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)

Praying in Advent with USPG
and Lichfield Cathedral
(20): 20 December 2018

‘In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth’ (Luke 1: 26) … the Archangel Gabriel in the Annunciation icons by the Bethlehem Icon School in the nave of Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

Throughout the season of Advent this year, I am spending a short time of prayer and reflection each morning, using the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency, USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), and the Advent and Christmas Devotional Calendar for 2018 being used in Lichfield Cathedral.

USPG, founded in 1701, is an Anglican mission agency supporting churches around the world in their mission to bring fullness of life to the communities they serve.

USPG is the Anglican mission agency that partners churches and communities worldwide in God’s mission to enliven faith, strengthen relationships, unlock potential, and champion justice.

Under the title Pray with the World Church, the current USPG prayer diary (7 October 2018 to 16 February 2019), offers prayers and reflections from the Anglican Communion.

The USPG Prayer Diary this week prays with reflections from Bangladesh, and began the week on Sunday with an article by Paul Senoy Sarkar, Programme Officer for Shalom, which is the development organisation of the Church of Bangladesh.

The USPG Prayer Diary:

Thursday 20 December 2018:

Pray for all minority faith groups in Bangladesh, especially the Hindu community, which is often a target for political and religious violence.

O Clavis David’ … King David (left) and King Solomon (right) in a window by Heaton, Butler and Bayne in Saint Michael’s Church, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Lichfield Cathedral Advent and Christmas Devotional Calendar:

Lichfield Cathedral’s Advent and Christmas Devotional Calendar for 2018 suggests you light your Advent candle each day as you read the Bible and pray. It suggests setting aside five to 15 minutes each day.

Buy or use a special candle to light each day as you read and pray through the suggestions on the calendar. Each week there is a suggestion to ‘eat simply’ – try going without so many calories or too much rich food, just have enough. There is a suggestion to donate to a charity working with the homeless. There is encouragement to pray through what you see and notice going on around you in people, the media and nature.

The calendar is for not only for those who use the Cathedral website and for the Cathedral community. It is also for anyone who wants to share in the daily devotional exercise. The calendar suggests lighting your Advent candle each day as you read the Bible and pray.

Today’s reflection is headed ‘O Clavis David’ (‘O Key of David’), referring to the fourth of the O Antiphons in the final week of Advent:


O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel;
qui aperis, et nemo claudit;
claudis, et nemo aperit:
veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris,
sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis


O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel;
you open and no one can shut;
you shut and no one can open:
Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house,
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death

Today’s suggested reading is Luke 1: 26-38. The reflection for today suggests:

As Mary listens to the Angel’s message and says ‘yes’ to God, pray that this Christmas the Church will say the same ‘yes’.

Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, the Church of Ireland):

Isaiah 7: 10-14; Psalm 24: 1-6; Luke 1: 26-38.

The Collect:

O Lord Jesus Christ,
who at your first coming sent your messenger
to prepare your way before you:
Grant that the ministers and stewards of your mysteries
may likewise so prepare and make ready your way
by turning the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just,
that at your second coming to judge the world
we may be found an acceptable people in your sight;
for you are alive and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit,
one God, world without end.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

we give you thanks for these heavenly gifts.
Kindle us with the fire of your Spirit
that when Christ comes again
we may shine as lights before his face;
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Yesterday’s reflection.

Continued tomorrow.