The Y Word, Spurs and Changing Times

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.

10 thoughts on “The Y Word, Spurs and Changing Times

  1. Gosh Alan, what an excellent piece and, for all the very personal reasons you’ve mentioned, I agree. I have sung along with the chants but my son won’t and he’s one of the reasons why I won’t be upset to see it disappear. I’ve written about it but not as eloquently as this. Well done and keep up the good work…Solly

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  2. Alan, yep been there heard the abuse sung the various chants and felt part of the whole. My son doesn’t sing it anymore , for very personal reasons. After the clubs release of its study I decided to stop joining in on Sunday which was very difficult at first, maybe because it felt like the whole south stand was chanting. It stopped pretty much alongside our terrible display. On further reflection I’m questioning wether my reaction to the defeat and the chanting were linked. Anyway onward we go. Of course someone has to come up with a new chant , at least one, that all Spurs fans whatever their creed , colour or gender or sexual orientation can join in with in a mass celebration of our great heritage!

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  3. A very worthwhile and insightful piece.
    I’m not Jewish and in my opinion if it makes one Jewish supporter unhappy we should stop.
    While we’re at it, let’s also address the section of our fan base (probably those chanting the Y word the loudest!) who choose to attack the club owners with hateful online Anti Semitic comments.
    This is not a judgement on the merits of Levy, Lewis or ENIC (good or bad) but some of the adjectives and phrases I read on transfer deadline day (by people who know they are Jewish) …..money grabbing, tight fisted, shysters, only interested in making a Shekel, vermin etc… made very uncomfortable reading.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Your first sentence sums it up for me. As a supporter of mixed Jewish heritage I used to enjoy these chants although I’d find it difficult to explain exactly why. Times change, antisemitism is on the rise, Time to move on.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. First thing to say is that it was a noble idea, but it didn’t work. That’s the problem with lots of good ideas: they don’t actually work in the real world!

    Spurs supporters did the ‘I Claudius’ move but the haters just went on hating. So we should stop because it is unacceptable if it offends just one of our supporters. I am totally unconcerned about offending David Baddiel, because he hasn’t even the courage to acknowledge that a number of his fellow Chelsea supporters are really vile racists and need to be challenged. On the other hand I think that Chelsea the club have recently understood our grievance and are taking on their supporters with intent – we need to see the same level of action from West Ham & the Arse. It is just SO lazy to put out a statement and pretend that that solves the matter. If other clubs take a REAL stand then I am prepared to move on. In any case I don’t use the term any more. Spurs should go to these clubs and ask for more.

    Also I want to agree with Myoyu Mal about the stand up nonsense: I don’t hate other teams (much) and so I don’t stand up – some of my best friends support other teams and so it’s ALL ridiculous! We have to find a way back to enjoying football and not treating at as a repository for all our emotions, good and bad.

    Thanks for all you have written, Alan; as ever you speak so eloquently for me and others, and I appreciate it.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks for your well considered comments Alan. I consider the ‘Y’ word to be just as offensive as the ‘N’ and the ‘P’ word. Spurs fans that insist on singing it only encourage the racist responses from some opposition fans. They may see it as a sign of solidarity, but I suspect the majority do not understand the historical significance of the word, especially as they are not Jewish.

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  6. A brilliant, thoughtful debate. I’d like to share a couple of experiences: I remember at Ipswich just after the Falklands conflict had started that home supporters ran on to the pitch at full-time and abused Spurs fans about it. Almost as a knee-jerk reaction some started singing ‘Argentina’ in response, which lead to a loud debate on the train home about where supporter loyalty begins and ends.
    Similarly, in the ’70’s, Chris Houghton and Garth Crooks would take abuse when Spurs were away and the fans would cheer their every touch in response; the following week the roles would be reversed and opposing players would suffer the abuse.
    I used to think this was just the way it was in football. Even though it could make me feel uncomfortable [I grew up in an Irish sectarian household] I laughed at some of the songs. Now I think things are a bit uglier and humour – even if it is truly the motivation – risks making things worse. I agree, time to move on.

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  7. From an Atheist’s point of view, I feel uncomfortable about our Club being labelled or directly connected with any religion.

    I also feel very uncomfortable for those who may be offended at what they might comprehend as hi-jacking ownership of their own personal identity.

    The Club should be seen to be secular – respecting but neither endorsing nor deprecating any religion.

    I recognise the history and I know that many fans will defy the Club’s request but I hope the Club continues to find ways to persuade fans to phase it out and move on. Your concept of focus groups to educate fans may be a good way to continue the effort.

    🙃

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