As a Panini-sticker-collecting kid, the albums provided a lesson in football trivia that has stayed with me to this day. The stadium names, the players’ places of birth and the nicknames for every club, are etched in my memory.
My beloved Arsenal are of course the Gunners. Everton will always be the Toffeemen. United are the Red Devils and Tottenham Hotspur the Lilywhites — but never the Yids.
Some of my Jewish friends supported Spurs, others Arsenal. In the 80s, we had David Dein, they had Irving Scholar. Neither club was Jewish. Both were Jew-ish. In fact, as the Jewish Museum’s upcoming Four Four Jew exhibition highlights, Arsenal were nearly a decade ahead of their North London rivals in using the match-day programme to wish Jewish fans a Happy New Year at Rosh Hashanah. One-nil to the Arsenal (again), but this isn’t the time or place for point scoring.
The latest furore over Spurs fans calling themselves the “Yid Army” has not only touched these pages but reached Downing Street and the media here and across the world. As an Arsenal fan — a statement that will no doubt tint what follows in the eyes of the myopic and tribal —it is clear. Spurs fans are right. As they so triumphantly sang at home to Norwich earlier this month, they can sing what they want.
I just wish they wouldn’t. The worst thing the Football Association could have done was to make a pronouncement on the issue. Telling 38,000 football fans not to do something is pretty much guaranteed to have the exact opposite response. Instead of helping to address the problem, the FA has managed to inflame and spotlight it all at once.
The impact that this has on Jewish fans of other teams should not be ignored. I have been subjected to antisemitic abuse because of the association. On one occasion, in Munich of all places, a coach full of Arsenal supporters spent the 45-minute journey from the Beer Hall to the Olympic Stadium extolling the virtues of Hitler’s Jewish policy. Why? Because gassing the Jews would get rid of all Spurs fans. Obvious, really.
I’ve heard the argument, supported by David Cameron, that it is crazy to punish those who use the phrase in a positive way. The Prime Minister said it was the mens rea (a concept that has no doubt been debated at great length at White Hart Lane), the criminal intent, that matters. This is not about whether or not Spurs fans mean any harm. They don’t, and to try and punish them is both futile and unnecessary. It is also the case that there can be no excuse for antisemitism, whatever the basis or provocation. But this misses the point.
When the Spurs Supporters Trust talks about “reclaiming” the word “Yid”, it is unclear from whom it is being reclaimed and on whose behalf. Jews have, for a long time, used the word when speaking about themselves. It already has a non-offensive meaning in much the same way the N-word does when used by those within certain black communities. Imagine the reaction if Arsenal fans decided that being Gooners was a bit passé and now was the time to “reclaim” a word on behalf of the club’s black supporters with whom it shares a long and proud history. You would hope that common sense would prevail.
If Spurs fans really care so much about raising the esteem in which the pintele Yid of north London is held, then spare a thought for the vast majority of Jewish football fans who don’t support your team. Being a Lilywhite won’t offend anyone.