probably talking about the first time they heard it.


I recall it as part of my everyday experience going home and away in the early to mid-seventies, part of learning what it meant to be Spurs. The insults, the chants about Auschwitz, the insidious gassing noise. This abuse was directed at Jews. Those who handed it out did not consider the proportion of Spurs fans who were or were not Jewish, they decided we were so let’s abuse the Jews, this at a time when racist and homophobic abuse was sadly part of the culture of many on the terraces.


Tottenham fans took this on board and threw it back at those who would insult us, thus nullifying the impact. And thus we became the yids. I realise there is a new generation who stand divorced from this history and know they are yids without the story arc behind it. I fully grasp the argument that says the word is not for gentiles to do anything with. It’s just that this is outweighed by my experience as a young Jewish lad searching for identity, losing myself in the sound and sway of the terraces. Often going to matches on my own, I found that I belonged here. Three and more millennia of Jewish history tell the story of ejection and banishment, of communities repudiating the Jews when it came to the crunch.  Spurs fans opened their arms and embraced me, just as their predecessors embraced a previous generation and sent the Nazis packing.


This is an extraordinarily powerful event. The Tottenham fan culture I have been part of is broadly accepting and welcome. It’s a safe place for Spurs fans to be. Again some context – West Ham fans abused their own black player, Clyde Best, the chair of the JW3 debate told how one of his own fans made abusive gestures towards him, yet I don’t see that happening at the Lane. I don’t remember the vile monkey chants directed at black players and banana throwing endemic at some grounds.


You cannot re-write history and ignore this. This is how we got to where we are today. The Y word debate is complex, sensitive and delicate. Focusing on Spurs fans will not make it go away. In the book we use an example of a tweet from an Arsenal fan, a club with at least as many Jewish fans as Spurs, who considers with glee the possibility of a sort of Hillsborough-Holocaust mash-up as WHL collapses. When fans of other clubs sing the songs, hiss and give Nazi salutes, they are abusing Jews not Spurs fans. Those clubs should take action against their own to put their house in order. Henry Winter is right to confront discrimination in football, wrong to exclude that context from his conclusion.


I’ll leave the last word with Roisin Wood. She feels that football has made progress over the past 20 years but still has a long way to go. She demands strong leadership from authorities in terms of taking action and to educate everyone in the game about anti-Semitism and all forms of discrimination. In the stands and the boardroom, it is about creating a culture where discrimination plays no part and self-regulation becomes the norm.


Kick It Out have an app to enable prompt reporting of incidents. We may need it at Spurs for a while yet. Two Gillingham fans were arrested for anti-Semitic abuse. It won’t go away even if Spurs shut up.

10 thoughts on “Kick Anti-Semitism Out of Football. But Don’t Start With Spurs Fans

  1. I was very pleased when Spurs sent out a questionnaire regarding this issue a couple of years ago but disappointed that nothing appeared to have come from it. Thanks for this thought-provoking article


  2. Thanks for your good common sense. I think you are right about dealing with the anti-semites first. For myself I have always defended ‘our’ decision to be, like Spartacus, Yids, and will retain solidarity with my fellow supporters for as long as it takes. However, I would acknowledge that a day will come when we stop these racists, and then WE must move on too, and just become Lilywhites again. I think that decision isn’t one to be taken lightly, and my take on it would be that the best place to give up being Yids would be at a huge Supporters Trust meeting – the biggest ever, where we agreed the change by noisy acclamation. …… one day.

    On a happier note, read yours and Martin’s book with great pleasure – couldn’t put it down – what a long way we’ve come! One reviewer said there were too many digs at the uninvited neighbours …. personally I thought there should have been more!


  3. When the labour party, which should stand strong against any sort of discriminatory abuse, is itself accused of anti-Semitism, but does little about it, one has to fear that things will get worse before they get better. I feel the yidarmy chant is hugely affirmative in that it total ignores whether one is Jewish by birth, religion or not at all. For me the singing of the Spurs crowd totally neutralises the abusive origins of the word. One would have hoped that along with homophobia and all forms of racism anti-Semitism had been left behind with the 20th Century, but sadly post-Brexit Britain is heading back to the dark ages with the vitriolic language and the open hatred of ‘the other’. At such times it is ever more essential that the football authorities have a zero tolerance policy to anti-Semitic chanting and it is perhaps not the time for a schism amongst Spurs supporters about the use of ‘Yidarmy’. Accept that there is strong and valid disagreement on the chant, but turn your vitriol on the anti-Semites, not those fellow supporters who have differing views on how to deal with the problem.


  4. A well written article with a good bit of history, with the YID chant the tottenham fans turned an insult into nothingness, only people who keep on raising this issue jewish or not like the SBL keep the YID word to mean an insult, which is a shame due to the fact that the whole scenario was diffused and as an insult the word did was dissolved, yes the old school find it difficult to be able to except that the spurs faithful removed the malice of the YID word, but that is exactly what happened so why try and turn the clock back and remake the insult?


  5. Whilst I do think we should very seriously consider/debate ending our use of the Y word I regard the problem as much the C (for Chelsea ) or WHU word or that of any other perpetrator. The context as said in the blog by Alan is so important and is one reason why there is some acceptance or tolerance from Jewish fans of our use of the word. The Spartacus/Brian argument.

    As stated by Alan our not using it won’t stop antisemitism in general or the use of it as a way to try and upset Spurs fans. It may do in a generation or two; well maybe seeing Spurs as a Jewish club and using antisemitism language to insult. Sadly eradicating antisemitism in the world at large will be a much longer battle. Once again, the onus and weight seems to be being put primarily on the victims rather than the perpetrators (s).

    Doyou remember that gooner storm trooper flag replete with swastika at one game at Highbury it must have been in the early 2000s? Given that arsenal were as Jewish a club as Spurs were it does suggest what complete morons we are dealing with.

    I also fail to see the argument of too many Chelsea and other clubs’ fans who pretend that they only abuse in response to the Yid army chants from Spurs fans. We know they need no pretext whatsoever. Hearing yid army sends one into such a rage one can’t but spew antisemitic abuse, losing all control of their decency and reason?

    Nah it’s there in them and society to start with and that’s got to be the first stop for KIO and Mr Baddiel and others alike. Even if deemed misguided and not our word to reclaim Spurs fans should be praised and supported for at least having tried to hit back in the past decades, which the authorities weren’t doing enough to do so in the 70s-2000 (I was priced out and then emigrated (last games at the lane 2002-2003 season so I don’t really know now and perhaps should be quiet. Mind I have had a lot of abuse (sometimes I’ve had to stand my corner as a Spurs fan and in society in general) for being a “yid” or Asian following Spurs all over over many years; I am neither Jewish nor Asian.


  6. Dear Al,

    Thanks for writing this piece. Very interesting and thoughtful as always.

    For what it’s worth I don’t ever use the Y-word when chanting or otherwise. As someone who isn’t Jewish it isn’t for me to reclaim the word.

    Also, my Dad was a 16 year old anti-fascist at the battle for Cable Street in 1936. He fought against the racists and I feel it traduces his memory and that battle to use the kind of language Mosley and the fascists were using.

    This said, targeting Spurs fans won’t work as shown by Baddiel’s hopeless campaign.

    The battle is against racism and discrimination as a whole. The FA and FIFA have been terrible about this – weak willed, complacent and indifferent.

    Football fans should police themselves. This won’t be easy – I’ve had a few heated discussions about this at games. Trying to ban the word’s use, however, will only lead to it being sung louder than ever.

    Shana Tovah Al.


  7. I am jewish,Alan, but when the term got associated with our team,I was happy about it.

    Yes there were negative connotations at times with the word Yids…but the word itself was never used negatively. It was the added insult that was.
    I do understand the club’s concern with it though.Once you open it up to be used in general,it allows the negative to seep into it.
    But still I have warm feelings when I hear it and especially when it’s connected to my wonderful team.


  8. Happy New Year and many wins for our team!

    A fan of Panathinaikos and Tottenham from Athens Greece.

    2016-10-14 18:40 GMT+03:00 TOTTENHAM ON MY MIND :

    > Alan posted: “Last week I went to a seminar on anti-Semitism in football. > Over a couple of hours, we heard from representatives of the Jewish > community, journalists, the chair of Kick It Out and a Jewish footballer, > Joe Jacobson who currently plays for Wycombe Wanderer” >


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