You kind of knew that here was an accident waiting to happen as soon as David Cameron got involved in it all. Asked by the Jewish Chronicle what he thought of the FA’s statement last week, which reiterated its belief that the word “Yid” should not be used in any context at a football ground and warning that its use could amount to a criminal offence that would leave fans at risk of being banned and prosecuted, the Prime Minister responded by saying, “You have to think of the mens rea [a principle of law which suggests that “an act is not culpable unless the mind is guilty”]. 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.”
Spurs supporters have long self-identified as ‘Yids’, in no small part on account of the antisemitism that the club’s support has faced for many years. Anybody who has attended a match between Spurs and, say, Arsenal, Chelsea or West Ham United will be fully aware of how poisonous the atmosphere can become at these matches, and there is a long history of fairly appalling behaviour by rival supporters – the explicitly antisemitic attacks on Spurs supporters in Rome last year, for example – in relation to what is considered to be Tottenham’s Jewish heritage. The truth of the matter is that the Spurs support is by no means made up of a majority of Jewish supporters, but Spurs supporters have, over the years, adopted the “Yid Army” motif as a badge of pride and a symbol of support for their Jewish community.
When it comes to the small matter of the self-identification of the supporters of Tottenham Hotspur, however, it rather feels as if everybody has an opinion. The FA and the Premier Minister have had their say, as has the comedian (and Chelsea supporter) David Baddiel, who has sought to tackle this issue before and who’s article on The Guardian’s website last night stated that Spurs fans’ appropriation of the word is “simply not workable” and that, “It’s doubtful that more than 5% of those in the ground at home games are actual Jews (only 0.4% of the UK is Jewish, so 5% is way above average)… so the reclamation argument does not apply, unless it’s OK for a race-hate word to be reclaimed by people who do not own it,” whilst the Society of Black Lawyers threatened to make a complaint to the police over claims that antisemitic abuse is taking place at White Hart Lane.
Paul Herbert, that organisation’s chair, stated at the time that, “It does not make a difference if it is Tottenham fans doing the chants or away fans – if they continue to do it we will report it to the police,” and that, when asked about Jewish fans themselves singing the chant, stated that, “That’s not acceptable either,” and it was comments such as these that led Piara Powar, former head of Kick It Out, the executive director of Football Against Racism in Europe, to note, somewhat wearily, that, “I think Peter Herbert and the Society of Black Lawyers are naive. They perhaps don’t know football.” And this, perhaps, is the central matter that clouds the heart of this debate. The matter of whether this term should be used by Spurs supporters or not is more complex than to merely say, “The word “Yid” is racist, therefore it shouldn’t be said by anybody in any circumstances, regardless of context,” or to say, “We’re reclaiming the word, and we’ll use it whichever way we like.” Who, exactly, has the ultimate right to say whether it should or shouldn’t be used? That’s not meant as a rhetorical question, by the way. I’m not certain that it’s one that I can answer.
In the interests of full disclosure, I am a non-Jewish Spurs supporter. I have always found myself to be a little uncomfortable with the use of this word (not so much as to bring me out in hives or anything, mind), and it is not one that I would use myself. What, however, qualifies me to comment on it with any degree of authority on the subject? I’m hardly a regular attendee at White Hart Lane, and I’ve only heard the hissing noise of the gas chamber impression in person once myself, against West Ham United in 2005 (and, before anybody thinks otherwise, I’m not saying that suggest that it is a rare occurrence – I mention it merely to underline my unsuitability to lecture others on what they should or shouldn’t say). I’m unaware that there has been any criticism of its use from within the Jewish section of Tottenham’s support, and perhaps it is they that ultimately hold the casting vote over whether its continuing use is acceptable or not… if anybody does.
Ultimately, though, perhaps about as much as we can say on this subject with any degree of certainty is that the genie is out of the bottle with regard to Tottenham Hotspur Football Club and antisemitism. It has been thrown at Spurs supporters for longer than most care to remember, and the shrinking effect of the internet means that any imbecile with an iffy outlook on racial politics or who believes that “banter” trounces common decency any day of the week now already knows about Spurs and their local community. Banning the word “Yids” from White Hart Lane – or any football ground, really, considering that the sort of person that is going to impersonate a gas chamber might not be considered to be the most sensitive of souls to start with – isn’t going to change that simple fact, even for those amongst who might consider it the right thing to do.
And David Cameron is best advised to keep his bloody trap shut on the subject of association football.
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