The first time I hear it, it sounds small, like a secret escaping from the corner of someone’s mouth.
Then comes the response, a little louder, echoing back like a bird call.
It’s a warm, sunny Saturday afternoon in early March and I’m in a pub, the Courtfield, across from Earl’s Court Tube stop in southwest London. All around me are fans of Tottenham Hotspur, the North London-based soccer team, who will play their bitter cross-city rivals and current Premier League leaders, Chelsea, this evening at Chelsea’s stadium, Stamford Bridge, a little over a mile from here. Going for a drink — many drinks — on the way to a game is British football’s equivalent of tailgating, though it’s probably even more deeply ingrained into the match-day ritual here than standing around a parking lot, gorging on bratwurst and Budweiser. By a fairly mysterious — to me, anyway — alchemy, the Courtfield was chosen by Spurs supporters as a place to meet en masse this afternoon. The police are obviously hip to this alchemy and have stationed several officers on the corner in front of the pub.
As fans arrive at the door, they’re often met with this singsong call of “Yiddo” from those already inside; it’s part-greeting, part-password to acknowledge that, yes, you’ve found the right place and are now safely among your own kind. As drinks are consumed and kickoff time approaches, the little murmurs of “Yiddo” grow into full-throated, pub-wide chants. There’s one that involves stomping or banging out a beat (boom-boom-boom-boom-boom-buh-buh-buh-boom-“Yids!”), another that repurposes the Baha Men’s dreadful 2002 hit (“Who, who, who, who let the Yids out!”), one that opts for simplicity (“Yids! Yids! Yids! Yids!”), and the favorite, a tribal war cry (“Yid Army! Yid Army! Yid Army!”). As an American Jew, it’s both thrilling and a little unnerving. As one Jewish fan told me, “At first I thought it was like a Nuremberg rally.”
How Tottenham — a club formed by Christians, with a fan base that even by the most generous estimates probably isn’t more than 5–10% Jewish (almost certainly no more than local rivals Arsenal) — became, unofficially, at least, the Yids, is a complicated tale filled with as much conjecture as actual fact. But there’s no doubt that their identification as such has caused considerable consternation in Britain, where free speech laws are making routine fandom a potentially prosecutable offense. This fall, near the start of the current Premier League season, the Football Association and the Metropolitan Police each announced that the chanting of “Yid” was offensive to some and those who continued doing it could get ejected from a game or even arrested for violating the country’s Public Order Act, which prohibits the use of “threatening, abusive or insulting” language. (In January, the law was amended to remove the word “insulting.”) Naturally, fans dug in their heels, and over the next few matches, the chanting continued.
Though most everyone agrees that Spurs fans use the term “Yid” affectionately, many observers believe it fuels vile, anti-Semitic chanting by opposing fans. Along with fairly mild cracks about big noses and foreskin, rival supporters have been known to sing, “Spurs are on their way to Auschwitz / Sieg Heil! / Hitler’s gonna gas ‘em again,” “Adolf Hitler, he’s coming for you!”, or simply hiss to simulate gas chambers.
In the Courtfield, I meet a guy in his twenties named Harry, who, like several Spurs fans I interviewed, doesn’t want his last name printed because of fears that his opinion could cause him trouble at work or even with the police. Harry, who is not Jewish, is sitting at a table in the back corner of the pub with his brother and a friend. He was raised in North London and goes to nearly every Spurs match, home and away. He says that growing up, he never really associated the word “Yid” with Jews.
“I later came to understand the history behind the word, but to us, a Yid always just meant a Spurs fan,” he says. “Once at school, my brother actually got called a ‘dirty Yid’ by a Jewish Arsenal fan.”
In the pub, the chants and songs are not all “Yid”-related — some simply hail Spurs, others denounce Chelsea, one maligns the parentage of Chelsea star John Terry. The best of them are funny and profane. The worst cause even Spurs supporters to wince a little. As one fan put it to me, “Football is about 10 to 20 years behind the rest of society.”
But it’s changing. Money has softened some of the sport’s jagged edges, for better and worse. Campaigns against racism have been paramount — and largely successful — during the past two decades, but this effort to combat anti-Semitism has run aground amid a quagmire of complex issues and competing motivations. If nothing else, the anti-“Yid” contingent seems to have picked a fight with a group of fans just disheartened enough by the state of their national pastime to be spoiling for one.
Last season, Peter Herbert, chairman of the Society of Black Lawyers and a frequent campaigner against bigotry inside and outside of football, publicly called the “Yid” chants “casual racism,” and threatened to lodge a complaint with the Metropolitan Police if they continued. Soon after his comments, a group of Tottenham fans, in Rome to watch Spurs play against Italian powerhouse Lazio, were attacked in a pub by masked, knife-wielding assailants who reportedly hurled anti-Semitic slurs throughout the assault. At the game the following day, Lazio fans chanted, “Juden Tottenham,” waved Palestinian flags, and unfurled a “Free Palestine” banner.
During a late September game versus Chelsea, police gave one Spurs fan an official written “warning.” At the next league game, against fellow London club West Ham — whose fans, along with those of Chelsea, have been frequently singled out as the most egregious purveyors of anti-Semitic abuse — police arrested three Spurs fans for “Yid” chanting and gave out warnings to several others. The issue had quickly grown from a quirky football problem into a full-blown national debate about religion, race, identity, political correctness, the gentrification of football, and the limits of free speech. Lawyers were hired, tightly worded public statements were parsed, prominent Jewish figures in Britain were consulted, former Spurs players picked sides, and even Prime Minister David Cameron weighed in, saying he saw nothing wrong with the way Spurs fans employed the word.
The club, for its part, said very little on the subject initially, and in doing so, managed to upset nearly everyone. Early this season, it sent out a questionnaire to its season ticket holders, polling their opinions on the subject, and received more than 11,000 responses. But as the issue grew to a boil, the results of the research remained under lock and key.
Simon Felstein, Spurs press officer, declined to make anyone from the club available to be interviewed for this story and referred me to the statement that had been crafted following the arrest of the three Tottenham fans. It read, in part: “At this point in time, whilst we believe that our fans do not use the word with any deliberate intent to offend, we would once again remind our fans that the Metropolitan Police has stated that the use of the word can be considered a criminal offence…” In a move that upset many of the Tottenham faithful, the three arrested fans were banned from the stadium while their cases went to trial.
One of those fans was due to have his day in court the Monday after I arrived in London, but around the time my plane landed, the Crown Prosecution Service dropped all three cases, having determined that based on the context of the chanting, there was little likelihood of scoring convictions. The CPS made clear, however, that it was not closing the door to the possibility of further arrests or prosecutions. The club rescinded the fans’ bans, but didn’t issue any new policy on the chants.
Harry believes that the entire campaign surrounding the “the y-word” is aimed in the wrong direction. “They shouldn’t be going after Spurs supporters,” he says. “They should be focused on Chelsea and West Ham, who are the worst when it comes to the hissing gas chambers and all that.”
The Jewish population in Britain is estimated to be between 250,000 and 300,000, or roughly 0.5% of an overall populace of about 56,000,000. (By comparison, there are more than 5.4 million Jews in the U.S., about 2% of the population.) Jews had been an even smaller sliver of Britain until the late 1800s, when pogroms and oppression in Eastern Europe sent them scattering for safer ground.
Tottenham Hotspur Football Club was founded around this time, in 1882, but with no connections to the then-burgeoning Jewish community in Britain. The club’s first secretary was an Anglican church officer and its first president, a YMCA leader. The area around the club’s stadium, White Hart Lane, built in 1899, wasn’t populated with Jews back then; from the late 1800s through the early to mid-1900s, most Jewish immigrants to London settled in the East End. But according to Anthony Clavane’s history of Jews in British football, Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here?, a sizable number of those East End Jews made the trip north to Tottenham on Saturdays to see Spurs play.
“Driving or using combustion-engine-powered vehicles on the Sabbath was strictly forbidden, but catching the tram or the train was not,” Clavane writes. “The public transport network … made access to the stadium from the east and centre of London relatively easy.” For football-minded secular Jews, the tramline made going to watch Spurs after synagogue part of their Shabbat ritual.
In the post-war years, Jews began leaving the overcrowded East End and resettling, mostly in North London, some not far from White Hart Lane. Opposing fans walking up Tottenham High Road toward the stadium 50 years ago would likely see their fair share of Jewish-owned businesses, kosher butchers, and the like, further cementing the club’s image as a bastion of Jewishness.
In 1982, Irving Scholar, a Jewish businessman and longtime Spurs fan, bought the club, becoming the first in a string of Jewish owners and club chairmen, a string that continues through the present day with Tottenham’s current owner, Joe Lewis, and chairman, Daniel Levy, both Jews. In the ’90s, Spurs briefly had a Jewish manager, David Pleat, and at least a couple of Jews have suited up for the first team, most notably the Israeli Ronny Rosenthal, who spent four seasons with Spurs in the mid-’90s.
But none of these things necessarily set Tottenham apart from several other English clubs. Many of the London teams have a strong Jewish following. When Jews began leaving the East End for North London, just as many settled near Arsenal’s home ground at the time, Highbury, as did near White Hart Lane. Jews own or have been majority shareholders in many prominent English clubs including Arsenal, Chelsea, West Ham, Manchester United, and Aston Villa. Jews had run clubs including Leyton Orient and Leeds United, long before Scholar took over at Tottenham. Other teams have employed more Jewish managers and players.
The fact is Jews have never been more than a small minority of Spurs’ fan base, and the club itself has done little to woo them. In 1935, when the English national team hosted their German counterparts at White Hart Lane, the Nazi flag was flown at the stadium. In 2002, Israel hoped to play several international matches at Tottenham’s home ground, but Levy declined their request.
Today, nearly all the Jewish businesses close to White Hart Lane are gone. The area has fallen on hard times — the High Road itself was a prominent focus of the rioting that shook London in 2011 — and the demographics have changed considerably. When I spend an afternoon walking through the neighborhoods of Bruce Grove, Northumberland Park, Tottenham-Hale, and Edmonton Green near the stadium, the area seems a magnet for immigrants of many stripes — Turks, Cypriots, Ghanaians, Poles, Brazilians, Nigerians, Jamaicans — but there’s no evidence of any Jews around here anymore. The only real signs of Jewish life in Tottenham are in Stamford Hill, a neighborhood home to a visible community of Hasidic Jews, but which is nearly three miles south and a solid 45-minute walk from White Hart Lane.
Nonetheless, Tottenham’s Jewish image remains undiminished. Danny Fenton, a Jewish TV executive and Spurs supporter, says when he started attending games in the late ’70s and early ’80s, that connection was immediately evident.
“My dad took me to the 1981 FA Cup Final against Manchester City,” he says. “I remember seeing people wearing kippah and tallit at the match, not because they were religious but because they were identifying with being Tottenham fans, being Yiddos. I remember Leeds fans doing the ‘Sieg Heil’ and throwing coins at the Tottenham fans. In the late ’80s, a lot of fans used to take Israeli flags to the games. We played Arsenal in the League Cup semifinal in 1987 and they unfurled this massive swastika with ‘Arsenal Nazis’ written on it. [After that], they made a plea for Tottenham fans to stop taking Israel flags to matches.”
Most Spurs fans trace the roots of the “Yid” chants to the late ’70s. After being on the receiving end of anti-Semitic abuse for years, fans decided that instead of being victimized by shouts of “Yid” or “Yiddo,” they would own them, claim them, and shout them back with pride.
During the late ’70s and ’80s, hooliganism was at its peak. Each weekend hardcore fans of rival clubs would battle it out in stadiums, pubs, train stations — wherever they could get at each other. Racism was endemic. Black players were taunted with monkey noises, bananas were tossed on the field at them, and much, much worse. The country’s economy was in tatters. The far-right, neo-fascist political party, the National Front, was in its ascendancy and saw the disaffected youth that frequented football grounds as a prime target for its racist, virulently nationalistic, anti-immigrant message. Hardcore fans at Chelsea and West Ham, in particular, had ties to the National Front.
Daniel Wynne has been a Spurs TV commentator for 13 years, though when I meet him in central London, he emphasizes he’s speaking on his own behalf, not as a representative of the club. “A football team in England is the one consistent thing in your life,” he says. “Your parents grow older and die. You can change anything and everything, but 99 times out of 100, you can never change your football team, from cradle to grave.”
Wynne has been a season ticket holder since he was 5. His father, a refugee from Nazi-occupied Belgium, settled in Tottenham, and indoctrinated him with a love of Spurs. Wynne considers himself an observant Jew, and though he doesn’t refer to himself as a “Yid” or join in the chants, he doesn’t have a problem with them either. “When Tottenham supporters use that word, it’s reclaiming something that was used in a negative way against us, and taking it one stage further. It’s a badge of honor.”
Spurs’ image as a Jewish club has caused them to be on the receiving end of plenty of anti-Semitic abuse and in some cases — like in 2012 in Rome — actual attacks when the team plays in countries across the continent, particularly in Eastern Europe. That said, there is also anecdotal evidence that this same image sometimes attracts Jewish fans — particularly those outside Britain. Ofer Nir, who heads the Israeli Tottenham Hotspur Supporters Club, is one such case, and describes visits to White Hart Lane as if it were an extension of the Jewish homeland.
“Historically, from the Holocaust to slavery in Egypt, we always had to hide the fact we are Jewish,” he wrote in an email. “Even today when we travel to specific locations in the world — even London — we prefer to hide our religion to save ourselves trouble. But when I visited to watch Spurs, the Spurs’ supporters, none of them were Jewish but they were happy to see us, talk to us and know we are ‘True Yids.’ I’ve never felt more safe and comfortable with my identity as a Jew.”
Strangely, Spurs are not the only club to have grappled with the “Jewish” question. Others across Europe have, for varying reasons — and during various periods in their history — been tagged as somehow Jewish, most notably the Amsterdam-based Ajax, whose fans, known as “The Super Jews,” have also waved Israeli flags, endured anti-Semitic abuse, and on occasion been urged to drop the association. But the issue at Tottenham has been enhanced because fans there have formed an identity specifically around such a potent and controversial word.
In 2011, British comedian David Baddiel and his brother, TV writer-producer Ivor Baddiel, both Jewish Chelsea fans who were distressed by Spurs fans’ appropriation of the word “Yid,” teamed up with the anti-racism football organization Kick It Out to create a short video that aimed to educate fans about the origins of what they called “the y-word.” The video features several former and current Premier League stars telling viewers that “Yid” is “a racist word for Jews” that is “just as bad and just as offensive as the n-word,” and that chanting it is against the law. It connects the word directly to the Holocaust, pointing out that when Jews were being rounded up and killed in the 1930s and ’40s, “people called them Yids.”
“The whole debate was really ignited by David and Ivor Baddiel, who were offended that the Chelsea fans around them were hurling anti-Semitic abuse,” says Fenton. “So for me, it was a guilt complex from them, that they couldn’t stand the fact that their own fans were being anti-Semitic.”
The Baddiels have become the target of a lot of ire from Spurs fans. Ivor tells me that the constant focus on the fact that he and his brother are Chelsea fans is frustrating. “We did this as Jews, not as Chelsea fans,” he says. “Of course, we’re not saying it’s just Tottenham’s problem. It’s the other clubs’ fans as well.”
The goal of the “y-word” film, according to Baddiel, was not to get Tottenham fans arrested or banned from football grounds but just to raise the debate. “The whole point is to get people to discuss it and to think, It’s probably wrong, and I’ll stop saying it,” he says. “Neither of us is interested in censorship.”
At a game in early November against FC Sheriff, a Moldovan club competing against Tottenham in a cross-continent competition known as the Europa League, a lifelong Spurs fan named Tom (who also asked that his last name not be printed) was alongside his father behind one of the goals at White Hart Lane. During the second half, while singing “Yid Army” along with dozens or possibly even hundreds of others in the section around him, he was pulled from the crowd by a policeman. After they walked outside into the concourse, the policeman told Tom, who isn’t Jewish, that his chanting was offending some of the staff at White Hart Lane, and that he was being given an official warning.
“It was a piece of paper made specifically for Spurs fans and the use of the y-word,” he says. “They expected it and were going to make a show of a few of us. The copper explained that I wasn’t in any legal trouble but asked me to stop using it. It’s ironic, because when he was telling me this, what did we hear from the stadium? ‘Yid Army! Yid Army!’”
Tom was concerned about potential repercussions from the warning, specifically that it could show up when potential employers did a background check on him — “If someone sees I was written up by police for anti-Semitic abuse, that makes me look like an anti-Semite, and I’m the opposite” — though there’s no indication it will. But mostly, he was pissed off.
“It’s down to the evolution of language,” he says. “You could bring up the comparisons of the way the black community reclaimed the n-word and the gay community reclaimed the word ‘queer’ or ‘fag.’ We started saying it because we weren’t ashamed to be associated with the Jewish community. In that respect, I see it as anti-fascist.”
Of course, the difference here is that most Spurs fans aren’t Jewish. So isn’t this more the equivalent of a stadium full of white people chanting, “We’re the n***ers!”? Or, perhaps more realistically, a stadium full of non-Native Americans cheering, “Go Redskins!”?
Originally derived from Yiddish, and still used among Yiddish speakers as a word for “bloke” or “buddy,” “Yid” means different things to different Jews, often depending of their age and where they’re from. Growing up as a Jew in suburban Detroit in the 1980s, I felt little overt anti-Semitism. Sure, I heard occasional jibes about being a penny-pincher, and after my non-Jewish girlfriend took me to the decidedly Waspy country club where her family were members, I recall my mother asking if they made me wear a yellow armband. But when it was present at all, anti-Semitism was mostly of the nod-and-wink variety; suburban politesse won out over centuries-old prejudice. As such, the word “Yid” meant almost nothing to me. I can recall the word “Jew” being spat at me with some barely concealed bile on a few occasions, but never “Yid.”
The term has perhaps more bite for Jews who grew up in the U.K. I meet Raymond Simonson in his office at the Jewish Community Center, an attractive, glass-fronted building recently erected on a busy street in the North London neighborhood of Finchley. Simonson is the executive director of the JCC and a hardcore Spurs fan. He believes Tottenham supporters need to divorce themselves from their “Yid” identity, though he admits feeling an emotional pull toward it.
“As a teenager, and probably even in my early twenties, it’s something I loved,” he says. “When we had Ronny Rosenthal, there was a song that used to be chanted about him to the tune of ‘Hava Nagila.’ To hear 20 to 30,000 non-Jews singing that song, I loved it!”
Simonson’s earliest memories of Spurs involve his late father, who’d been going to games since the 1930s. “When the ‘Yid’ stuff started in the ’70s, ’80s, he winced every time that chant went up, even in a friendly non-anti-Semitic way,” he says. “I saw him often put his hands up [to his ears].” Simonson’s father had lived through a very different Jewish reality in Britain. During the 1930s, “Yid” was the abusive epithet of choice hurled at Jews. Oswald Mosely, who headed the British Union of Fascists — sometimes known as the Blackshirts — famously led a march through the Jewish East End in 1936 resulting in rioting and violence that became known as the Battle of Cable Street.
“My dad was a teenager, working class, in the East End, and was there with his friends, whilst these Blackshirts shouted the word ‘Yid’ in that context,” Simonson says. “It was daubed on doors. He experienced a huge amount of anti-Semitism — to the point where he changed his name so it was less Jewish-sounding when he was in the Navy in World War II — and that was the context [in which] the word was used. So I just thought, Why would I join in a chant when I know it’s not just him, but it has that effect on others?”
Mark Gardner, communications director for the Community Security Trust, an organization that monitors anti-Semitism in Britain, says use of the word “Yid” has diminished considerably over the years. “How often does the word feature in anti-Semitic hate crimes that are reported to CST? Hardly ever.” But that’s not an argument in favor of allowing Spurs fans to brand themselves with it, he says. Rather, it’s all the more reason why the idea of Spurs fans “reclaiming” it holds no water.
“Is it an active word that we need to reclaim from anti-Semites?” he says. “Not really. Nobody’s asking for it to be reclaimed. Their use of the word introduces it into an arena that it would’ve been entirely absent from. Regardless of what Spurs fans were doing it for, when it gets chanted back, it looks, it sounds, it is anti-Semitic. It’s a large section of the football crowd, making, for example, a hissing noise for gas chambers. All of a sudden, it’s as if the only acceptable racism in football grounds is anti-Semitism.”
On the surface, a chorus of fans singing, “Adolf Hitler, he’s coming for you!” — or as West Ham fans coyly chanted earlier this season, after being warned that references to Hitler would get them ejected and possibly arrested, “We can’t say his name / He’s coming for you” — certainly looks and sounds like anti-Semitism, but however horrific such chants are, for most fans, is the impulse behind them really a hatred of Jews or simply a hatred of Spurs? According to Martin Cloake, who has written many books about Spurs, several of which are sold in the club’s official store, even the uglier chants from opposing fans are part of a tradition of working-class banter that has always been a part of football.
“This is where it goes onto quite tricky ground because when you say some of this is robust street humor, that excuse has always been used to excuse sexism and racism,” he says. “You have to be careful with that, but my experience is that that is exactly where it did come from. Where I grew up, you would call people all things under the sun, and then you’d sit down, have a pint or carry on playing football in the playground and it’d be forgotten.”
As another Spurs supporter put it to me, these Nazi chants and salutes aren’t anti-Semitism so much as rank stupidity. “You think of history and the sacrifices made by everybody who fought against the Nazis and you think, Why in god’s name would you want to do that gesture? If not for the millions of people who died in concentration camps, but also for your grandfathers who died in the war.”
But a few people I spoke to felt that feelings about Tottenham were inextricably tied up in complicated attitudes toward Jews. As Fenton points out, “If you ask Arsenal who they hate most, they say Tottenham. If you ask West Ham who they hate most, they say Tottenham. If you ask Chelsea who they hate most, they say Tottenham. I think a lot of that was probably borne out of anti-Semitism. They all saw Tottenham as the flash, nouveau-riche Jew boys.”
Simonson believes anti-Semitism remains a quiet but insidious presence in British society — “the chattering classes, who might not make comments around a dinner table about someone who is black, might about the Jewish stuff” — partly because Jews in Britain have historically prized assimilation above all else. “We are a tiny percent of the population,” he says. “We always learned from right about the time of the First World War onwards, keep your head down. The Jewish community here keeps quiet and doesn’t make a fuss.”
The overarching point here is clear: Jewish Spurs fans who see nothing wrong with the “Yid” chants are, even unwittingly, continuing this history of passivity and assimilation, of valuing Englishness over Jewishness. In doing so, they are also giving a pass to opposing fans who use the “Yid” chants as justification for worse behavior.
“It muddies the water,” Simonson says. “People say, ‘If we stopped singing it, [opposing fans] wouldn’t suddenly stop being anti-Semitic,’ and they’re right, unfortunately. But it means we can take 100% the moral high ground.”
Simonson also questions the noble origins of Spurs’ “Yid” attachment. “These weren’t people who were saying, ‘That’s a nice compliment! Jews are a lovely race!’” he says. “When people say, ‘Oh, it’s great because they’re defending the Jews.’ No, they’re not. They don’t love Jewish culture. They’re not big lovers of Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, and schmaltz herring! The other thing is, it’s bloody patronizing when people say, ‘You should be grateful because these thugs are doing something noble in protecting you, you poor, weak, nerdy Jew.’”
As Jonathan Wilson (not to be confused with Guardian soccer scribe Jonathan Wilson), whose recent memoir, Kick and Run, details his experience growing up as a Jewish Spurs fan in North London, explains, “It’s simply a tribal identification. The same people who are chanting ‘Yid’ in support of Tottenham, were it not for a sort of accident of geography and allegiance would be chanting it at Tottenham.”
Regardless of the intentions of either Spurs fans or their antagonists, there is an argument that punishing Spurs fans is essentially blaming the victims. There should be a meaningful distinction between someone cheering on the “Yid Army” and someone singing the praises of the Fuhrer. Peter Herbert of the Society of Black Lawyers, who has been one of the most vocal and public campaigners for doing away with the “Yid” chants completely, believes that such logic misses the point.
“If there’s a crowd of people walking past and I hear the n-word, I am hurt by that,” he says. “I may be hurt slightly less if I know it’s a black person saying it to a friend, but I still won’t be happy. The lowest common denominator is, ‘Is there anyone who is or who is likely to be offended?’ It doesn’t matter what your intent is. It’s the impact on the victim which should be primary.”
A spokesperson for the Metropolitan Police confirmed that even in light of the dropped prosecutions of the three Spurs supporters, that remains the department’s policy: “Where threatening or abusive comments are made in the presence of somebody who is harassed, alarmed, or distressed, then we will take action. To achieve a successful prosecution we would require the victim of the behaviour to make a complaint and a statement.”
If this is indeed the standard going forward, there could be trouble on the horizon for proud Spurs “Yiddos.” In mid-March, the club finally released the results of the poll it had done of its season ticket holders, and while an overwhelming majority (nearly 75%) were in favor of continuing the “Yid” chants, a small but statistically significant portion of fans (about 5%) were uncomfortable with its use. If any chose to air their complaints to police on match day, presumably, the arrests will resume.
This speaks to the difference between free speech laws between the U.S. and England. It’s been persuasively argued that having an entire stadium of people doing the “Tomahawk Chop” — as is routine at Atlanta Braves games, among others — is patently offensive to Native Americans, but all of those fans are constitutionally protected in their right to do so. While the NFL has been recently making noise about possibly penalizing players for using the n-word, no one is talking about arresting them for it. As Larry Walters, an attorney and free speech expert puts it, “The First Amendment protects even the most vile and despicable speech. Typically that is the kind of speech that needs to rely on the First Amendment for protection.”
Britain’s Public Order Act is not so forgiving. As Herbert points out to me, Section 5 of the act makes clear that context doesn’t matter, only the victim’s distress, and that’s the way he thinks it should be. He’s not generally in favor of prosecuting fans for chanting “Yid” — he’d rather see teams docked points in the standings if their fans engage in persistent abusive behavior — but if it takes the threat of arrest in order to change their minds on this, that might be the only way forward.
“It’s about regulating behavior,” he says. “The bottom line is just shut up. If it causes offense, keep your mouth shut. You’re still enjoying the football, so just shut up.”
Back at the Courtfield, it’s getting close to game time and all the Spurs fans are now gathered on the street outside of the pub, surrounded by police officers. This isn’t a mass arrest, just another fairly regular feature of match days in Britain: the escorted march to the stadium. I walk alongside Harry, the fan I’d met inside, and roughly 300 others as we — by now a fairly boozy and boisterous bunch, yet largely well-behaved — are marshaled down Earl’s Court Road, through some quite lovely neighborhoods in southwest London. The chants of “Yid Army!” and “Who let the Yids out!” are in full voice, and seem particularly apropos — perhaps as a warning — as this heaving swell of humanity walks and claps and drinks and shouts its way toward Stamford Bridge. A few dozen yellow-vested police officers and a string of large white police paddy wagons form a line of demarcation between the group and the rest of society, and serve as a caution.
Harry tells me that the “Yid” chanting had grown a little muted over the last few months as people fretted about getting arrested, but today, they seem unshackled. I ask a policeman walking near me if they’ve gotten any specific instructions regarding the “Yid” chants today and he tells me his only real job is to get everyone to the stadium without incident.
As we near Stamford Bridge, the sides of the road are lined with Chelsea supporters. A few fire back their own chants, but nothing anti-Semitic. Most just gawk or hold up cell phones to capture the advancing march for posterity. The Tottenham supporters are all funneled to a gate reserved just for them, and then shepherded into the “away section” in the corner behind one of the goals. This is de rigueur for most football grounds here, a legacy of the hooligan violence that has mostly been eradicated from the sport. The section is surrounded on all sides by lines of police officers and club stewards.
The Tottenham fans sing for almost the entire match. When the first Spurs player gets off the bench to start warming up with a jog down the sideline toward our section, he’s greeted with chants of “Yiddo! Yiddo! Yiddo!” The player, Nacer Chadli — who is, incidentally, a Muslim — smiles and claps toward the crowd in appreciation. Good plays on the field are often similarly hailed with choruses of “Yiddo!” In the second half, a group of a dozen or so Spurs fans have to be physically restrained by stewards and police from climbing over a barrier to get at Chelsea fans in the next section. It’s unclear what precipitated the outburst, but it doesn’t appear to have anything to do with anti-Semitism. Nonetheless, once the Spurs’ faithful notice the fracas, there are immediate cries of “Yid Army! Yid Army!”
Beyond the “Yid” chants and the expected barrage of Chelsea insults, there is one other chant that has become a particular favorite this season: “We’re Tottenham Hotspur / We’ll sing what we want.” As Cloake, the author of those Spurs-related books, tells me, this chant, as well as the entire effort to hang onto this “Yids” identity is rooted, at least somewhat, in “typical English bloody-mindedness.” “There’s that resentment of being told how to behave,” he says. “A perceived sense that there’s a sort of middle classification of the game that’s going on.” The largely working-class fans who have traditionally been the sport’s core audience feel like they’re being priced out of the game, or relegated to being inconsequential pawns in the Premier League’s quest to become a dominant global brand.
The irony is that a big part of what sells the Premier League in places like the U.S. is exactly the atmosphere that some feel is getting quashed. Last year, NBC paid $250 million for the American rights to televise Premier League games — and between their various channels, they generally televise them all — but surely NBC executives would be uncomfortable having to explain to their viewers and advertisers why a stadium full of people are chanting “Yids!” or, worse, singing about Auschwitz, on a sunny Saturday afternoon. The TV commentators, rarely, if ever, take note of specific chants going around a stadium, and the sound is usually mixed in a way that unless you know what you’re listening for, you can’t much make out anything more than an amorphous sea of voices. Regardless of whether this is part of an actual concerted effort to sanitize the game for a global audience, the perception that it is has created a definite backlash.
“Since this campaign to stop the ‘Yids’ thing being used, it is probably sung more often than it ever was when I first started going to games,” says Cloake. As another Spurs fan explained to me: “A lot of people are holding on to this term because it’s one thing that can’t be commercialized, can’t be put on a mug or a T-shirt.”
Listening to fans chant it in the pub, the streets, and at Stamford Bridge certainly makes me question the practical plausibility of ever wresting this word from them. Some I spoke to told me they’d never stop saying it. That said, times and traditions do change: Twenty years ago, these same English football crowds were making monkey noises at black players. (Vestiges of the bad old days remain, though: In April, Chelsea fans reportedly shouted racist abuse and made Nazi salutes while clashing with fans of Paris Saint-Germain in the lead-up to the game between the two teams in Paris.)
Simonson, for one, doesn’t believe arresting Spurs supporters is the answer to this problem. He suggests trotting out famous former players before and during home games to urge the crowd to drop the “Yid” chants. But ultimately, he says, the goal shouldn’t simply be the elimination of the chants, but actually divorcing Tottenham from its long-running identity as a “Jewish” club.
“As much as I loved that as a teenager, it doesn’t bring anything positive to Jews,” he says. “My problem is that if you link Spurs with Jews, then hatred of Spurs will turn into hatred of Jews. When it becomes easy for someone, anywhere in the year 2014, in Britain, to shout chants like that, whatever the context, when it becomes unchallenged, we’ve got a problem.” (Two weeks after the Chelsea game, a Southampton fan was arrested for shouting anti-Semitic abuse during the Southampton–Tottenham match at White Hart Lane.)
Wilson, who isn’t particularly thrilled with the chants, has come to accept them. “It’s a fait accompli,” he says. “In the best of all possible worlds, it would all fade away and everyone would be nice to Jews. But given that it’s not going to happen, I’m not sure it’s doing more harm than good. The word itself, simply through repetition and this chanting has lost the power to disturb.” If nothing else, the generation of Jewish fans for whom the word is forever associated with fascists and the horrors of the Holocaust are — to put it indelicately — dying off. That, as much as anything else, may eventually settle this debate.
Whatever the power of the chants might be, positive or negative, they do little to help the team itself against Chelsea. After a solid, scoreless first half, Spurs fall to pieces in the last 45 minutes, giving up four goals and failing to even threaten to score one of their own, in a lopsided and embarrassing defeat. Far from dampening the spirit of its supporters, the series of second-half calamities only seems to inspire louder, more fervent chants from our corner of the stadium. It’s as if their unfolding misfortune and sense that the cause is lost has actually strengthened their devotion to it.
Spurs’ recent — and not-so-recent — history on the field is filled with similar disappointments. While they have constant aspirations to be — as well as a self-image as — an elite club, they haven’t topped the league since 1961. They did win five FA Cups between 1962 and 1991, but their performances in the league since then have been consistently underwhelming. Yet, they’re far from hapless. In most seasons, they’re competitive, usually finishing in the top half of the standings, often close enough to the frontrunners to inspire great expectations for the following season, expectations that almost always go unfulfilled.
The 2012–2013 season was no exception: After a wobbly start, the team — bolstered by the performance of the league’s most dominant player, Gareth Bale — finished strongly, going unbeaten in its last eight league games to finish fifth, exactly one point behind Arsenal and one point away from qualifying for the Champions League. (The Champions League, a tournament between the most successful teams across Europe, brings in dollops of extra money for a club and is considered a crown jewel of world football.)
Tottenham’s failure to qualify for the second straight year meant that in the offseason they were more or less forced to sell their best player, Bale, who wanted the opportunity to play against the world’s best. Still, after using the money from the Bale sale to pick up seven new players, hopes were high for this season. However, a dreadful first few months resulted in their manager getting fired, and even though they’ve improved since then, they once again look like a lock to finish somewhere between fifth and seventh in the league, trailing hated London rivals Arsenal and Chelsea, per usual. It kind of makes you understand why their fans are still singing vicious songs calling former Spurs star Sol Campbell a “Judas cunt” more than a decade after the player signed with rival Arsenal: This is a club clutching at what might’ve been.
Two days after the Chelsea game, I meet a guy named Matt Lyons in a grand old pub built in a former bank in Central London. Lyons is a Jewish Spurs fan who is proud to call himself a “Yid.”
“The Sol Campbell thing, Spurs fans know why he left,” he says. “We were shit, and Arsenal were better. He went and won the league with them. Deep down, all football fans want and hope and wish and pray that the players feel for the club the way they do. English football is built on that working-class ethos, and in a way we’re just moving over to that realization that it’s a business.”
As ticket prices rise, a team’s best players are sold off, stadium experiences are tailored to the moneyed classes, and global TV contracts and merchandising rights seem to be a club’s highest priority, fans quite naturally cast about, wondering what happened to the team and the game they loved.
“It’s almost like we’re clinging onto something, anything,” says Lyons. “If it means we have to hold on to a hate word, it’s the only thing we’ve got from the past that fuses everyone together. If we lose that, who are we?”
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