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The Uncivil Servant: To Ban or Not to Ban the Yids from Soccer?

Mitchell Abidor
September 22, 2013
by Mitchell Abidor spursNo sport in the world is as rife with racism as professional soccer in Europe. Just over the past few weeks, Inter Milan was fined, and it was decreed that a section of their stadium will be closed at their next home game, because of their fans’ racist chants in a game against the Turin powerhouse Juventus. The Hungarian team Budapest Honvéd, meanwhile, will play its next game before an empty stadium, and the Polish team KKS Lech Poznan will have part of its stadium closed, as will their fellow Poles at GKS Piast Gliwice, all for racist chants by the fans. The statement from the governing body of European soccer, UEFA, doesn’t describe the nature of the racist chants, but the most common offenses are throwing bananas and making monkey noises at black players. Anti-Semitism plays a much smaller part in the world of soccer racism, though it’s far from negligible. [To read Abidor's article about "Jewish" soccer in the Netherlands, click here.—ed.] Israeli international Yossi Benayoun, who long played in England, was greeted by shouts of “Jew” by his own team’s fans (!) when he came on the field as a substitute in a game against Liverpool in May 2013, and the Hungarian national team was forced to play a World Cup qualifying match in an empty stadium because of anti-Semitic chants at an earlier match against Israel. The most frequent object of beatings and abuse, however, are the fans and players of England’s Tottenham Hotspur. Their fans have been subjected to anti-Semitic attacks in Rome and Lyon, and the team was greeted with hissing noises — as in gas chambers — at a game against their East London rivals West Ham United. Why Spurs in particular? Tottenham is based in North London, a heavily Jewish section of the city, so the team has long been identified with its community. Opposing fans have called them and their fans “Yids,” which these same fans then co-opted. Supporters of Tottenham have long turned the insult into a badge of pride, calling their beloved team “The Yids,” and the fans calling themselves the “Yid Army.” Popular chants at games include “Who let the Yids out? Who let the Yids out?” or simple unison chants of “Yiddo!” or “Yid Army!” Like-what-youre-readingThis cooptation of a slur is typical of any oppressed and insulted people, adopting an insult as a badge of pride, thus removing any sting it might have coming from the enemy’s mouth. (It is impossible to imagine the fans of a team in America, deeply racist as it is, proudly calling their heroes the Niggers or the Spics, but it’s also impossible to imagine people throwing bananas onto the court of the Barclay’s Center). Soccer’s fight against racism, however, is causing a serious dilemma: if it’s forbidden for opposing team fans to call Spurs and their fans Yids, is it acceptable for Tottenham’s fans (most of whom, of course, are not Jewish) to do so? The Football Association, the governing body of British soccer, as part of its anti-racism “Kick it Out” campaign, has ordered these chants to stop, and have threatened its fans with criminal charges if they continue. The team issued a statement, saying, "We are acutely aware of the sensitivity of this issue. Our fans historically adopted the chant as a defence mechanism in order to own the term and thereby deflect antisemitic abuse. They do not use the term with any deliberate intent to cause offence.” So serious is the issue that Prime Minister David Cameron has weighed in: “"You have to think of the mens rea. There's a difference between Spurs fans self-describing themselves as Yids and someone calling someone a Yid as an insult," Cameron told the Jewish Chronicle. "You have to be motivated by hate. Hate speech should be prosecuted — but only when it's motivated by hate." Official Jewish organizations have come out in support of the ban, as have Jewish public figures like the comedian David Baddiel (a supporter of rival Chelsea). (A curious and significant side note: pro-ban commentators compare using the word “Yid” to using “the N-word”. I might ask why it is acceptable to print and say “Yid” and not acceptable to print and say “nigger,” if they truly have the same weight? As the comic Louis CK has pointed out, when a speaker says “the N-word” he frees himself of the guilt of using it while forcing the listener to become the guilty party.) Spurs' official fan club ("supporters' group" in English parlance) has spoken harshly against the proposed ban, saying that the chants will stop when they stop. In fact, they chanted “We’ll sing what we want” at their last game. The team has now decided to let the people decide, and is currently preparing a questionnaire that will be sent to season ticket holders that will allow them to decide on whether the Yid sobriquet and chants should be put to sleep. A key element in the case made for this ban is that by using the word “Yid,” the fans of Tottenham make the use of the word acceptable and lower themselves to the level of the thugs who use it as an insult. But is this really the case? Can it be that David Cameron, hopeless dolt that he is, is right about something? Clearly no member of the Yid Army uses the term insultingly. That the word itself is insulting is unquestionable, but if it’s used, as is the case here, as a “fuck you” to the Jew haters, is it not a weapon? If it’s used to underline the team’s ethnic specificity, is that a criminal offense? When the fans at White Hart lane, where the team plays, call themselves “Yids,” for that brief moment they are “Yids.” Yids standing against the fascists of Hungary and East London and Roma. And that’s not a bad thing. Mitchell Abidor is a contributing writer to our magazine and a translator, musician, and actor living in Brooklyn. His books include Communards: The Paris Commune of 1871 as Told by Those Who Fought For It.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936 – 1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.