When Spurs fans celebrate being the "Yid Army", are they giving racists ammunition?

There's no excuse for anti-Semitic abuse in football, says David Rosenberg, but can offensive slurs ever be reclaimed?

West Ham’s performance on the Spurs pitch last Sunday was abysmal but the performance off the pitch by some of our “fans” was unspeakable. Songs about Hitler, fascist salutes and a hissing sound mimicking gas chambers were directed towards our rivals – the Spurs “Yids”. The media were shocked. I’m not. Just six days earlier, I watched West Ham play Stoke. As I left the ground one bonehead was leaping around, shouting: “Who we got next, then?” When his mates replied “Spurs”, he screamed: “The Yids! Gas ‘em all! Gas ‘em all!”

Racism in football currently has a very high profile, yet apart from highly publicised individual incidents involving Premier League stars, most commentators would say it has receded over the last 25 years. Nowadays, fans prefer to cheer rather than jeer the performances of black players.

But anti-Jewish feeling continues to flourish. I can’t actually recall a West Ham game against Spurs where I have not heard some anti-Semitic abuse, comment or chanting. At a West Ham v Spurs match in the early 1980s I was constantly distracted by anti-Semitic jibes and chants behind me. At one point I turned round and saw a young man openly sporting a swastika badge. Mind you, in those days the National Front sold their newspapers with impunity just a few yards from the main entrance. You don’t see those papers or badges now, but the sentiments remain. And they have a long pedigree. East Enders won a famous anti-fascist victory at Cable Street in 1936 but the biggest branches of Mosley’s pre-war fascist movement were in East London.

After last week’s match I wondered: would it have made a difference if Yossi Benayoun, one of our most skilful players, and a Jew, had been fit to play? And does the fact that Spurs fans call themselves the “Yid Army” invite opponents to challenge them in the same inflammatory language?

I suspect the answer to the first question is, “it might”. Though we shouldn’t need to have a Jewish player in our team for our “fans” to realise that anti-Semitic abuse is wrong.

The irony of West Ham fans displaying such racism is that our club were pioneers for black professionals in the game. When I first stood on the terraces there in 1966 with my brother and three friends from synagogue, unadulterated prejudice meant there were barely a handful of black footballers playing regular league football. But a black player, John Charles, wore the number three shirt for West Ham that day. By the early 1970s, his brother Clive, as well as Lagos-born Ade Coker, and Bermudan goal-scoring legend, Clyde Best, had all worn West Ham’s colours.

More recently West Ham have had four Jewish (Israeli) players: Yossi Benayoun, Eyal Berkovic, Tal Ben Haim and Yaniv Katan, and a Jewish manager, Avram Grant. Back in 1970, West Ham tried to sign the Israeli national team’s top scorer and captain, Mordechai Speigler, a Russian-born Jew, but the Israeli football authorities refused. 

The question about Spurs fans’ self-identification as the “Yid Army” is more complicated, and sharpened recently by Peter Herbert’s Society of Black Lawyers threatening action against Spurs supporters unless they desist from using this term. This has nonplussed many decent, anti-racist, Spurs fans who consciously adopted the “Yid Army” moniker as an act of defiance against anti-Semites. When the racist term “Yid” was chucked at them, they chose to turn a negative into a positive and wear it with pride. Quite reasonably they ask: why doesn’t Herbert focus on those who use anti-Semitism against Spurs players and fans?

Whatever their good intentions, though, Spurs fans are playing with fire by trying to turn a racist term on its head. Hitler rotated an ancient Indian symbol which means “to be good”, to look like crossing S shapes instead of crossing Zs. After Auschwitz we can never turn the swastika back into a symbol of good. The problem with trying to reverse racist words and symbols might be more obvious to Spurs fans if they substituted the word “Nigger” for “Yid”. Hip-Hop artists in America (and here) have tried to reclaim “Nigga” but it remains pejorative, whoever is using it, and does not undermine racism.

This issue is not just about petty name-calling, but calculated insults, threats and violence. Derogatory references to Spurs as “Yids” on West Ham fans’ websites are often accompanied by age-old anti-Semitic stereotypes and accusations. At the Spurs-West Ham match, the people who made hissing gas sounds also taunted Spurs fans about events in Rome before their recent game against Lazio – the stabbing and other violence accompanied by anti-Semitic abuse. They gave fascist salutes as they chanted the name of Paulo di Canio, the former Lazio player and West Ham legend. Every West Ham fan admired di Canio’s wizardry on the pitch but some of us also read his autobiography where he revealed pro-fascist beliefs, and pride in possessing first editions of Mussolini. He denied he was racist but told reporters there were too many Muslims in Italy. As a Lazio player he was banned and fined for two incidents of exchanging fascist salutes with far right Lazio supporters

Maybe West Ham will now be fined for the behaviour at Tottenham of one backward section of our fan base. Is that not unfair on the decent majority of our fans? Possibly. But it might give a kick up the backside to those who should be more outspoken about it. When journalists confronted West Ham’s manager Sam Allardyce after the game, he claimed that he hadn’t seen or heard anything so he couldn’t comment on it. This was disgraceful. Allardyce is no shrinking violet. So why was he so coy about the open display of anti-Semitism? Even if he genuinely hadn’t heard the chants he could have said: “If it is true, then the club has to identify the perpetrators and ban them. We don’t need support from people using the language of anti-Semites and neo-Nazis. All of our genuine supporters, including our significant number of Jewish supporters, should feel comfortable when they are watching the team.

The lead has to come from those with some power in our club. Allardyce made a further statement, still mealy-mouthed, two days later: “…it’s very disappointing… No one condones that sort of behaviour… I don’t wish to hear any of that sort of chanting…” He can’t seem to utter the word “antisemitism”. Neither does he acknowledge, let alone reassure, West Ham’s Jewish fans. Perhaps he believes the media stereotype that London’s Jews all support Spurs or Arsenal.

The club’s Jewish co-owner, David Gold, has promised to cooperate with Spurs’ investigation and take severe action against perpetrators they can identify. One West Ham season ticket holder, cautioned by police on the day, has already been banned. But let’s ask David Gold a month from now how many perpetrators have been identified? How many has the club penalised?

Ordinary fans have a job to do as well. Jewish or not, we can confront anti-Jewish or anti-black racism when it’s spoken or chanted around us. Let’s be upstanders not bystanders.

London in the twenty-first century is such a great and diverse city. Racists and fascists who used to march and organise confidently in inner-London boroughs now struggle to get voters or supporters, though they do better around the outer fringes. But mindsets shift in hard times. We will either come together as a city in response to economic difficulties or turn against each other to compete for scarce resources. Unfortunately, racist ideas, which had seemed to be dissipating, are resurfacing and growing once more.

In the football arena, change will not come from an external body seen as meddling and opportunist, such as Peter Herbert’s Black Lawyers outfit. Whatever Spurs fans choose to call themselves, there can never be any excuse or justification for anti-Semitic abuse against them. At West Ham we need to put our house in order, but Spurs fans, Jewish or not, who believe that celebrating their identity as “Yids” is a challenge to racism will need to rethink their actions too.

David Rosenberg is a regular columnist for OLAS, the West Ham football fanzine, and author of Battle for the East End: Jewish responses to fascism in the 1930s (Five Leaves Publications). He leads “Anti-Fascist Footprints” guided walks of East London.

Israel football player Yossi Benayoun playing for West Ham. Photograph: Getty Images
Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses