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.