This lesson explores contemporary antisemitism in the context of football (soccer) in Britain. Enormously popular around the world, football can foster intercultural exchange and provide team members and fans with feelings of camaraderie and belonging. Strong ties of membership to a particular football club can also promote “we and they” thinking. Traditional rivalries and “banter” among opposing fans have sometimes served as a pretext for expressions of antisemitism, racism, and other forms of intolerance. However, the overt expression of intolerance is not the only issue. In The Changing Face of Football, the authors Back, Crabbe, and Solomos argue, “The possession of the appropriate ‘cultural passport’ is not merely reliant upon wearing a particular football shirt but on a conformity with the team’s cultural identity....These implicit forms of racialized exclusion are however disguised from the public’s gaze by their very normalcy.”1
Using the familiar topic of sports, this lesson asks students to reflect on their own experiences as fans or members of a team and to consider what it means to participate in a team’s cultural identity. It also draws on news stories about antisemitism in football fan culture from a variety of viewpoints, providing students with the opportunity to analyze and better understand how sports and fan culture can simultaneously inspire feelings of pride, belonging, and inclusion as well as victimization, hurt, and exclusion.
Over the last several years, antisemitic incidents have frequently been reported at sporting events in Britain and throughout Europe. In Britain, several incidents have occurred during games featuring the Tottenham Hotspur (“Spurs”) Football Club, based in north London, which is home to a large Jewish population. Due to Tottenham’s reputation as a “Jewish club” based on its geography, rival fans have for decades directed antisemitic abuse—including use of the pejorative term “Yid”—at Tottenham supporters. From the 1970s on, Spurs fans have also referred to themselves by the unofficial nickname “Yids” or the “Yid Army.” Many supporters claim that they use the word as a rallying cry in response to antisemitic abuse from rival fans. However, the majority of Spurs supporters are not Jewish.
Although the exact origins of associating the word “Yid” with Tottenham are contested, by the 1980s it was used by both Tottenham rivals and supporters within a fan culture of rampant antisemitism. A Jewish Tottenham fan remembers the stadium atmosphere in the 1980s:
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[i] flags to matches.”2
This culture of antisemitism at Tottenham matches continues today. In some cases, antisemitic taunts have escalated to violence, as when a mob attacked Tottenham supporters in Lyon, France, in February 2013 and reportedly gave Nazi salutes.3 A number of incidents have also occurred at recent matches with rival team West Ham. In an interview with David Gold, who is Jewish and the co-chairman of West Ham United, writer Jacob Steinberg discussed the impact of antisemitic chants by West Ham fans:
Now 77, Gold has seen a lot but it is a story from his youth that demonstrates how abhorrent those chants were. "You're saddened by it," he says. "Those who think it's all part of football, the words that come out in the day are not that important. What those people must understand is the terrible pain that it causes. The pain is unbelievable. It's not the words. The pain that I feel is like a dagger in the heart. What flashes up in my mind is the antisemitism when I was a boy....”4
Spurs fans’ use of the term “Yid” has also caused controversy. The word—which derives from “Yiddish” and translates to “Jew”—has a history of use as a derogatory term in Britain and was employed in the 1930s by both Nazis and British fascist groups. In recent years, the Football Association, the anti-racism organization Kick It Out, and celebrities like comedian David Baddiel have pointed out how offensive the word is and have called for Tottenham supporters to stop using the nickname. Many Tottenham supporters, however, claim that they use the term with pride and that it is a fundamental part of their history and fan culture.5
Tottenham supporters’ use of the word “Yid” falls within a broader culture of antisemitism at sporting events. If you have time, use this extension activity to address a more explicit example of antisemitic behavior at a football match and to explore some of the consequences for a Jewish fan.
Have students read the Guardian article “Antisemitic Chants Are Sickening” and discuss it in pairs or small groups. Guiding questions might include:
The author says he experiences a “crisis of identity.” Why does he feel that way? How do antisemitic actions affect his sense of belonging to and membership in a group?
How might people challenge traditions of a group they belong to that they discover are offensive?