I haven’t altered my view on the use of the Y word by Spurs fans since I first heard the abuse directed towards us, in my case going away in the early seventies. I am Jewish, I accept that Spurs fans use it in the context of their support for the club but I choose not to use it to describe myself. I am a Spurs fan, not a y*d. But times are changing.
First things first. This is not easy, and if you are looking for straightforward, off-the-peg answers, you won’t find them here. This is a highly complex arena, a social stew blending intricate, contested expressions of fandom, individual identity and the construction of behaviour over time. It’s not simple, yet some proposed solutions seem simplistic.
We’re talking about this again because the club have published the results of their lengthy consultation exercise about Spurs fans’ use of the Y word. I welcome their response. They’ve produced a comprehensive and insightful report that appreciates the nuance and subtlety of the debate, avoids dogmatism and gives proper weight to different perspectives. Frankly, I wish they adopted a similar approach to every aspect of fan engagement.
They take a reasoned position as a way forward, that supporters and the club should engage with the debate to think again about our use of the word and why we use it, without taking anything away from our loyal support and our pride in being a Spurs fan. At this point, this is a sound, pragmatic approach. Whatever our views on the use of the term, we cannot get into the contorted position back in 2013, where the police randomly arrested a few Spurs fans for the use of the word while simultaneously the crowd chanted it and rival fans abused us.
So a few things need to be said and understood. Firstly, do not speak on behalf of “Jewish Spurs fans” because it’s really not that simple. I took part in one of the focus groups. I was moved by the depth of feeling, fans’ passion for the club, how this interacted with their beliefs and the sheer emotional effort expended on finding a way forward. I was also surprised by the breadth of views, and this is a topic I thought I knew about. I’m not breaking the bounds of confidentiality because anonymised transcripts published by the club.
Some objected, many spoke eloquently about their personal conflicts, getting behind the team yet hearing this word that in other contexts conveys horror and violent prejudice. And how do we Spurs fans explain this to our children, where a celebration of our heritage conflicts with our passion for our club, both of which we wish to pass on?
Then again, one fan who described himself as extremely religious raised no objections to the Y-word used in this context by Spurs fans, context being the operative word here. Another with family members killed by Nazis was similarly comfortable with it, another with the same experience vehemently opposed. A young woman who had married into a Spurs family, a newcomer perspective, said, well of course this is Ok, the meaning in this context is clear. For another view, have a look at Dan Merriman’s wonderful piece about his family trip to Leipzig.
Then, we cannot escape the history or pretend this does not have an impact both on the debate and on us as individuals. In our People’s History of Tottenham support and supporters, Martin Cloake and I examined the link between the club and the Jewish community, which stretches back to around 1910, when large numbers of the predominantly working-class, male Jewish community who moved to Tottenham and the surrounding areas found not just entertainment on the terraces on a Saturday afternoon after schul but also a welcome, and safety. Here, they could take part.
We know that the use of the term to describe Spurs supporters came first from rival fans as a form of abuse, and was then adopted to neutralise the abuse and become a symbol of pride. I understand the debate around whether it is legitimate for non-Jews to adopt this word, whether or not it is to nullify abuse. The fact is though, they did. We can’t change that. Jews have a long history of exclusion, except here, it became a powerful form of inclusion. Going home and away in the seventies, often on my own, this truly meant something. Spurs fans did not join in the abuse. This is fundamental to my formative experience as Spurs fan and of the Y word. I was there, I felt it, and if it looked ridiculous to see gentiles wearing a kippah and prayer shawl, or carrying an Israeli flag, it was part of the celebratory carnival culture of being a Spurs fan.
This element of supporter culture is acknowledged but too readily dismissed. It’s significant rather than trivial. That said, the meaning of historical events is not static. The context has changed. To me, this is real, something I carry with me as part of my identity as Spurs fan, but the majority of fans have not lived through that experience. Martin and I heard from many people, Spurs fans and others, that until they read our book, they had little sense of the history of the use of the word. In other words, the word has become divorced or distanced from the lived experience where it originated.
Also, more recently the debate around discrimination, immigration and statues is raising awareness of the meaning and interpretation of discriminatory behaviour and language in society. We are questioning the use of language as part of this, so it is right and proper to re-evaluate our use of the word, to judge whether it is appropriate now. Context is changing. We cannot isolate ourselves from the context of society, however much football desperately wants to, for example Raith Rovers’ justification of signing Goodwillie on the grounds that it was a footballing decision.
The club make a valuable contribution to this by engaging in the discussion and being a source for knowledge. You can’t tell a football crowd what to sing, but fans can now make informed decisions and make their mind up. That’s the right place to be at the moment.
What this doesn’t do is adequately address anti-Semitism in football. Spurs fans are the focus of a one-sided debate that neglects displays of naked, vicious anti-Semitism from some rival fans. Songs about Spurs on their way to Auschwitz, gassing sounds and Nazi salutes is abuse towards jews.
I refuse to accept the notion that somehow this is the responsibility of Spurs fans because we use the Y word. Think of all the things that might represent Jewish culture, even if you wanted to have a go. The chosen form of abuse is about Jews dying. It’s not football banter, which goodness knows gets bitter at times. If Spurs fans stopped using the Y word tomorrow, the rival fans who choose to abuse us in this way aren’t going to stop, and it is ludicrous to suggest that it will. The minority who behave this way do so because they see no harm in being anti-Semitic, or they want to express their prejudice under cover of the relative anonymity of a football crowd.
Therefore, football has to step up its game if it truly wants to end anti-Semitism. In the Netherlands, there’s a corresponding debate around Ajax as a so-called “Jewish club”, although whether there is any fraternal solidarity between us is dubious, judging from the scenes outside the Lane a couple of years back. There, rival fans, Feyenoord being the main ones, are encouraged to confront their attitudes by attending educational groups, supported by their club, not Ajax. These groups examine the meaning of chants and behaviour and the discriminatory attitudes that underpin them. I’d like to see this happen in England. Chelsea are already doing good work in this area, other clubs need to follow suit, supported by the FA and the PL, as part of their work with the football community. It’s a fine line between asking Spurs fans to re-evaluate our relationship with the Y word and using this to cover up inaction elsewhere.
So there are no easy answers, but that shouldn’t stop us trying to find a way forward, beginning by finding out more about what this all means, including the history, and what is personal and meaningful to us. Spurs should lead on the work with other clubs and the authorities to address anti-Semitism in football. Remember that part of the contemporary context is a steep rise in anti-Semitic incidents across the country. Maybe think about what some of things mean to you and make your own mind up.