Arsenal vs Spurs? It's Doves vs Hawks

By Jonathan Freedland, November 7, 2013

The plural of anecdote is not data, I know. A few random experiences do not a scientific sample make. I appreciate that, too. So I tread warily — not least because I am about to venture into territory where two of the most toxic divisions in our community converge. But here goes.

As the ever-patient JC reader knows well, I write often on Israel. My views, while rooted in the firm desire to see Israel survive and thrive, veer to the doveish left. What may be less well-known is that I have, in recent years, become a late convert to the beautiful game — brought to it by my young sons’ fervent passion for Arsenal. Having had a football-free childhood, I am now a regular at the Emirates Stadium.

When I write on Israel, either here or in the Guardian, I routinely get a torrent of criticism (and some abuse) from those on the Jewish right. Some of it comes via Twitter, which helpfully offers a “profile” of those doing the criticising (and abusing). It’s here that I’ve spotted a curious trend: with striking regularity, they identify themselves as Spurs fans. The convergence of these interests is often spelled out on the Twitter profile — say, “Israel, running, Tottenham Hotspur.”

It now happens so often, I’ve come to expect it. There’ll be the denunciation of my stance on, say, the latest peace talks, then I’ll scroll through their past tweets and discover a hymn of praise for Andros Townsend or Andre Villas-Boas. The conclusion has become inescapable: the cockerel of White Hart Lane is a bit of a hawk.

The pattern repeats itself in reverse. Jews who share my doveish perspective on the conflict often turn out to be Arsenal fans. As it happens, three who devote much of their professional lives to the peace cause — analysts Daniel Levy and Tony Klug, along with Israel’s former New York consul Alon Pinkas — are all passionate Gooners.

Of course there will be counter-examples: like I say, I wouldn’t present this as a paper at a scientific conference. All I am passing on is a broad but striking trend. I could be wrong. But if I’m right, what might explain it?

I consulted Anthony Clavane, author of the acclaimed new study of Jews and football: Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here? He told me that Spurs certainly have a long attachment to Israel, its legendary double-winning team touring the country in the early 1960s. But Arsenal’s ties are close, too: there’s even a joint Arsenal-UJIA gap year scheme.

Perhaps it relates to the different histories of the fans. Arsenal, Clavane reports, won the hearts of bourgeois émigrés from central Europe, while Spurs drew heavily from the East End, among Jews who’d arrived from the poorer communities of Poland and Russia. Perhaps the tradition of Zionism was stronger among the latter?

I am reluctant to accept this version. Partly because I know that plenty of Spurs-supporting East End Jews — including members of my own family — were drawn not to Zionism but Communism. And partly because I don’t accept that, even if Arsenal fans were more “anglicised” than Spurs supporters, that would necessarily make them more moderate on Israel. To be a doveish Zionist is not to be a lukewarm Jew.

Nevertheless, the recent Y-word row does suggest a connection. Perhaps it is simply that Spurs fans represent a more in-your-face brand of Jewish identity — some would call it unapologetic, some would call it aggressive — that applies to both terrace chants and Middle Eastern politics. I’m not sure.

All I know for certain is, the abuse and insults are already on their way.

Jonathan Freedland is a columnist for the Guardian

Last updated: 3:06pm, November 7 2013