Last Saturday afternoon, Chelsea visited Leicester City. When Álvaro Morata opened the scoring, the away fans naturally extolled him in song: “Álvaro, woah oh, Álvaro, woah oh oh oh,” went the ditty. “He came from Real Madrid, he hates the fucking Yids.” For the benefit of the uninitiated, “Yids” is a reference to Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea’s bitterest rivals.
Like all the best art the song is slightly ambiguous, offering more questions than answers, specifically: is the point simply that Morata hates Spurs? Or does the phrase “fucking Yids”, not exactly intended as a compliment, come with an unavoidable inference that he not only hates Spurs, but all Jews? And finally, in 2017, should we really need to perform an autopsy on this kind of shit?
Later that day, Morata tweeted a request for Chelsea fans to “please respect everyone” – immediately after thanking them for being “amazing”. Meanwhile the club disavowed the behaviour, being, as they are, staunchly opposed to all racism (save that perpetrated by their most successful captain).
Though the rights and wrongs of this particular case are clear, the wider issue it raises – deployment of the word “Yids” by Spurs fans – is more complex and emotive. Starting in the Seventies and continuing through the Eighties, it was an insult directed at them by others according to the perception that they had a relatively high concentration of Jews within their support – a notion later amplified by the official involvement of Irving Scholar, David Pleat and Alan Sugar.
Whether they are actually supported by more Jews than anyone else is probably unknowable, but seeing as we’re here: my experience growing up in north London during the Eighties and Nineties, attending one of Europe’s biggest Jewish schools, suggests so; my experience following Manchester United about suggests maybe not.
My current experience also suggests that Arsenal are in the mix. But really, who gives a shit? What difference does it make to anything anyway?
In response to being attacked for their purported Jewishness, Spurs fans began referring to themselves as “Yids”, “Yiddos” and “Yid Army” – and 30-odd years later still do. As a kid, I quite liked it because (to psychoanalyse myself) the antisemitism I experienced didn’t penetrate my cocoon of positive Jewish identity nor make me feel less than anyone else.
“Yid” wasn’t a word through which the antisemitism I experienced was dispensed – it was more “Aaaa aaaa aaaa achoo” and “fucking Jew”, along with the usual chasing and violence. On the basis that we’re being honest, not recriminatory, I was also amused by the black comedy of 40,000 Spurs-supporting gentiles defining themselves according to what I understood to be their opposite.
As an adult, however, the whole thing makes me increasingly uncomfortable. I see and fear antisemitism more now than I did then. I understand far more about the specific word “Yid” and care far less about personal experience relative to collective experience. I’ve also grasped that it’s far more important things are right than things are funny – as I have the difference between being edgy and being a prick.
I should at this point make clear that none of this makes a moral equivalence between the abuse of Spurs fans as “Yids” and the adoption by Spurs fans of the moniker “Yids”. One is a priori antisemitic, the other not. But just because there is something worse than the status quo is not reason to be at ease with the status quo, so here we go.
In the first instance, Spurs fans using “Yid” as a rejoinder was probably fair enough. Football matches are not the place for nuanced debate and reasoned explanation, so a quick, pointed riposte – one that said “this insult is not an insult, in fact it’s so not an insult that we’ll use it to describe ourselves” – must have been powerful. I do not doubt that this was well intentioned, and well appreciated by many Jewish Spurs fans.
But we are no longer in that moment of immediate response, which means that there is time to consider other options. There is no need to use the word “Yid” to inform those using it as an insult that they are, say, “racist cunts”. It is possible, for example, to simply call them “racist cunts”, using any of the many tunes to which the words fit, and be done with it.
Except Spurs fans no longer use the word “Yid” solely in self-defence, but to assert their collective identity. The problem is that it is not their collective identity to assert.
I write that as someone who understands the relationship between a football club and a sense of self, so let’s try looking at things this way: Spurs were formed in 1882, giving them nearly a hundred years of rich history before they were targeted by antisemites. Plenty has happened since that is unrelated.
Are we seriously saying that what it is to be Spurs would be different had this racial abuse never happened? That who they are is, to a significant extent, predicated on the antisemitism of a minority of Chelsea fans? And as a consequence, putting the term away would be too painful to contemplate?
Either way, normalising terms of racial abuse is not in the gift of those to whom the terms do not really refer, and no amount of rationalising and equivocating can change that. It is true that by definition, the word “Yid” just means “Jew”, but it is freighted with a whole lot more once it has been weaponised.
And it is also true that the word “Yid” or “Yiddo” is sometimes used by Jews to describe themselves – hardly ever, in my experience – but that still does nothing to legitimise its use by others.
Its genesis is in Nazi Germany. It was used to persecute, and on that basis, it will always mean “negative description of a Jew”, however much people might prefer it to mean “positive expression of what it means to be Spurs”, or even that it is against antisemitism.
The proclamation of Jews as other – the word “Yid” is but one encapsulation – stretches through centuries of libel, inquisition, expulsion, pogrom, discrimination and ridicule. Those whose families were decimated by the Nazis have intimate knowledge of lives ruined at worst, irrevocably tainted at best, and still experience the multifarious ways in which these tragedies, both personal and communal, have been passed on. Holocaust trauma runs even deeper than that, able to alter the genes of survivors’ children; literally who we are has changed because of what “Yid” signifies.
Though this is not the defining characteristic of Jewish identity – far from it – it does not mean that others may appropriate that aspect for their own ends.
I am not a Spurs fan, and as such do not know what it means to be one; I say that as a third-generation Manchester United fan. On the other hand, I can trace back my Jewish roots across tens of generations and hundreds of years, which is to say that non-Jewish matchgoing Spurs fans – mainly straight white men, who have never been discriminated against on the basis of something elemental about themselves that they can never change – are not well-placed to gauge what it’s like to be a Jew, nor to judge how Jews should respond to abusive terms.
Spurs fans cannot “reclaim” the word “Yid” because it is was never theirs to claim. To suggest otherwise is profoundly patronising, especially given that their use of it also inspires antisemitism.
Those familiar with football crowds will know how it works: one side sings the most antagonistic song it can muster, then the other side leaps in with the most antagonistic response; generally speaking, it’s fucking great.
But when Spurs begin an exchange with something Yid-related, they are no longer defending the Jews among them but asserting their own identity. And though they are not responsible for how others retort, if Chelsea or West Ham are the opponents, then what’s actually going on, wittingly or otherwise, is that one group of predominantly non-Jews are tempting another group of predominantly non-Jews to search their antisemitic songbook in order to attack a group not party to the exchange.
Though it may sometimes seem to the contrary, football does not exist in a vacuum, so let’s be clear about this: antisemitism has always been a problem in the UK. And given the current temperature of our country, that which relates to it is more jarring than usual.
Earlier this week the #RoaldDahlDay hashtag was doing brisk business on Twitter. Or to put another way, an unarguable, unapologetic antisemite was being feted by people who should know better. Of course, we can still enjoy his work – but to honour him with his own specific day of celebration? To lapse back into footballing parlance: not for me, Clive.
If that’s a subtextual apathy to antisemitism, just last week Nigel Farage went to Germany to speak at a far-right rally, where his contribution was cheered enthusiastically. And who would be surprised to see that very same racist former leader of a racist political party – one already given a frankly revolting amount of airtime by our broadcaster to inspire mass xenophobia – return to our public sphere?
The Labour leadership, meanwhile, is struggling with antisemitism, while the authoritarian Tories flap around backing whatever discrimination they think will solidify their flimsy grip on power. Make no mistake, they are no great philosemites – it just so happens there are people it is more fashionable to hate than Jews – but it’s part of the same thing and all equally terrifying.
And that’s just in the UK; in the US, the incumbent president courted the vote of the KKK and defended those who brought Nazi imagery, rhetoric and intimidation to the streets of America – a suite which included men with semi-automatic rifles hanging around outside a synagogue.
Self-evidently, the portents are not good, and we are nowhere near enlightened enough to throw around discriminatory language like it’s safe in our hands.
Criminalising the benevolent use of “Yid” seems excessive, and given football’s tribal nature it’s hard to imagine the language will ever stop – but that does not mean we should stop explaining why it should. So, please: stop.