On September 5, 1882, the English soccer club Tottenham Hotspur was founded. Not, on the face of it, an event of Jewish significance, except that in recent decades, the team’s fans have taken on a quasi-Jewish identity, calling themselves “Yids” or even as the “Yid Army.”
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It is true that the team’s chairman, Daniel Levy, is a Jew, and that a large number of its fans are Jewish as well. Nonetheless, there is no profound club connection with Jewish culture. What’s likely is that the club’s supporters began referring to themselves that way to disarm fans of rival teams who, decades ago, in a less politically correct era, thought they were insulting Tottenham by dubbing its followers “Yids.”
Which still leaves the question of why advocates of opposing teams identified the 'Spurs with Jews.
A toast to the Fuehrer
The answer probably lies in the fact that the team’s early years overlapped with the period – the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th – when a large wave of Jewish immigrants was entering the United Kingdom. A large percentage of them settled in London’s East End neighborhoods, only a few rail stops’ distance from the Hotspur home stadium, in White Hart Lane. By default, the club became the home team of many of the new Jewish arrivals.
Anthony Clavane, author of the book “Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here?: The Story of English Football’s Forgotten Tribe,” has suggested that finding a soccer team to support was one of the easiest and earliest means for Jewish immigrants to assimilate into British society.
Tottenham was not the only team with Jewish supporters: West Ham United and the nearby Arsenal have also been traditionally “Jewish” teams. Clavane estimates, however, that by the 1930s, about one-third of Tottenham’s fans were Jews. That’s why it was especially discomfiting for many Jews, when, during a 1935 “friendly” match at White Hart Lane between the national teams of England and Nazi Germany, the swastika flag was raised above the pitch and left there for the entire game. (The match, which England won, 3-0, was followed by a Football Association dinner that included a toast to the Fuehrer and singing of the “Horst Wessel.”)
Mistaken for an insult
In the original Yiddish, “Yid” is not a derogatory term: It is simply Yiddish for “Jew.” Certainly, among Eastern European Jews, it has always been a term of self-identification, without any of the complicated irony that makes it permissible among some black people to refer to themselves with the epithet that, when uttered by a white or anyone else, is considered one of the most hateful racist slurs in American English.
It was in the 1980s, when soccer hooliganism was at its worst, that the “Y” word started being used by opposing fans to insult Hotspur and its backers. When the fans defiantly adopted and embraced the term, the opponents would up the ante by shouting “Sieg Heil,” and making hissing noises, which were apparently meant to approximate the sound of a gas chamber.
A similar phenomenon began to appear during the 1970s years with the Dutch soccer club Ajax, whose old stadium, De Meer, was situated in what had once been the heavily Jewish section of east Amsterdam, although by then, there were few Jews remaining in the Netherlands. Nonetheless, Ajax supporters began calling themselves “SuperJews” and took to waving Israeli flags at matches.
However benign the intentions of the fans, as polite society became more sensitive to the potentially offensive nature of ethnic stereotypes, use of the word “Yid” began to face resistance. In 2011, two Jewish British comedians, the brothers David and Ivor Baddiel, made a clip calling for the elimination of use of the term at soccer matches. A few years later, a Tottenham fan – a lawyer -- threatened to report to the police spectators who used the word, whatever their intentions.
Team management responded that it had no problem with use of the word in a chant, since “the distinguishing factor” making a term racist is whether or not “it is used with the deliberate intention to cause offense.”