Two of my favorite people are Spurs fans. I try not to hold it against them. One is a much esteemed colleague and editor, which is never a problem since I very rarely write about football (soccer, for you Americans out there). The other one is a mate with whom I often watch Champions League matches in our favorite pub in London. But his lamentable loyalty is not a problem there either (and if you know anything about English football, I don't have to tell you why). Anyone who loves the game and passionately follows a team has to constantly remind him- or herself that you don't choose a team to support, it chooses you.
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I like to congratulate myself that the reason I disdain all London teams equally – and Spurs just a little bit more – is because I am a discerning purist of the beautiful game. Of course, it was only a fortunate accident of birth that planted me on the right side of the great Manchester divide. So I have no problem admitting that you can be a decent person and still support a truly awful team. But for once, every straight-thinking Briton – indeed anyone who cares for English football – should stand squarely behind Tottenham fans.
I have written dispassionately in the past of the big Yid debate– whether or not there is a tinge of anti-Semitism to the proud nickname of Tottenham Hotspur FC fans, or "the Yid army" as they insist on calling themselves. It doesn't concern me, of course, but in recent days following a miserable decision by England's Football Association, stupidly endorsed by the Board of Deputies of British Jews and by the usually level-headed Community Security Trust, it is no longer just a question of football terraces etiquette.
After lengthy deliberations, the association issued its ruling that the word "Yid" is "derogatory and offensive" and that “use of the term in a public setting could amount to a criminal offense, and leave those fans liable to prosecution and potentially a lengthy Football Banning Order.” I doubt that the association consulted with a Yiddish etymologist before their pronouncement, but if they had, they would have been told that the Yiddish word for "Jew" has always been entirely acceptable in our circles. Der Yid (The Jew) is even the name of a weekly Yiddish magazine catering to a mainly ultra-Orthodox readership, in publication for the last 60 years in the United States.
Some Spurs fans explain that, like the black community with the N-word or the gay community with the word "queer," they are "reclaiming" Yid in the same way. That isn't necessary – we have no need of reclaiming a word that was always ours. Actually, in other circumstances, Jewish supporters of other teams may feel aggrieved with Spurs fans for claiming Yid for themselves. But they have so little else to brag about, so let them at least have that. I certainly was happy to see thousands of them chanting this weekend at White Hart Lane, "We are the Yid army" and "We will sing what we want." And, just for once, I derived some grim satisfaction from their winning.
But the debate has put a spotlight on the often farcical depths that discussions of race and hate-speech descend to in Britain, along with the misplaced paranoia of parts of the Jewish community. Nowhere is that muddle more prevalent than in football, where one top Premier League team failed to demote its captain who abused a black player with a nasty racist taunt during a game, and another, slightly less prominent Premier League side, is managed by a man who has publicly professed his admiration for Italian Fascism. That the Football Association is wasting its time threatening to prosecute football fans for using a quaint nickname instead of tackling real problems – not to mention trying to fix the chronic failings of its national team – is preposterous. That two of the most important Jewish bodies in Britain have come out in support of such a frivolous exercise is no less than scandalous.
Back in the 1960s, Manchester businessman Marcus Shloimovitz pursued a long and lonely legal battle against the Oxford English Dictionary. Shloimovitz tried to get the most respected dictionary in the English-speaking world to drop two of its definitions for the word "Jew" – the noun: "Person who drives hard bargains, usurer" and the verb: "to Jew - cheat, bargain with (person) to lower his price."
The high court judge turned him down on a technicality, and the Oxford University Press' position that a dictionary is there to record the use of words and their history, not to keep language clean, quite rightly won the day. The OED kept the nasty definitions, but in subsequent editions noted that these were offensive and derogatory usages – not the word Jew itself.
One misses this English common sense today. How difficult is it to understand that when a team with a wide Jewish fan base and prominent Jewish businesspeople among its executives proudly call themselves Yids, there is nothing anti-Semitic about it. It would be even complimentary to Jews if it was a half decent club. But when supporters of rival Chelsea or Arsenal sing the "the Yids are going to Auschwitz," accompanied by the hissing sounds of gas, that is rank racism. You would think it was simple enough, but in England you need the prime minister to point out the obvious, as David Cameron laudably did Monday when he told the Jewish Chronicle that “you have to think of the mens rea. 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.”
Not having Cameron's Eton and Oxford education, I had to Google mens rea to understand exactly what he was on about. But I know anti-Semitism when I see it. There is too much racism and xenophobia around the world today for us to be wasting ammunition shooting at shadows. Call me a Yid any day – just don't call me a Spurs supporter.