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Don’t Blame Soccer’s ‘Jewish’ Teams for Anti-Semitism

Hateful chants were notably absent when Tottenham played Ajax—but opponents of the two self-proclaimed Jewish teams routinely pelt them with neo-Nazi slogans.

Ajax fans hold an Israeli flag in the stands during the Champions League semifinal first leg at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London on April 30.
Ajax fans hold an Israeli flag in the stands during the Champions League semifinal first leg at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London on April 30. Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images

Tottenham Hotspur’s state-of-the-art new soccer stadium in North London is acoustically designed to maximize the impact of fans’ singing. But it’s not the volume that stuns. It’s the realization that some 60,000 people are chanting a derogatory word for Jews: “Yids! Yids! Yids!”

The word has become a tribal signifier. Tottenham, known as Spurs, has long been considered a Jewish club, even though it isn’t. Because of this, Spurs players and supporters have been on the receiving end of anti-Semitic insults from rival fans for years. In response, Spurs supporters adopted the Y-word as a badge of honor and belonging. The word now functions in much the same way that some African Americans use the N-word after seizing it from racists and reversing its meaning.

During this first match of a Champions League semifinal against the Dutch team Ajax, the North London stadium vibrated to deafening repetitions of the phrase “Yid Army,” which rolled around the high stands like thunder. One song rocks a single word: “Yiddos! Yiddos! Yiddos!”—an emphatic riposte to police, politicians, anti-racism groups, Jewish leaders, and others who want all this to stop.

The official view is that the Y-word causes trouble: Non-Jews have no right to appropriate it, and even if it’s not itself anti-Semitic, it encourages anti-Semites to be anti-Semitic. In 2013, the London Metropolitan Police warned Tottenham fans not to use the Y-word. This followed the ruling by English soccer’s governing body, the Football Association, that the word was unacceptable. The stance was backed by the Board of Deputies of British Jews but was rather undermined when prosecutors dropped the case against three Spurs fans who’d been arrested for chanting it at a game.

In January, the chief executive of the World Jewish Congress, Robert Singer, had another go, urging English soccer fans to take a stand against religious, racial, or ethnic slurs. “Yid,” he said, carried a clear “pejorative and anti-Semitic message” and its use in the context of soccer “must not be tolerated in any way.” Spurs fans responded during the match on April 30 (and most other nights) with a gleeful, defiant song: “They tried to stop us and look what it did / The thing I love most is being a yid!” The weirdest thing about all this is that remarkably few of the people chanting and shouting are actually Jewish.

Historically, Spurs has had a few Jewish players, such as Micky Dulin in the 1950s and Ronny Rosenthal in the 1990s. And its last three chairmen, including the current one, Daniel Levy, have been Jews. But the club has no Jewish players now, and, although the stadium is located near neighborhoods where many Orthodox Jews live, only a small percentage of Tottenham’s fans are Jewish.

Tottenham’s most recent Champions League opponent (to which it lost at home on April 30 and then defeated on the road on May 8) was Ajax, from Amsterdam—a team with its own Jewish identity and songs. When the team played at Tottenham, the Ajax fans clustered in the northeast corner of the stadium, boisterously waving Israeli flags, jumping up and down, and chanting: “Ajaxjoden! Superjoden!” (“Ajax Jews! Super Jews!”) and “Joden! Joden! Joden!” (“Jews! Jews! Jews!”)

An even lower proportion of Ajax fans are actual Jews, and the self-proclaimed Jewishness of the other supporters of the Dutch team is particularly complex and anguished because between 1940 and 1945 most of Amsterdam’s real Jews were deported and murdered by the Nazis.

The club’s Jewish roots are similar to those of Spurs. Before World War II, Ajax had lots of Jewish fans, who traveled by tram from the Jodenbuurt (Jewish district) near the center of Amsterdam to watch games at the Ajax stadium near the city’s edge. The club had a few Jewish or half-Jewish players, such as Bennie Muller and Sjaak Swart in the 1960s and Eddy Hamel, a popular player in the 1930s who was murdered at Auschwitz.

Some of the club’s greatest chairmen have been Jews, too, including Jaap van Praag, a Holocaust survivor who found comfort in the familylike atmosphere of the club after the war. He became a successful businessman and—with coach Rinus Michels and star player Johan Cruyff, one of the game’s best players ever—helped turn Ajax into the world’s top team in the early 1970s. (They were European champions three years in a row and pioneered the still influential attacking style of play known as Total Football.) Van Praag’s son Michael was chairman when the club became European and world champions again in 1995.

Moreover, the club is an icon of Amsterdam, a city whose culture and language still has a Jewish flavor, such as the Yiddish-inflected bargoens, a form of Dutch slang including words like mazzel (luck) and mesjogge (crazy). Indeed, Jewish mayors such as Ed van Thijn and Job Cohen were a feature of Amsterdam politics in the late 20th century.

The Spurs fans who call themselves Yids and the Ajax fans who call themselves Joden both defy anti-Semitism and attract it. When they get blamed for causing Jew-hatred, they point out that the only people responsible for Jew-hatred are the Jew-haters themselves.

And there’s a depressing number of them. Fans of Feyenoord, Ajax’s bitter rivals in Rotterdam, are notorious for anti-Ajax songs such as “Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas chamber.” Evocations of the Holocaust, in which three-quarters of Dutch Jews were slaughtered (a higher percentage than in any other Western European country), are perennially popular with the team’s rivals.

In the early 1980s, the Amsterdam newspaper Het Parool published a photograph of a particularly egregious example: Rival fans appeared at an Ajax match with a banner reading, “Hey Adolf, there are eleven here. If you don’t gas them, we’ll do it ourselves.”

In 2011, Lex Immers, a player for the Dutch team ADO Den Haag, was caught on video celebrating a victory over Ajax with fans by singing, “Let’s all go on a Jew hunt”—a song popular with members of the NSB, the Dutch Nazi party. (Immers apologized and was suspended for five matches.)

Such sentiments, replicated and intensified by social media, are sometimes taken as evidence of raw and alarming anti-Semitism. In truth, they are just as likely to be expressions of mere soccer tribalism: Fans use whatever they can to denigrate and upset their rivals.

Most Feyenoord fans yelling anti-Semitic abuse just hate Ajax and Amsterdam. They know little or nothing about real Jews and don’t want to kill them. Anti-racism campaigners, however, warn that ritualized insults in soccer tend to normalize a negative image of Jews in society and erode the taboo against anti-Semitism.

A large part of the problem is ignorance. Fans can tell themselves that the vilest insults are just stadium banter. But the truth is that, like the racists who used to throw bananas and make monkey noises at black players, if they chant about gas chambers, they are bringing something genuinely malevolent into play.

Like the racists who used to throw bananas and make monkey noises at black players, fans who chant about gas chambers are bringing something genuinely malevolent into play.

Even in London, where there was no Holocaust, there is a pattern of abuse and insult, especially from supporters of Spurs’ local rivals Chelsea and West Ham United. Even children’s nursery rhymes can get twisted. Chelsea fans have been known to sing, “One man went to gas, went to gas a yiddo,” a corruption of the popular children’s counting song, “One man went to mow, went to mow a meadow.”

The Dutch like to think of themselves as having been fiercely anti-Nazi during the war. The truth, as the Financial Times journalist Simon Kuper explains in his book Ajax, the Dutch, the War, was different. There was resistance but also plenty of collaboration. Amsterdam police efficiently rounded up Jews for the Nazis. Dutch railway workers (unlike their counterparts in other countries) made sure to lock the doors on the cattle trucks transporting Jews to slaughter in Auschwitz and Sobibor. Jews had a better chance of surviving in Berlin than in Amsterdam.

Ajax’s wartime history reflects this complexity. The close-knit network of club members helped some Jews to survive. But some Ajax men collaborated. A former team captain, Joop Pelser, joined the NSB and guarded Jews awaiting deportation. Foeke Kermer, a youth coach, captured people hiding from the Germans and beat prisoners to death; according to a postwar legal dossier, he “behaved like a beast.”

In the Netherlands, the “Ajax Jew” phenomenon is so deep-rooted that people have all but given up trying to get Ajax to stop it. In Britain, though, the chants are still contested. In 2010, David and Ivor Baddiel, Chelsea-supporting Jewish brothers and comedy writers appalled by the anti-Semitic heckling of their own team’s fans, made a short film featuring stars such as former Spurs players Gary Lineker and Ledley King to urge an end to the practice. Last year, Ivor Baddiel made a second campaigning film on the subject, backed by the anti-racist group Kick It Out—this time as part of a campaign by Chelsea to stamp out anti-Semitism among the club’s fans.

Jews in both London and Amsterdam seem ambivalent about the phenomenon. Some see it as an insulting appropriation of words and symbols. One of the most thoughtful studies of the phenomenon is Superjews, a documentary film by Nirit Peled, a left-wing Israeli who moved to the Netherlands after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. She had hoped to escape flag-waving Jewish nationalists and was dismayed to find herself among hordes of non-Jewish “Jews” waving the same flags in Holland.

She met an elderly Jewish woman named Mrs. Visser, the only member of her entire family to survive the Holocaust, who recalls happy afternoons at the Ajax stadium before the war and, with her husband, afterward. She still watches the team on TV in the hospital. But the stadium chanting, she told Peled, is “just terrible. It reminds me of all the things that happened during the war. My whole family went to the gas chambers. People don’t understand the impact of those words on Jewish people.”

For some non-Jewish fans, though, being an Ajax Jew is powerfully meaningful. A young boy whose Ajax-loving father died of cystic fibrosis now attends matches wearing an Ajax-themed Star of David pendant and a little silver soccer ball containing his dad’s ashes. Another interviewee in the film, who has no interest in converting to Judaism, insists he belongs in a category so far unrecognized by any rabbinical authority: an Ajax Jew.

One fan, who has no interest in converting to Judaism, insists he belongs in a category so far unrecognized by any rabbinical authority: an Ajax Jew.

Uri Coronel, the Jewish former chairman of Ajax, used to dislike the chants and Star of David flags, hats, and scarves. His view has mellowed. “I realize their motives are sincere. It’s got nothing to do with anti-Semitism. No one in my family, whether they are Orthodox or not, will come home from a match saying they had a terrible time,” he told Peled.

This week, Ajax fans are in a melancholic mood while Spurs fans are triumphant after the Tottenham team staged a dramatic comeback to win the second leg of the semifinal and advance to the prestigious Champions League final.

But both teams’ quasi-Jewish identity seems to be intact with both sets of non-Jews confirmed in their soccer-related beliefs. It is significant that the Jewish supporters of clubs with anti-Semitic fans are notably more alarmed by the chants than the Jewish supporters of Ajax and Spurs. Among the fans of both Ajax and Spurs, there is often genuine warmth toward actual Jews. Spurs fans sometimes applaud baffled Hasidic Jews in the street when they pass through the Orthodox Stamford Hill neighborhood en route to Tottenham’s stadium. Ajax fans who visited Israel for the “Jewish derby” match against Hapoel Haifa in 1999 told Israeli TV that they had “come home.”

The Ajax fans’ strange sense of Jewishness could be seen as an inchoate act of solidarity with Amsterdam’s missing, murdered Jews. But whatever is driving it, one thing seems clear: The problem of anti-Semitism in British and Dutch soccer is not generated by Spurs and Ajax fans. The responsibility lies with those who do the hating rather than those who are the targets of hatred.

David S. Winner is a London-based journalist and the author of Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer. Twitter: @dwinnera

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