A war of words for the ‘Yid Army’
Ignore the touchy PC brigade: the fans of north London football club Tottenham Hotspur should be allowed to call themselves whatever they like.
YID – Your Ideal Dating – is an international Jewish dating site. Yid Vicious is an American klezmer (Jewish East European folk music) band. Yid Kids is a clothing line for newborns. Yid Army is the fan club of Tottenham Hotspur, a North London football club. Though the word ‘Yid’, which is the Yiddish ethnonym for Jew, has historically often been used as a pejorative (for an anti-Semite, simply calling someone a ‘Jew’ is a term of abuse), in these cases the word has no racist connotations. On the contrary, it is used humorously and, for Yid Army, it was originally a case of positively reclaiming a racial slur from rival supporters and throwing it back in their face.
Yet now, Tottenham Hotspur Football Club is conducting a ‘full consultation exercise’ over their fans’ habits of referring to themselves as the Yid Army because of fears it can give rise to ‘casual anti-Semitism’. A meeting next week will be attended by representatives of the club and its supporters’ trust, the Kick It Out anti-racism campaign, the Football Association, the Premier League and the Community Security Trust, a Jewish defence organisation.
There are various theories as to exactly when Spurs fans started referring to themselves as Yids and Yiddos. By most accounts, such words were originally used as an anti-Semitic provocation by opposing fans, but the Spurs, who have always had a sizeable Jewish fan base, took it over in the 1960s as a badge of honour. They thereby lessened its racist impact and got one up on their rivals.
Now, there are growing concerns that the Yid Army itself is causing racism because apparently people who don’t really understand the history of the term can become ‘casual anti-Semites’. It seems that so long as something offends someone somewhere – regardless of whether it was said informally or with racist intent – it can be construed as racist.
Two incidents over the past couple of weeks have reignited concerns that chants and phrases that have been bandied around football terraces for at least 40 years can give rise to anti-Semitism inside and outside sport stadiums.
During a Sunday football match, West Ham United fans were filmed chanting slogans such as ‘I’d rather be a Paki than a Jew’ during half-time at Upton Park. A week later, eight boys from Chauncy School in Hertfordshire were arrested for apparently saying ‘Yid Army’ at their teacher’s leaving do. This incident was also filmed and when the teacher, David Appleman, saw the video on the internet, he reported his students to the police, accusing them of making anti-Semitic remarks. According to the school’s headteacher, Dennis O’Sullivan, Appleman is ‘looking delighted, smiling and shaking hands with each of the boys’ on the video. O’Sullivan has criticised the police for treating the 15 and 16-year-old boys as criminals and said that ‘it is sad to see that he [Appleman] has made a complaint against our students without telling us’ (1).
O’Sullivan said: ‘We have Spurs supporters chanting “Yiddo! Yiddo!” about themselves at matches. I wonder if we will see the police making arrests at the next home match.’ (2) Well, considering the current consultation exercise and demands from the Commission for Equality and Human Rights (CEHR) that fans stop calling themselves Yiddos or the Yid Army, it seems neither football matches nor schools are safe from the language police these days.
Spurs fans say that the term Yid is part of the Tottenham subculture and that ‘some people not used to hearing the word used in this way may find it offensive, but genuine supporters usually try to explain to them that it is really an ironic term of endearment – and, importantly, that its use by Spurs fans has stopped its use as real racial abuse by rival supporters’ (3). Even if Tottenham supporters are today largely non-Jewish, Yid Army is simply the term they use to identify themselves as a group with a common interest, and to position themselves against rivals.
One fan said the word Yid is ‘part of our identity and we should be proud of it. It is not racist. It’s about sticking together and responding sensibly to the bullying of others many years before.’ Another fan said that ‘like a great many non-Jewish Spurs fans, my link to this great club goes back to the Jewish community. I am proud of the club’s Jewish links, and those links are celebrated by the fact that we identify ourselves as yiddos’. He added: ‘If there are certain sections who are offended by our own yid chants, perhaps it would be good for them to talk to the fans and learn why we sing it and find out how proud we are of the club’s Jewish heritage. In fact, if we stopped calling ourselves yids, this Jewish heritage would be less obvious for all to see.’ (4)
No doubt, things can get rowdy on football terraces where rivalry is expressed through taunts and insults, but demands that Spurs fans stop using words like Yiddos show that increasingly people aren’t even allowed to decide what to call themselves – never mind what they choose to call their rivals. This is despite the fact that the history of the Yid Army is bound up with popular fights against racism. These days, it seems racism can only be fought on our behalf, by anti-racist quangos and officials.
The link between language and racism is not as clear-cut as it is made out to be by those who want to clamp down on offensive speech. Not only because offence is often in the eye of the beholder, but also because taken out of context and held up to the standards of political correctness, phrases and chants lose the significance they have in their original settings. So the fact that West Ham fans are anti-Spurs, not anti-Semitic, is seen as irrelevant because the words they use to express it are not acceptable according to new and ever-widening definitions of ‘hate speech’.
Chants at sports stadiums should not be interpreted literally. An obvious case in point are the basketball games between Hapoel Jerusalem and Maccabi Tel Aviv in Israel, where a common chant from the Jerusalem supporters is ‘Ya Saddam ya habib udrub udrub Tel Aviv’. Hapoel fans adopted it after news programmes showed Palestinians chanting it on rooftops during the Gulf War. It means ‘Saddam, darling, bomb Tel Aviv’ in Arabic.
While the Yid Army turned the tables on their rivals and helped change the word Yid from an insult to a badge of honour, some supporters are seen as ostracising others who may be offended or even as causing anti-Semitism amongst schoolkids and justifying others’ racism. At a 2003 UEFA anti-racism conference, Chelsea chairman Ken Bates said: ‘It is hard to criticise Chelsea fans for calling Tottenham supporters something that they call themselves.’ (5)
The Yid Army website asks why, when fans have used the term Yid Army since the 1960s to deflect racism, it is seen as a problem now. Indeed, this is a sign of our times, of today’s growing tendency to divide society into those who cause offence, those who are easily offended, those who can be easily ignited by offensive words and those who need to police the public in order to minimise such speech.
But reading various Yid Army discussion forums, the Yiddos themselves seem more than capable of distinguishing between racist and affectionate speech. As one puts it: ‘I’m Jewish and a Spurs fan and I’m very proud that Spurs fans – whether they’re Jewish or not – have taken up the yiddo name as a badge of honour. I think that’s what anti-racism is about: people standing together whatever their race/origin/skin colour etc and shoving it back in the racists’ faces.’ (6) Another fan is more to the point: ‘I’m not jewish but i am a yid. Tottenham always will be the yid army and that is that. For any f u k e r who think political correctness is the way to go can go fuk themselves. im fed up with the s**t. coys. YID ARMY’
Nathalie Rothschild is reviews editor at spiked.
Nathalie Rothschild met Jewdas, a satirical Jewish community group whose members were arrested for handing out a ‘pisstake’ leaflet. Neil Davenport said that after Celebrity Big Brother witch hunting ‘racists’ has become a new British sport. Duleep Allirajah argued it’s time to kick ‘anti-racism’ out of football and Mick Hume said football is the home-ground of the id. Or read more at: spiked issue Race.
(1) School ‘racist’ arrests, Hertfordshire Mercury, 9 March 2007
(2) ‘Yid Army’ schoolboys held for alleged racism, Telegraph, 10 March 2007
(3) See Yid-army.co.uk
(4) See the ‘We are “Yids”’ discussion thread on the Vitalfootball website
(5) See the Kick it out website
(6) See the ‘We are “Yids”’ discussion thread on the Vitalfootball website