Forward Thinking

Don't Ban 'Y-Word' From British Soccer

By Eddy Portnoy

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eddy portnoy

“There is a problem in my country… and this problem is the Jew,” Borat chanted famously. But it may as well be David Baddiel singing. Who is David Baddiel, you ask? He is a mid-table British comedian who has initiated a campaign to expunge what he calls the “Y-word” from British football chants. The Y-word, or according to Baddiel, who is himself Jewish, the word that shall not be named, is actually the relatively innocuous, “Yid.”

In origin the Yiddish word for “Jew,” Yid has sometimes been used by anti-Semites to denote displeasure with those of the Jewish persuasion. This appears to have been the case in the early part of the 20th century when a large and concentrated Jewish population was able to take the train quickly and conveniently to Tottenham in North London where Tottenham Hotspur (“Spurs”) played. During the 1960s and 1970s, rival teams’ fans began to call Tottenham the “Yids,” and in an unusual moment of cultural solidarity, Tottenham fans, Jewish and Gentile alike, said, okay, we’ll be the Yids.

With that developed a homegrown, organic sensibility that Tottenham was a “Jewish” team, a sensibility has remained until today. Their fans call themselves the “Yid Army,” chant the same during games, and call each other and the team’s players, “Yiddos.” The use of the term is a whole hog reappropriation of a negative usage, transformed into absolute positivity and brotherhood.

Baddiel is correct to point out that most Spurs supporters are not Jewish. As a result, it may be the first time in history that a large group of Gentiles has willingly taken on, with great pride, a type of Jewish identity. It is, as noted by Sleeper’s Sleep on the fansite cartilagefreecaptain.com, an “I am Spartacus” moment in the face of taunting, bigoted abuse from other team’s fans, the result was, “some of us are Yids? No. All of us are Yids.” This attitude is what has made many of us around the world Spurs fans and frankly, the Jews could have used a lot more attitudes like this throughout their history.

But Baddiel doesn’t think so and he’s convinced the Football Association to look into the matter. Instead of investigating the opposing fans anti-Jewish rhetoric, Baddiel wants Spurs fans to stop calling themselves Yids. Blaming the victim, apparently, is easier than shaming the perpetrators.

The British Football Association has said it plans to issue a questionnaire to Tottenham fans to see how they feel about it, an absurd plan on the face of it. Spurs fans responded to the idea by chanting, “Yid Army” and “We’ll sing what we want.” Even more ridiculously, British PM David Cameron was drawn into the fray, and sagely offered, “There’s a difference between Spurs fans self-describing themselves as Yids and someone calling someone a Yid as an insult. You have to be motivated by hate. Hate speech should be prosecuted — but only when it’s motivated by hate.”

But is this tribal, Yiddish, football-based identity based on hate? It doesn’t seem so. As John Efron notes in his excellent essay on the topic, “When Is a Yid Not a Yid,” in the Jewish sports anthology, “Emancipation Through Muscles,” Tottenham’s grounds have long been remarkably racism-free, a result of the fans having taken on the underdog identity of Jews. According to Efron, Gentile Spurs supporters “responded to the incessant, abusive chant of ‘Yiddos, Yiddos’” by chanting it right back in the faces of their antagonists. Tottenham fans evidently internalized a classic Jewish defense mechanism, so prevalent in the realm of Jewish humor, in which an anti-Semitic joke can be transformed into a legitimate Jewish joke when told by a Jew.

This isn’t the first time it’s been demanded that Tottenham efface its Yid identity. Ten years ago, rivals Arsenal and Chelsea complained that anti-Semitism on the part of their fans was the fault of Spurs’ Yiddo culture. According to Efron, this is, in part, true. Within the context of football rivalries, a certain give and take is required. The equation then goes if Spurs are Yids, then opposing teams must be anti-Semites. But if anti-Semitic chants disappeared from the Chelsea terrraces, would Spurs supporters stop being Yiddos? It doesn’t seem so. Yiddo culture is well-ingrained at White Hart Lane, an integral component of Tottenham Hotspur identity.

The point is that it is unjust to force Spurs supporters to alter components of their cultural identity because opposing fans react in a particular way.

If anything, deal first with the anti-Semitism, then, if Tottenham’s Yiddo culture can’t live without the give and take, it will fade away. But that doesn’t seem likely.


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