Tottenham—pronounced Tot-num—is a rather bleak neighborhood on the northeastern edge of London. The area was never historically Jewish, though it abuts the heavily ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods of Stamford Hill and Lower Clapton. Yet, somehow, the local soccer team, Tottenham Hotspur—or, more familiarly, Spurs—became known as England's Jewish club.
For decades, Tottenham fans—both Jewish and not—have embraced the signs and signifiers of Judaism, wearing Star of David T-shirts, waving Israeli flags and chanting the word "Yiddo!" at their own players while calling themselves the "Yid Army." The chants and songs range from devastatingly witty to abysmally offensive: When the German superstar striker Jurgen Klinsmann, who now coaches the U.S. national team, signed for Tottenham in 1994, the Spurs crew turned to Mary Poppins for inspiration. "Chim Chiminee/Chim Chiminee/Chim Chim Cheroo," they chorused, "Jurgen was a German/But now he's a Jew."
For fans of Tottenham's rival clubs, all this is the proverbial red rag to a bull. One of the nastiest Jew-baiting songs involves a rewrite of "Spurs are on their way to Wembley," a chart topper released in 1981 to celebrate the club's participation in the final of the Football Association Cup competition at the famous stadium on London's outskirts. "Spurs are on their way to Wembley/ Tottenham's gonna do it again," went the original. "Spurs are on their way to Auschwitz/ Hitler's gonna gas 'em again" goes the revised version. There are other perversities, too. "Aga Doo Doo Doo," a torturous novelty song that was popular in the 1980s, is rendered, "Gas a Jew Jew Jew." And, more recently, the routine spectacle of non-Jewish fans of Tottenham's opponents making hissing noises—an imitation of the gas chambers at Auschwitz—at non-Jewish Spurs fans brandishing the Star of David in reply.
Yet earlier this month, Britain's Football Association decreed that it was Spurs fans who were at risk of prosecution for using the term "Yid." "Those fans claim that use of the term is a 'badge of honour' and is not intended to be offensive," the association said in a statement. "By using the term in this manner, fans may be clouding the issue by making it harder to differentiate its use by these fans and by those who use the term in an intentionally offensive manner."
The ensuing public debate went all the way up to Prime Minister David Cameron, who told the Jewish Chronicle, "There's a difference between Spurs fans self-describing themselves as Yids and someone calling someone a Yid as an insult. You have to be motivated by hate. Hate speech should be prosecuted but only when it's motivated by hate."
But the FA has plenty of reason to take a firm stand against even the slightest whiff of anti-Semitism. Over the last 20 years, the English game has been largely cleansed of its fouler aspects as commercial imperatives have taken over. Today, the FA's Premier League—which has given the world David Beckham, originally of Manchester United—is an international phenomenon, and two decades after the United States declared itself a football-friendly country by hosting the quadrennial World Cup, it is looking to establish itself alongside sporting juggernauts like the NFL, the NBA, and MLB.
Sports fans who might once have derided the game as a paleolithic form of basketball, and as symbolically un-American as communism, are now being told, aggressively so, that that they simply don't understand what they've been missing. And it is the English Premier League, whose broadcast rights were purchased by NBC for $250 million, that serves as soccer's flagship in America. In the commercials that showcase forthcoming matches, there are two common techniques to entice curious Americans. You'll see flashes of spectacular action on the pitch: screaming shots toward goal, bicycle kicks, mid-air battles between thrusting heads seeking the ball, all accompanied by strangled howls of awe from the commentator's box.
You'll also see the supporters. A television montage typically includes a sea of fans with clenched fists held high, close-ups of faces contorted with anticipation or excitement or downright misery, flags, banners, and scarves billowing from the top of the stadium to the edge of the playing field. Because, you see, it's all about "passion"—a word that's bandied around a great deal—without peer. "Forget Downton Abbey," one NBC tagline exhorted, "the real English drama starts here."
In the absence of country piles and feckless gentry, it's in the FA's interest to smooth out the historically rough edges of its signature product. Scratch the surface of England's soccer culture, and the images of lovable ebullience and booming humor are paralleled by a darker history of grotty stadiums, racist hooligans taunting black players with monkey noises, and regular displays of appalling violence involving rival fan organizations known as "firms."
"You want to get rid of things that will antagonize your audience, and obviously anti-Semitism is one," said Simon Kuper, the author of Soccernomics and other best-sellers on soccer. "That would be more relevant in the U.S. than, say, in the Asian countries."
For Ivor Baddiel, one of Britain's leading comedy writers and a Jewish fan of Chelsea, the FA's new zero-tolerance approach to racism was an unprecedented opportunity to deal with the use of what is now referred to as "the 'Y' word." Three years ago, Baddiel explained, he and his brother David, also a comedian, were at a Chelsea game when the scoreboard flashed the news that Tottenham were losing in their match. Predictably, the derogatory "Yid" chants followed.
"From behind us, we heard this lone voice chanting, 'Fuck the Yids, fuck the Yids,' said Baddiel. "Someone tapped him on the shoulder and said, 'Actually, there's quite a few Jewish people here.' At the top of his voice, he starts shouting, 'Fuck the Jews, fuck the Jews.' I'm not in any way hard, but for the first time in my life I cracked, and I confronted him."
The Baddiel brothers then teamed up with the anti-racist organization Kick It Out, producing a video in which leading footballers past and present urged fans to stop engaging in behavior that would, under Britain's stringent laws against hate speech, subject them to criminal charges if they called someone in the street or in the supermarket a "Yid." If abusing someone with the 'N' word is no longer acceptable, the video argued, shouldn't the same principle apply to the 'Y' word as well?
According to Kuper, that depends upon who's saying it and why. Tottenham fans, as the FA recognized, use the word as a badge of pride, unlike their opponents, who use it as hate speech. "I think common sense shows which chant is more malicious. We're talking about hate speech, and it doesn't seem to me that calling yourself 'Yid Army' is hate speech," said Kuper. He also cited the example of Ajax (pronounced Ai-yax), the Amsterdam club whose Jewish pedigree is just as tenuous as Tottenham's but whose fans behave in much the same way as Spurs faithful. "Ajax fans calls themselves Super Jews and wave Israeli flags, and fans of other Dutch clubs shout anti-Semitic abuse at the Ajax fans," Kuper said. "If you wave an Israeli flag and say, 'This is who we are,' it might be absurd, and it might make no sense, but it's not hate speech. If you chant songs about Auschwitz, that is hate speech."
Baddiel argues that the word, popular with the black-shirted fascists who harassed Jews in London's East End during the 1930s, is intrinsically a form of hate speech, no matter who wields it. That is why he hopes that Spurs fans can be educated out of their "Yid" fixation. "I'd rather have that than banning orders and censorship and that sort of thing," Baddiel said. "Tottenham fans are not identifying because they are proud to be Jewish, they are doing it because they are proud to be Tottenham fans." What that means, he argued, is that it's up to Jews who aren't part of the Tottenham side to make clear to the team's fans that "Yid" is a slur that's unacceptable in any context. "It's not their word to reclaim," Baddiel said. "It's our word to reclaim if we want to. You can't have a group of non-Jews reclaiming it just because they're Tottenham fans."
The tide of history appears to be on Baddiel's side, insofar as the days when attending a soccer game caused you to fear for your life are rapidly drawing to a close. All-seater stadiums, a family atmosphere, and lucrative sponsorship deals have made English soccer more safe and more tolerant, though nostalgists will bemoan that, as a spectacle, the game has become somewhat anodyne as a consequence.
That's why those who want to catch the last gasp of the "Y" word, as well as the occasional sight of an Israeli flag fluttering on the terraces, would do well to tune in to a Tottenham game sooner rather than later. By this time next year, both the Yid Army and its enemies may well have been vanquished.