A Belfast Blog: The fool on the Hill?

November 24, 2016 23:02

Just over a century ago, the late actor, Harold Goldblatt (founder of the Ulster Group Theatre), turned out for the football team of the Belfast Jewish community. "Our teachers told us to lose all our games," he once told me, "because if we won, it could cause anti-Semitism".

I often wondered if that was just an excuse for bad football results. Or was it the secret of Jewish survival in the diaspora. Keep your heads down boys and don't cause offence.

Goldblatt's words came to mind two years ago when I watched the Maccabi Haifa team fly into Belfast, wallop the home side, Glentoran, four-nil on the night, and thrash the pride of East Belfast ten-nil on aggregate. The crowd at the Oval stood as a man to applaud the visitors off the pitch. Clearly the Israelis take a different view on what earns respect.

The Glentoran manager that evening was ex Northern Ireland international, Alan McDonald. I wish he had been taught more than a footballing lesson by the multi-cultural and multi-talented Maccabi Haifa.

McDonald has stepped into the fray of sport and ethnicity. A TV pundit on the recent Crusaders versus Fulham Europa fixture at Seaview, Belfast, he is reported in the JC to have pointed to a nearby hill overlooking the ground, christening it "Jews hill". He is reported to have explained to viewers, "Its where you sit if you are too tight to pay to watch the game".

I'm probably the only Jewish fan of Crusaders FC. I happen to know the hill he means but never watched a match from it. As a rather podgy youth no one ever offered to lift me over the turnstyles either.

A non-Jewish MP, John Mann, chair of the All Party Parliamentary group against Anti-Semitism, has complained to Ofcom about McDonald's remarks.

Speaking to the London Jewish Chronicle, Mann says: "it is unbelievable in this day and age that such jaw-dropping ignorance was displayed". He is also seeking a meeting with the broadcasters, Setanta and Premier Sports.

Political correctness gone mad?

Growing up in Belfast, a "Jew" was any child in the playground who refused to share their sweets. I often wondered where that came from. It was unlikely a group of primary school children had all seen the Merchant of Venice or read Oliver Twist. Still the stereotype of Shylock and Fagin was passed down from generation to generation.

And not without official approval. My Dictionary tells me a Jew is a miser, a cheat, someone who drives a hard bargain. A Christian is a respectable, kindly and charitably-minded person.

Throughout its history the Belfast Jewish community donated to civic charities, such as the Lord Mayor's fund. The only Jewish Lord Mayor of the city, Sir Otto Jaffe, was perhaps the leading philanthropist of his day. I very much doubt if Jewish businessmen in Northern Ireland drove a harder bargain than their non Jewish competitors.

Alan McDonald? The ex Glentoran manager is a much capped Northern Ireland international. He will have visited many countries and experienced many different cultures. But as Andy Gray and Ron Atkinson demonstrated before him, that is no guarantee against deploying offensive stereotypes - in off the cuff and on air remarks. What is learnt from youth may never be successfully unlearnt.

Football has rightly recognised itself to be on the frontline in the battle against racism. Managers and senior footballers are role models and examples. If Alan wants to meet some Jews, I'd be pleased to arrange that. Would it make any difference? Who knows.

At the return fixture, at Fulham, I proudly stood with over 400 fellow Crusaders fans, wearing my kippa or skull cap. There were no stares and no funny remarks. Perhaps the world is changing, Alan McDonald?

November 24, 2016 23:02

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