I always used to wince when my family asked this kind of question, but on Tuesday I will be watching Tottenham’s Champions League semi-final against Ajax and wondering which result will be “good for the Jews”.
I support neither team but the great thing about this match is that it is a rare clash between two big European clubs with strong Jewish identities.
They are not the only ones, of course. We have been kicking balls around in this country ever since Norwood Jews Orphanage thrashed Endearment 11-1 in 1901. There have been, periodically, important connections to the likes of Leeds, Leyton Orient, the two Manchester teams, Oldham, Brighton and several others.
Arsenal, especially, have always had a Jewish fan base. Long before their north London rivals, they were using their programmes to wish supporters well over Yom Kippur. Outside of Britain, several clubs — including Hakoah Vienna, MTK Budapest, Bayern Munich and Roma - have historically been perceived as Jewish.
But the two biggest symbols of our community’s longstanding love affair with the game are, without doubt, Spurs and Ajax. Which is why their two-legged contest in the last four of Europe’s most prestigious competition is an important moment.
So, which side are you on? Which team is more Jewish?
Tottenham were, actually, founded by a bible class teacher - but they attracted the support of Eastern European immigrants who settled in the East End in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. West Ham were closer but less welcoming. Orthodox Jews justified their presence at White Hart Lane on Shabbat by travelling to the ground via an electric tram - which, unlike the combustion-engined bus, was not forbidden.
Future, more socially-mobile and secular generations moved out to north London and forged their identity through the club. As one Spurs fan wrote in the JC: “It was possible to be in synagogue until the end of musaf, to nip home for a plate of lokshen soup and then board a tram from Aldgate to White Hart Lane.” In the 1930s, according to The Guardian, one in three of 30,000 fans at a home game was Jewish.
Up until the 1980s, however, as Mihir Bose has noted, there was “unofficial apartheid” between Jewish supporters and gentile directors.The breakthrough came in 1982 when Irving Scholar became a director, to be followed by two more Jewish chairmen, Alan Sugar and Daniel Levy.
The Lilywhites can even boast an Anglo-Jewish manager, a rarity in the game, in the form of David Pleat (formerly Plotz). And there have been a sprinkling of Jewish players over the years: Frank Okim, David Levene, Micky Dulin and Ronny Rosenthal.
Apart from Rosenthal, however, these were not well-known players. And they tended not to be identified as Jewish. Many fans thought Dulin was Italian and he didn’t go out of his way to correct them.
By contrast, Ajax’s Jewish players and managers, especially during their golden age in the 1960s and early 70s, were out and proud. In Brilliant Orange, David Winner’s wonderful history of Dutch football, a chapter headed The Jewish Club examines the kosher culture which allowed the likes of Bennie Muller, Johnny Roeg, Daniël de Ridder and Sjaak Swaart to thrive.
And, to this day, fans fly the Israeli flag at games, call their club “Super Jews” and sing songs with lyrics such as, “Anyone who doesn’t jump isn’t a Jew.” At one point, Hava Nagila was the ringtone on the Ajax website.
Their old De Meer stadium was based in Amsterdam’s Jewish quarter; the city was once home to bustling Sephardi and Ashkenazi communities and before the Second World War was dubbed the “Jerusalem of the West”. Following the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands in 1940, thousands of Jews were murdered, including Ajax outside-right Eddy Hamel, the first known Jewish player in the club’s history.
After the war, Jaap van Prag, his son Michael and Uri Coronel all became president creating, according to Simon Kuper, a “Jewish environment that was almost unique in the postwar Netherlands”.
So, having considered the evidence, my verdict is that both clubs are equally “hamishe”. Therefore I will support whichever team gets through to the final against Liverpool or Barcelona.
Mind you, I can remember how on Rosh Hashanah a few years ago the Merseysiders wished Jewish supporters a happy new year on their website. And Barca’s Lionel Messi is a proud member of the Beitar Jerusalem fan club…
Anthony Clavane is a university lecturer and the author of Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here?, Promised Land and Moving The Goalposts