20 December 2018

Is the ‘Brexit’ climate
stoking up racism on
English football terraces?

What happened to peace and goodwill in this time between Hanukkah and Christmas? … figures in Murano glass in a shop window near Saint Mark’s Square in Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

Earlier today, a conversation with a colleague inevitably turned to ‘Brexit’ and to football. Let me declare from the outset that I have been an Aston Villa fan since my teens. It was never a matter of choice, it was just like greatness being laid on my shoulders as a result of time spent in Lichfield, just a few stops north of Villa Park on the train line.

But this just goes to show that identity and football loyalty are often closely linked and that each shapes the other.

In this morning’s conversation, I expressed my horror that after last night’s results, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur are through to the Carabao Cup semi-finals. The prospect of a Spurs v Chelsea clash is daunting, not because I am jealous that Villa is still struggling in another division, but because an encounter like this is inevitably going to give rise to more ugly displays of the racism that seems to be on the rise in ‘Brexit’ Britain.

Earlier this month, Chelsea suspended four fans from home games at Stamford Bridge after racist abuse targeting the Manchester City and England forward Raheem Sterling, just a week after Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had a banana skin thrown at him at a North London derby.

Last week, images on social media showed Chelsea fans who had travelled to Budapest displaying a ‘Chelsea Headhunters’ flag featuring a Nazi SS death’s head insignia, along with Northern Ireland loyalist symbols and the slogan ‘No Surrender.’ Their action could mean Chelsea is facing the partial closure of Stamford Bridge at future European ties.

On the other hand, to fans of Chelsea and many other clubs, Tottenham Hotspur is a Jewish club, and in response Spurs fans have long adopted as their own chant: ‘We are the Yids.’

Part of Spurs’ traditional support base was for long in the Jewish community in London, and since 1982, three chairmen have been Jewish businessmen with pre-existing degrees of allegiance to the club. It is said about 5 per cent of the crowd at games may be Jewish. Perhaps Arsenal has as many Jewish fans, but it has never had the same identity with the Jewish community.

Spurs supporters starting to call themselves ‘Yids’ in a forced response to pejorative and abusive racist taunts from rival supporters. Many embraced the label to render the abuse impotent.

But the word ‘Yid’ is highly controversial. Many Jewish Spurs fans support their club despite the word, not because of it. The story is told by Martin Cloake and Alan Fisher in their book A People’s History of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club: How Spurs Fans Shaped the Identity of One of the World’s Most Famous Clubs (2016) and by Anthony Clavane, a Jewish journalist with the Daily Mirror in his book, Does your Rabbi know you’re here? (2013).

The Jewish community in Tottenham began to grow early in the last century. East European Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia arrived in London from the 1880s on, and a fresh wave in 1905-1906 as the persecution intensified.

Many Jews settled in the East End, and other families then moved further north to the Tottenham area. The Jewish Dispersion Committee encouraged the move from Whitechapel and Brick Lane to areas around Tottenham Hale, where several businesses were Jewish-owned, including Lebus furniture, Gestetner, the Eagle Pencil works and Flateau Shoes.

Today, estimates say, about 2,000 Jewish people live in the East End. Many of them are elderly, and there are just three synagogues still functioning in the East End: Sandy’s Row, East London Central, also known as Nelson Street, Fieldgate Street Great Synagogue and the Congregation of Jacob, or Kehillas Ya’akov, on Commercial Road.

In time, Tottenham Hotspur became part of the lives of working-class Jewish men living in the Tottenham area, and the history of Tottenham Hotspur was linked with the lives of the new Jewish arrivals.

Jewish numbers at home matches rose after World War I, when improved public transport made it possible to be in synagogue in the morning and to catch a tram from Aldgate in time for a 2.30 kick-off at White Hart Lane. In the 1920s, the Jewish Chronicle claimed, almost all Jews who followed soccer were Spurs supporters, and the Jewish fanbase continued to grow in the 1930s. Several reports in 1935 estimated as many as 10,000 Jews in a Spurs crowd, or about one-third of the total.

In December that year, White Hart Lane was chosen the venue for an international between England and Germany, a decision seen as an affront to the Jewish community.

The swastika flew over White Hart Lane on 4 December 1935 and the German team gave a sinister Nazi salute to the crowd before kick-off. But a fan climbed onto the roof of the West Stand and tore down the Nazi flag. Perhaps it was irony, certainly it was justice, that Germany was defeated 3-0 that day.

While an Arsenal programme in the mid-1960s wished supporters well at Yom Kippur, Spurs did not follow suit until 1973. But Jewish fans still felt they belonged at White Hart Lane, although the local community was shrinking from the 1960s on.

In the late 1960s, fans from opposing clubs began chanting abuse at Spurs fan using the ‘Yid’ word. When Spurs beat Chelsea in the 1967 FA Cup Final, the antisemitic abuse from Chelsea fans was so undiluted that many were deeply disgusted.

Throughout the 1970s, opposition fans openly labelled Spurs fans as Jews, and the chants descended into extreme racism. These chants raged from ‘does your rabbi know you’re here?’ to ‘I’ve never felt more like gassing the Jews,’ and ‘Spurs are on their way to Auschwitz.’ Nazi salutes were common, and hissing sound that resounded was intended as a reminder of the gas chambers.

In response, instead of turning their back on the long history of Jewish links, Spurs fans embraced the label. On the terraces, they took to chanting, ‘We are the Yids.’

The Spurs fans do not use the word in a derogatory way, nor is an example of cultural appropriation. The Oxford Dictionary defines cultural appropriation as ‘the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.’

But this is not what is happening at White Hart Lane, for no Jew in normal circumstances would choose to self-identify with the word ‘Yid.’ Instead, Spurs fans are refusing to be demeaned or controlled by racist abuse or to accept it. They use the label imposed on them to celebrate their history, continuity and identity in a form of defence mechanism against virulent and often uncontrolled antisemitism.

In the Netherlands, Ajax Amsterdam fans have dubbed their club ‘Super Jews.’ There, the image of being a Jewish club comes from the fact that Amsterdam was called the ‘Jerusalem of the West’ before World War II, and many Jews in the city at that time were Ajax fans. Since the 1970s, Ajax has been subjected repeatedly to vile anti-Semitic hostility.

In England, the label ‘Yid’ adopted by fans still stirs intense and bitter controversy. A large number of Jewish Spurs supporters tolerate its use without using it for themselves. The Jewish comedian and writer David Baddiel says Spurs should stop using the word completely. But many fans reject his argument, and some point out that he is a Chelsea fan.

Five years ago, the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, declared, ‘There’s a difference between Spurs fans self-describing themselves as Yids and someone calling someone a Yid as an insult … Hate speech should be prosecuted – but only when it’s motivated by hate.’

The FA ruled that the word ‘Yid’ is offensive and the Metropolitan Police said all fans using the word, including Spurs supporters, could be committing an offence. It seemed no distinction would be made between Chelsea fans giving Nazi salutes and singing about gassing the Jews, and Spurs fans getting behind their team and self-identifying as ‘Yids.’

At the game between Spurs and West Ham supporters that September, songs about Hitler and gas chambers could be heard from the away crowd, and Nazi salutes were also seen. But the only fans arrested were Spurs supporters who had used the word Yid in a chant. The fans were backed by the Tottenham Hotspur Supporters’ Trust, and eventually the cases were dropped. But the episode popularised the use of the word ‘Yid’ among Spurs fans and it became an expression of pride.

On the other hand, in recent years, footage has shown Chelsea supporters chanting anti-Jewish songs on the London Underground, a group of Chelsea fans forced an Orthodox Jewish passenger to move carriages after targeting him for abuse, and a Chelsea season ticket-holder was banned for three years after making 13 Nazi salutes at Spurs fans.

There is no doubt that the climate around ‘Brexit’ debates in Britain has aided and abetted the rise of racism and antisemitism in recent months. In this in-between time, between Hanukkah and Christmas, I really doubt that the instigators of ‘Brexit’ have any sense of the dreadful prospect that is unfolding at this time of supposed ‘peace and goodwill to all.’

The Synagogue of the Congregation of Jacob on Commercial Road is one of just three synagogues still functioning in the East End in London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

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