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
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Owen Smith interview: “I’m pretty red”

The Labour leadership challenger is struggling to win over a left suspicious of his past. 

The south Wales valleys embody the history of the labour movement: its victories, its defeats, its heroes, its villains. It was this resonant location that Owen Smith chose for his speech on the morning of 22 August. Labour Party members had that day begun voting on whether the 46-year-old Pontypridd MP should replace Jeremy Corbyn as their leader.

“Our history, our party was literally hewed from the hillsides around where we sit today,” Smith told a small audience at the Ely Valley Miners Welfare Club in Tonyrefail, a short distance from his home. The Welshman cited the Taff Vale judgment of 1901, which ruled that trade unions could be sued for losses caused by industrial action. It was this decision that spurred on the establishment of a Labour Party in parliament to repeal the law (as it would do in 1906 in alliance with the Liberal government).

Smith spoke later of marching with miners from the Maerdy Colliery as a 14-year-old, on the day they returned to work at the end of the 1984-85 strike. “I saw that they were utterly unbowed,” he recalled. “But they were ultimately defeated.”

Such moments, he concluded, proved the need for Labour to win power and to maintain “a powerful voice in parliament” – something he believes Jeremy Corbyn is incapable of providing. On 28 June, less than a year after Corbyn’s landslide victory, 172 MPs (81 per cent of the Parliamentary Labour Party) endorsed a no-confidence motion in him. Sixty-five shadow ministers, including Smith (who was then the shadow work and pensions secretary), resigned from the front bench.

Yet though Smith enjoys the overwhelming backing of the PLP, few believe he will prevail among members. He achieved only 53 constituency nominations, against the leader’s 285. On social media, where internal party contests are increasingly decided, Smith’s reach is minuscule compared to that of Corbyn (who has 795,000 Facebook fans to his 14,000).

The day before Smith spoke in south Wales, he won the endorsement of Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London and Labour’s most senior elected politician. He was subsequently also backed by the Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale. Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband have trumpeted his cause. Yet Smith-supporting MPs fear that such declarations count for little. “It’s like the Remain campaign and the Archbishop of Canterbury,” one told me, suggesting that Labour members, like Leave voters, ”weren’t listening” to such grandees.

Corbyn’s allies and foes alike are already preparing for the aftermath of the leader’s anticipated victory. The former warn that rebel MPs put themselves at risk of deselection by members. In response, some have threatened privately to form a parliamentary breakaway group and bid for the status of the official opposition.

Smith, unsurprisingly, insists that he can win. “I think the CLP [Constituency Labour Party] nominations don’t truly reflect the views in CLPs,” he told me when we spoke after his 20-minute address. The challenger, dressed in his favoured combination of dark suit and open-necked white shirt, welcomed the black coffee proffered by his aide. “They reflect the fact that some of the people who are new members and are supportive of Jeremy were very organised . . .

“Anybody who knows the Labour Party knows that selections are very often won by the sleepers: the people who don’t go to CLP meetings and don’t necessarily shout from the rooftops.” Smith’s hopes rest on those who share Oscar Wilde’s view: “The problem with socialism is that it takes up too many spare evenings.”

Cartoon: George Leigh

Smith first publicly revealed his leadership ambitions in an interview with me back in January. “It would be an incredible honour and privilege,” he said. I wrote then of a widespread view among Labour MPs that the next leader “will at least need to be from the party’s soft left to be acceptable to the party membership”. When the rebellion against Corbyn came, it was this consideration that proved decisive. Smith was embraced as a Miliband-esque socialist and a parliamentary “clean skin”, untainted by the New Labour years, having been elected in 2010. By contrast, his initial rival, Angela Eagle, had been an MP since 1992 and voted for the Iraq War.

However, Smith proved to have a more ambiguous past than some of his backers anticipated. Corbyn’s supporters swiftly unearthed a series of interviews from 2006 in which their opponent made a notably centrist pitch. Smith, then a by-election candidate in Blaenau Gwent, south Wales, defended Tony Blair (suggesting that they differed only over the Iraq War), supported private-sector involvement in the National Health Service and praised city academies. “I’m not someone, frankly, who gets terribly wound up about some of the ideological nuances,” he told Wales Online.

Since then, he has struggled to reconcile these positions with his increasingly left-wing programme: opposing private provision in the NHS, returning academy schools to local authority control, banning zero-hours contracts and imposing a wealth tax of 1 per cent.

“To be honest, my opponents have extrapolated rather a lot in an attempt to brand me as a ‘Blairite wolf in sheep’s clothing’,” Smith told me. “Well, I’m nothing of the sort, I’ve always been a democratic socialist and I always will be. My views haven’t really changed at all, I’m someone who has been on the left of the party.

“My dad [the Welsh historian Dai Smith] is someone who’s been on the left of the Labour movement all his life. I’m someone who’s been surrounded by people who’ve been on the left of the Labour movement all their lives. It should come as no surprise that I’ve come out of that background and I’m pretty red. Because I am.”

Yet a former shadow cabinet colleague told me that Smith did not stand out as “a radical” in meetings: “The only time that I remember him becoming really animated was over further tax-raising powers for Scotland and the implications for Wales.”

What Smith believes in most, some say, is himself. The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, described him as “one of the most ambitious career politicians I’ve met”. Others have dismissed him as a “Big Pharma lobbyist” because of his past as head of policy and government relations for Pfizer.

“I’m not ashamed that I had a life outside politics before I became an MP,” Smith told me. “Yes, I worked for Pfizer and I also worked as a BBC journalist and as an adviser to the last Labour government on the peace process in Northern Ireland.

“People don’t want career politicians – they want men and women who have had experience of working in business and in the different sectors that make up our economy. Critics may use it against me, but my time in business has helped me understand what’s wrong with it and how we can make it work better.”

Corbyn’s supporters, however, allege that Smith’s left-wing pledges would not withstand contact with centrist colleagues. The degree to which the challenger has rebutted this charge shows that he recognises its potency.

He has offered to make Corbyn party president or chair if he wins, to allow Corbyn to act as “a guardian of Labour’s values”. In his speech, Smith vowed to increase member influence by making conference votes binding on the leadership.

Throughout the 1980s, another soft-left Welshman, Neil Kinnock, struggled to assert authority as the hard left retained control of vital bodies. Smith’s proposals risk replicating this conflict. But he told me that he would respect Labour’s conference even if it endorsed stances such as Trident abolition (Smith joined CND as a teenager but later renounced unilateralism). “I do think in order to reassure members that, under my leadership, we would listen hard to them and act in accordance with their views, conference does need to become sovereign once more,” he said.

Tony Benn’s dream of internal democracy appeared to be within reach. I asked Smith whether he would support other reforms such as a reduced MP nomination threshold for leadership candidates (Corbyn allies have proposed a cut from 15 per cent to 5 per cent). “All of these things can be debated,” he told me. “I’m not sure it should be 5 per cent: I need to look at it when we get closer to it. But I am convinced that the left needs to be able to put up candidates in this contest, I’ve always felt that.”

Smith’s assertion is contradicted by a colleague who described him as having been “furious”, “apoplectic” when Corbyn made the ballot last year (he supported Andy Burnham’s campaign).

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Smith is less equiovcal over the mandatory reselection of MPs. “That would be a really retrograde step for the party,” he told me. “It would be an uncomradely way for us to do business.” He is critical of the Corbyn-aligned group Momentum, some of whose members are spearheading deselection efforts. “I fear an attitude within Momentum that they are a separate organisation and they shouldn’t be,” he told me. “It’s hard to argue that they’re loyal and supportive if they’re organising a bloomin’ great really in the same town at the same time in competition to the Labour Party” (the group will hold its own four-day conference alongside Labour’s in Liverpool).

Some of those close to Corbyn, such as John McDonnell, have unhesitatingly described themselves as Marxists (in 2006, the shadow chancellor named Marx, Lenin and Trotsky as his “most significant” intellectual influences). I asked Smith whether he believed Labour could encompass such views. “Yes, I think we’ve always been a broad church and there have always been people who’ve come from that tradition,” he replied. “There are two broad traditions: the extra-parliamentary tradition, that has always seen parliament as a compromise and parliamentary socialism as a compromise, from [the trade unionist and theorist] Noah Ablett here in south Wales with The Miners’ Next Step through to Ed Miliband’s dad [Ralph, a Marxist historian] ... and the mainstream social democratic tradition that I came from.”

He added: “We’ve had this battle in the Labour Party over the ages, haven’t we? Except now I think it’s more serious because there is a very real danger, with Labour at such a low ebb and politics fragmented more broadly, and so many more parties and so many options for people and such a lesser tribal attachment to the Labour Party, that we can’t afford those fractures.

"If we splinter, there’s lot of other places for people to put their vote.”

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Though they will not say so publicly, some of Smith’s supporters believe Labour would remain unelectable under his leadership. A former shadow cabinet minister told me that he was offering a “warmed-up Ed Milibandism, which was rejected by the voters”. Smith naturally contests this analysis. “I don’t think that we lost the last election because we were too left-wing,” he said. “The proof is that the Tories have engaged in all sorts of these policies ... Theresa May’s opening speech upon becoming leader was to talk about social injustice, economic insecurity, lack of security in the workplace. Labour values, Labour words in a Tory mouth, evidence that the broad story we’re telling about Britain is right.”

Smith said that, unlike Corbyn, he would resign if he became leader and lost a confidence vote by MPs. “Yes - I would [resign]. We are a party that believes in parliamentary democracy and, as such, it is only right that the leader commands the support of his or her colleagues in the Commons.”

Should Corbyn win the contest, as expected, Smith will not return to the shadow cabinet but act as “a loyal backbencher”.  He pledges to resist any breakaway: “I'm Labour, I've always been Labour and I will never stop being Labour," he said. 

Speaking of his fear that Corbyn would seek to remain leader even if the party lost the next general election, he said: “I’m deeply worried about it. I think he’s determined to hang on come hell or high water. And what does that say about him? ... I think he is more concerned with his version of the Labour Party being sustained and being victorious than he is with the Labour Party being victorious in elections. I think he is actually prepared to sacrifice unity and victory - two great words that have traditionally been emblazoned on Labour banners through the ages - in order to secure control of the party.”

The trouble for Owen Smith is that, for all his combative talk and appeal to the left, he is trapped between his past pragmatism and his present radicalism. 

Tony Benn, Corbyn’s late mentor, divided politicians into “signposts” and “weathercocks”: those who shape opinion and those who are shaped by it. He would have branded Smith a “weathercock”. Even if he wins, Smith risks being remembered not as a politician who resolved his party’s contradictions, but as one who embodied them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser