Who Did You Call a Yid?

Row brewing over fans' nickname for Tottenham Hotspur.

A new row over racism in soccer is brewing in England - this time about whether fans of the London club Tottenham Hotspur can call themselves "Yids" without being charged with anti-Semitism.

For those unacquainted with the vocabulary of English soccer, it may seem strange that "Yid" - a Yiddish word for "Jews" - is seen as a racial slur. At one time, most European Jews would have regarded themselves as Yids, or Yidden, and to this day a Jewish-Yiddish newspaper is published in New York with the title Der Yid (literally, The Jew.)

But whether or not most Jewish soccer fans in London still support Spurs, if that was ever the case, the team and its fan base are universally called "the Yids." What makes this even stranger is that the latest claim against the word's use has been brought by the Society of Black Lawyers in Britain, and some Spurs supporters who are adamant about their right to continue calling their team "the Yids" are themselves Jewish.

The issue of racism in football is always present throughout Europe, but over the last year it has become more highly charged in England as a number of senior players have been accused of racially abusing other players. The most prominent case has been that of the former England captain and current captain of European champion Chelsea, John Terry. After being found guilty of hurling an ugly racial slur at Queen Park Rangers' Anton Ferdinand, Terry was banned for four games and fined 220,000 pounds sterling, but he continued to insist he was innocent. Meanwhile, the latest racism scandal involves a referee who is now being charged with using a racist taunt against a player, incidentally of Chelsea.

The Society of Black Lawyers is one of many public bodies seeking to join the campaign against racism in soccer and earlier this week presented a 10-point plan that includes sacking any soccer player found guilty of using racist language. In addition, the society threatened to report Tottenham Hotspur to the police if its fans don't stop using the word "Yids" in their chants. This enraged the team and its supporters, since they have traditionally used the word to identify themselves. As one Jewish fan said this week, "I'm proud to shout 'Come on you Yids' when we play."

'Reclaiming' hate terms

 Tottenham Hotspur fans claim they have been subjected to racism when supporters of rival teams have taunted them with cries of "Yids" and songs like "Spurs are on their way to Auschwitz, Hitler's going to gas them again." In an official statement, Tottenham management says that "the club does not tolerate any form of racist or abusive chanting," but that in their case, the use of "the Y-word" is not to cause offense, which would be regarded as racist by law. Rather, the team adds, "our fans adopted the chant as a defense mechanism in order to own the term and thereby deflect anti-Semitic abuse."

The tactic of "owning" or "taking possession" of racial slurs and terms of hatred has been adopted in recent years also by black communities and gay-rights groups but is still controversial. While many Jewish (and non-Jewish) Spurs fans feel it is their right to continue using their traditional nickname, Jewish supporters of other clubs are less happy with the idea.

Last year, Jewish comedians and writers David and Ivor Baddiel produced a short YouTube video called "The Y-Word" for the Let's Kick Racism Out Of Football campaign. The video by the Baddiel brothers, who are both Chelsea fans, features famous English soccer players of various origins, discusses the use of the word "Yids," and calls for a stop to anti-Semitism at soccer grounds.

Spurs fans at the West London derby, often held at Chelsea's home ground of Stamford Bridge, are regularly taunted with cries of "Yiddos" and hissing noises supposed to imitate the sound of gas chambers. There are Spurs fans who admit to being conflicted on this, though some defend their fellow supporters from any charge of racism
Raymond Simonson, chief executive of the Jewish Community Center in London and a lifelong supporter, says that, while "it's ridiculous to be having an investigation into this and totally over the top," he personally could never bring himself to use the word "Yid" on the soccer terraces and doesn't feel the need to "reclaim" it. "But at the same time, I have never felt offended by the way other Spurs fans use it. It's anti-Semitic when it's used offensively against us by supporters of other teams," he adds.

Mark Gardner, communications director of the Community Security Trust, an organization monitoring anti-Semitism, says that "it is a delicate and complicated matter." He says he has sympathy with Spurs' position that the team's fans are simply taking possession of the word, but ultimately cannot accept it.

"Since we have a problem now with racism and homophobia in British football and there is a policy of zero-tolerance to fight that, it is unacceptable that we would make any exception even if Spurs do not mean it in a derogatory fashion," he says. But Gardner admits it would be extremely difficult to actually change attitudes at the club, as "you would need to find a way to get all the Spurs fans to go against it."