Euro 2012: where are these stadiums of hate?

A Jewish community leader in Poland tells spiked that the BBC was out of order depicting Poland and Ukraine as ‘bastions of intolerance’.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

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‘I don’t want the issue to be about me and the BBC.’

Speaking to Jonathan Ornstein, director of the Jewish Community Centre of Kraków, his frustration is clear. But sadly, since his appearance on the BBC’s flagship current-affairs show Panorama two weeks ago, the issue, in this case of racism in Eastern European football, has centred on him and the BBC.

For those who missed Panorama‘s latest panic-orama, which was aired on BBC 1 on 28 May, the title alone should give you the overriding flavour: ‘Euro 2012: Stadiums of Hate‘. And boy, did its content live up to its billing. Against an omnipresent background of pounding, pre-millennial angst music, the presenter proceeded to take us into the ‘dark heart’ of Poland and Ukraine, the Euro 2012 host countries. This, we were told, was a region where ‘fans give fascist salutes’ from the terraces, where ‘supporters are beaten for the colour of their skin’, and where racism and anti-Semitism lurk very near to the social surface. Incriminating anecdote and damning allusion were paraded throughout. We were informed, for example, that in the Polish city of Łódź, where ‘the Nazis exterminated 30,000 Jews’, the word Jew continues to be traded as in insult.

And there, in the midst of this high-profile, 30-minute tale of racist and anti-Semitic horror, was the American-born Jew Ornstein. By merely appearing in the programme, he, as the director of a major Jewish institution in Poland, seemed to be lending the Panorama narrative his approval. And that was the problem. As Ornstein made clear in a letter to The Economist last week, he most definitely did not approve of Panorama‘s portrait of anti-Semitism and racism in Poland. In fact, he felt the programme was ‘tendentious’ and its highly selective journalism ‘unethical’.

It was clear when I spoke to him that, despite the BBC’s subsequent protestations, his opinion remains unchanged on ‘Stadiums of Hate’ – ‘a title which I didn’t know of beforehand’, he tells me. ‘[The Panorama makers] had a lot of footage’, he says. ‘They spoke to people with different opinions. And yes, there are problems within the stadia, there is [anti-Semitic] graffiti. But they also spoke to people with different perspectives. They spoke to the prosecutor in Łódź, they spoke to someone in the police department, they spoke to an Israeli football player who’s playing in Warsaw. And they didn’t include those things. They didn’t include anything that didn’t fit with what it was they wanted to show.’

This is the centre of Ornstein’s criticisms: the programme was horrendously one-sided. Its makers were determined to present two entire East European countries as profoundly bigoted, not to mention mortally dangerous, regardless of what the people they interviewed actually said. ‘[The programme makers] spoke to people for a long time – such as the Nigerian footballers [playing for a Polish team] – and they chose to focus only on the negative aspects. Of course, it’s fine to show the negative, but if people do say things that balance the story a little bit, then surely that ought to be acknowledged, too. For instance, the Israeli footballer who says he feels good in Poland, the Nigerian footballers who say they enjoy being where they are. But this was not seen [to be] as sexy a story.’

Yet despite Ornstein’s attack on this wilfully misleading programme, he is understandably unwilling to answer why Panorama pursued the narrative it did. ‘It would be very speculative of me to try to get behind the motivation of the BBC and the way in which it presented the programme’, he says. Ornstein may shy away from speculation, but we shouldn’t. What seemed to drive ‘Stadiums of Hate’ was not an intention to deceive, exactly. It was something else: an overriding willingness to believe the worst about people from ‘over there’.

The East European ‘they’ are not like ‘us’, the programme seemed to be saying: they are less developed, less socially advanced; they need our moral lessons, our anti-racist schooling. Amid the apparent social backwardness of Poland and Ukraine, the multicultural, cosmopolitan superiority of Western Europe can shine through. And we in Britain can bask in its glow.

Ornstein does not sport a pair of rose-tinted spectacles, however. ‘There is a small per cent of football fans who behave atrociously, as they do anywhere’, he says. ‘But if you said to me, “Is the average Polish football fan racist or anti-Semitic?”, I would say absolutely not… That’s why it’s a shame that, partially because of the Panorama programme, Poland is seen as this bastion of intolerance.’

Ornstein also possesses a far more nuanced, less determinedly literal-minded attitude to the use of anti-Semitic iconography within football. That is, just because there is some football-related anti-Jewish graffiti adorning a city wall, that does not equate to ‘Polish football fans are anti-Semitic’. ‘We use the word anti-Semitism as if it’s one thing, but anti-Semitism is a category which explains a lot of things. So there are some countries which are politically correct, but there are attacks on Jews. And there are others where there is anti-Semitic graffiti, but Jews feel perfectly safe. It’s a complicated thing.’

Likewise, Jewish and anti-Jewish identities within football cannot be taken as a sign of what a society more broadly is like. Such identities tell us more about intra-team rivalry than they do some simmering ethnic or social conflict. Ornstein says: ‘With football teams, you’ll have one team that is seen as the Jewish – such as Kracow’s KS Cracovia’s “Jude gang” – and their nearest rivals who will see themselves as the anti-Jews. That’s a very strange form of anti-Semitism.’ Indeed. KS Cracovia’s ‘Jewish’ fans are in fact mainly working-class Catholics. This is why Ornstein admits that ‘the fans don’t understand the [anti-Semitic] terms exactly’. Not to mention the fact that this Jewish/anti-Jewish expression of football rivalry is far from unusual. ‘Anyone who has been to a Tottenham Hotspur game – “Yid army” and all of that – or Ajax, will know that this type of thing is not unique to Poland’, he rightly points out.

That too many in Western circles, especially the BBC Panorama team, seem incapable of grasping the complexities and nuances of the Polish situation should not be a surprise. The prejudices towards retrograde ex-Eastern Bloc countries are too ingrained, and the need to demonstrate moral superiority too strong, for clear-sightedness to emerge. ‘Patronising’ is Ornstein’s term for the prevailing Western attitude to Poles and Ukrainians. ‘I think that people who are very quick to criticise Eastern countries for being racist are missing the point a little bit. I would say that today, as a Jew walking around Kraków, wearing a Kippa, I think you’re just about safer here than you are anywhere in Western Europe.’

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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