Spurs and Anti-Semitism

Leo Benedictus

You won’t hear the word ‘yid’ sung at most Tottenham Hotspur matches. You’ll hear it sung at all of them. If you know which tunes to listen for, you’ll hear it whenever Spurs are on TV. The club has been Jewish-owned since 1982, and its Jewish associations go back to the 1920s. Most Spurs fans aren’t Jewish, but the story goes that when rivals began to target the Jewish minority with ‘yid’ songs in the 1960s, the rest ‘reclaimed’ the word on their behalf. Since then, every Spurs fan, and player, has been ‘a yid’. (I support Spurs and I’m not Jewish, although my father is.)

Last week, the World Jewish Congress condemned football fans for using ‘yid’, ‘either as a self-designated nickname or as a slogan against rivals’, because it carries ‘a distinctly pejorative and anti-Semitic message’. It doesn’t always carry it, obviously. The WJC statement itself uses the word seven times.

The best case against Spurs’ fans use of the word was put forward in 2011 by the comedian and writer David Baddiel, a Jewish Chelsea fan, who with his brother Ivor heard and tolerated the chanting of ‘yid’ against Spurs for many years. It was ‘banter you put up with’, he thought. Then one day a man behind him started shouting ‘Fuck the Yids! Fuck the Jews!’, which would give anybody pause for thought.

The brothers made a film about the Y-word. ‘I don’t want to sanitise football,’ Baddiel said. ‘Football has to involve aggression.’ He didn’t demand mass arrests in the stands. He asked only that fans, including Spurs fans, think carefully about the consequences of their chanting. In his view, ironic ‘yid’ chants make abusive ones more likely.

In autumn 2013, the Metropolitan Police changed its policy on ‘yid’, and began warning Spurs fans not to sing it. They did anyway, and chanted ‘We’ll sing what we want!’ as well. Three were arrested. But the following March, the Crown Prosecution Service declined to prosecute because ‘although the same words used in other contexts could in theory satisfy the criteria for “threatening, abusive or insulting”, it is unlikely that a court would find that they were in the context of the three particular cases in question.’

Shortly afterwards, the club released the findings of a survey, which showed that a large majority of its Jewish (73 per cent) and non-Jewish (74 per cent) fans thought that ‘yid’ songs should be allowed. Just 6 per cent and 4 per cent said the songs made them feel uncomfortable. In short, the songs are legal and offend hardly anybody. The same cannot be said for Chelsea’s, which continue, bringing us back to where Baddiel came in.

Some Chelsea fans, I think, have begun to use ‘yid’ to mean ‘Spurs fan’, an insult certainly, but nothing to do with anyone’s religion or ethnicity. How could it be, when most of the people they shout it at aren’t Jewish? For others, it still means ‘Jew’, so they don’t shout it at all, unless they intend to be anti-Semitic. In practice it is hard to know, let alone to prove, which people are which. The hardcore anti-Semites have to make it painfully obvious, like the Chelsea fans who took a flag with an SS symbol to a recent match in Budapest.

‘I think context is the key thing,’ said one respondent to the Spurs survey, ‘which determines if any word is offensive, or not.’ If the targets of a racial slur use it as a symbol of belonging, then that’s what it becomes. Meanings can shift the other way, too. Hissing is an innocuous imprecation, fit for pantomimes, until you find out that rival fans do it at Spurs games to evoke the gas chambers. Throwing a banana skin at a black player – as a Spurs fan did to Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in December – is different from throwing an apple core. (‘The racial element was there,’ a magistrate said, handing down a fine and a banning order.)

If you think you can tell anti-Semitism from ‘banter you put up with’, I recommend watching a clip of Chelsea fans singing ‘Who’s that team we call the Chelsea’, which culminates in the line ‘Tottenham are a load of yids’. Do these people really hate Jews? Maybe. They certainly don’t seem to care what any passing Jew might think. On the other hand, how literally should we take the words of any football song? For years, Spurs fans sang that Arsène Wenger was a paedophile, without ever thinking that he was. Swear words all have meanings, but that isn’t really what they mean.

Another problem with the Baddiel argument is that it seems to imply the targets of anti-Semitic abuse are to blame for inciting their abusers. Philip Spencer, a professor of Holocaust studies and a Spurs season ticket holder, is comfortable with Tottenham’s ‘yid’ songs, and will have none of this. ‘Nobody is enabled by what Jews do, or what supporters of Jews do,’ he told a Tottenham podcast. Indeed, in its demand for action against the word, the WJC finds itself praising the efforts of Chelsea, whose fans chant anti-Semitic abuse, and condemning Spurs, where they don’t.


  • 11 January 2019 at 11:27pm
    R. B. says:
    "The WJC statement itself uses the word seven times."

    Mentions it, surely.

  • 12 January 2019 at 8:39am
    Graucho says:
    Speaking as a life long Spurs supporter, losing to Arsenal is far more distressing than childish chanting. Yid, a simple corruption of Jude is apparently to be invested with the same level of political incorrectness by the determined to take offense brigade as the N word a simple corruption of negre meaning black. One despairs at the amount of human effort wasted on gesture politics.

    • 12 January 2019 at 6:54pm
      Joe Morison says: @ Graucho
      A word’s etymology, or any other rational dissection of it, is irrelevant to its capacity to wound. If a person has grown up hearing a word used only as an expression of contempt and hatred, they do not have to be part of the ‘determined to be offended brigade’ to find the use of word painful.

    • 13 January 2019 at 1:23pm
      gracelyn7 says: @ Graucho
      It's interesting that Arsenal, which also has strong Jewish support and associations (ownership), does not attract the same vituperation from opposing fans which is a relief...but why not.

  • 12 January 2019 at 7:41pm
    Marmaduke Jinks says:
    Thank goodness for the good sense in this article. Football fans shout and chant all sorts of abuse without most of its crossing the line into illegality. Mostly it is simply insulting and provocative (and often humourous).
    As the author says no-one actually believed that Wenger is a kiddie-fiddler.
    Pompey fans don’t literally see Saints fans as a layer of dirt on the surface of a liquid yet ‘scum’ they most certainly are.
    Sticks and stones...

    • 22 January 2019 at 3:10pm
      Hi Jinks says: @ Marmaduke Jinks
      Yes, I see your point, but 'scum' is simply a general term of abuse whereas 'skate' has historical authority. As is widely accepted, the nickname for Portsmouth of Pompey derives from the Portuguese word 'pampo'. Portuguese sailors visiting the port of Portsmouth in the 16th century observed the eccentric use of fish by the local population and called the place 'pampo'. And this became anglicised to 'Pompey'.

  • 13 January 2019 at 5:51pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    Having grown up during the 1950s in an American suburban neighborhood with few Jewish residents, I heard the three most common derogatory slang words for Jews quite often. These were ‘Hebe”, “Kike”, and “Yid”. Obviously a lot of kids, who seldom or never actually encountered any Jews, just repeated what they heard at home. In some households there may have even been discussions of the Jews as responsible for the death of the Christian savior. I’m sure that when they did meet Jews later in life (in college, in the armed services, in business) some of these loose-lipped kids felt shame about their casual childhood anti-Semitism, while others dug in their heels and came up with additional reasons for an even broader and deeper anti-Semitism than their parents had. There was a split between public and private behavior at the time, too (it still persists). People were aware of the mass-murder of Europe’s Jews by the Germans and their abettors in many countries and were hesitant to express any kind of remark that might seem callous about this, but some of them still used these slang terms when among friends or groups whom they knew would not call them out on it. In other words, fear of social censure (a good thing in terms of actually regulating behavior) is not the same as confronting one’s own prejudices in a straightforward way. And, of course, in the American scheme of things even more blunt terms of prejudice and contempt were aimed at our black citizens (and, later, Hispanics). I don’t recall any incidents of ‘Yid songs or rhymes’ being used in professional sports venues, but anti-this-identity or anti-that-identity chants have been used in many high-school sports contests all over the country, more so in the past than the present. While you can address these things publicly by lecturing your fellow citizens about their stupidity and insensitivity, it doesn’t seem feasible or wise to make them illegal.

  • 15 January 2019 at 4:03pm
    Simon Wood says:
    It's good that people don't die at matches in such large numbers as they used to and that the soccer violence has died down, too. But when the Spurs fans chanted "Yid Army", it was a way of saying, "Yeah, so?" and a defiant matter of pride. There was a lot to be proud of. Of course it was bad.

    I worked in a company where the two bosses were an English Palestinian and an English Jew. They agreed not to talk about Israel or Palestine. Both were Spurs fans.

    I said to the Jewish chap one day that I'd been to see my local team, Millwall, always a rough and raucous affair. Hm, he said, they hiss to imitate gas ovens when they play Spurs. I didn't know this. Hm, I said, that's not very good. I didn't know what to say. It was really awful.

    But later, I thought what a model of concision. They weren't saying anything and anyway, the much-bombed South Londoners were never fond of Nazi Germany and their familes fought in wars against them.

    How the chants originate and are shared so quickly is of immense, neutral, natural interest to the student of English. "You bought that coat at Matalan." How did that get currency - chanted at Mourinho, wasn't it? Brilliant.

    My brother's son is the kitman for a Division One team and goes to all the games. He says the players like playing at the rougher clubs because there's more atmosphere which is increasingly lacking from the modern, more agreeable game, the one with more "hugs".

    In fact I find something incredibly sad in seeing men being nice to each other, listening to what each other have to say, complementing each other on their pies, beards, glasses, expensive leisurewear or whatever. Men smiling at each other, I find terribly sad.

    Going the extra mile, breaking terrible taboos at immense personal cost and shame to the community - that was a way of reaching out, whatever people say.

  • 22 January 2019 at 5:04pm
    Dr Paul says:
    I find it strange that Professor Spencer of Kingston Poly, who has co-written a book that claims that anti-Semitism is rife in the Labour Party and on the left in general, seems quite happy about the commonplace use on football terraces of a foul anti-Jewish epithet, a word, by the way, which I have never heard uttered in socialist circles during my four decades of left-wing activity.

  • 23 January 2019 at 11:30am
    Coldish says:
    Thanks, Leo. Good sense. I do wish the interfering busybodies of the WJC would mind their own business and stop hunting witches.
    In passing, I noticed on a recent visit to Copenhagen that the Danish Jewish Museum includes in its sports section a display praising Tottenham fans for their proud and vocal defence of their local Jewish heritage. Well done the Yids!!

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