“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 new English Premier League season will kick off on Saturday without a single Israeli on any of the top league’s 20 teams.
It shouldn’t be seen as entirely out of the ordinary for a nation of Israel’s size and resources not to have any representatives in the Premier League. As Joshua Halickman, aka The Sports Rabbi, explained to the Forward over the past two decades of the League’s existence, only two Israeli players have really made an impact on the English game: Yossi Benayoun and Eyal Berkovic. In reality, “Israelis have never been major players in the Premier League.”
Yet last season, there was a relative glut of Israeli footballers in England’s top tier. Europa League winners Chelsea had ‘the Diamond from Dimona’ Benayoun in their ranks, though he was only a bit-part player, used mostly as a substitute and was unpopular with the fans. Striker Itay Schechter could have made more of an impact at Swansea City had he been given a fair run in the side, while workhorse defender Tal Ben Haim joined Queens Park Rangers for the second half of the season, playing only three games.
Now they’re all gone. Benayoun’s contract expired and he’s now a free agent, rumored to be on his way to Turkey or the MLS. Ben Haim, after having a loan move to Toronto FC nixed, signed a two-year contract with Belgian side Standard Liège. In search of first-team football, Schechter has gone back to Israel and Hapoel Tel Aviv, as has young Fulham forward Omri Altman — though he will play for crosstown rivals Maccabi.
Benayoun and Ben Haim were, in any case, moving to the latter stage of their careers. Both over the age of 30, they were no longer demonstrating that they had the pace, strength, or technical ability to compete in the Premier League. What is concerning, however, is that no players are coming up out of Israel to succeed them. “I don’t think English clubs are at all adverse to purchasing Israeli players,” CNN’s James Masters told The Forward. “It’s just at this moment in time, the majority aren’t at the standard required.”
The question of why countries produce good or bad generations of players is rarely answerable satisfactorily. In the case of Israel’s current paucity of talent able to play in the Premier League, it might have something to do with that as a small nation with fewer resources, the system for developing players at the club level is underdeveloped. “The youth academies need to be revamped top to bottom,” Halickman said. “Israel needs some serious football people and investment which, unfortunately, they don’t have to be able to produce top line footballers.”
It might also be the case, however, that Premier League clubs aren’t looking hard enough. “The problem is that Premier League teams always want proven players and high-profile names,” Raphael Gellar, founder of Gellar Sports Radio and host of Kicking it with Raphael on World Football Daily, told the Forward. “Israel doesn’t have that big name the fans or the clubs in England want. Even if they were very successful in Israel, it doesn’t mean much. If they let the youth play more often and gave more Israelis a chance, I think we would see a lot more Israelis try and play in England.”
If you habitually discard the sports section, you might have missed news of European soccer’s biggest transfer story since Cristiano Ronaldo left Manchester United for Real Madrid four years ago. It involves Madrid again, in fact – Tottenham Hotspur’s star winger Gareth Bale is rumoured to be on the verge of moving there for a record-breaking $129 million.
The chance to play in the Champions League for one of Europe’s most successful clubs is a huge draw for Bale. He wants to leave – or rather, Bale hasn’t denied that he wishes to.
But there’s a snag. Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy is said to be holding out for more money. Even though Bale was purchased for a mere $7.6 million from Southampton in 2007, Levy wishes to bide time until Madrid offer as much as $152 million, perhaps even throwing in a player as a makeweight for the loss of the most gifted player Spurs have had for years, decades even.
News of Bale’s desire to get away from north London has turned some Spurs fans against him – such is soccer, where supporters are at once tribal and fickle. But ire has also been directed at the chairman – some of it anti-Semitic. Jay Stoll, General Secretary of the London School of Economics Students’ Union, highlighted yesterday the stream of abusive tweets directed towards Levy:
Twitter is a wonderful medium, but even at the best of times to use Stoll’s words it is a “cesspit of filth,” whether that be racism, sexism, homophobia, or anti-Semitism. Only this week, feminist campaigners in the UK have been pushing for a ‘report abuse’ button to be added to twitter so that those who threaten to rape or murder women directly can be weeded out and dealt with. To this extent, the tweets directed towards Levy are unsurprising, and in that there is much to be saddened about and ashamed of.
These tweets, however, also raise an important question of whether how Levy is portrayed in the media at-large reinforces a certain image or stereotype. For, over the past several seasons, Levy has acquired a reputation as the toughest negotiator in English soccer. It has become cliché to say that Levy is hard-nosed, tough, stubborn, or uncompromising.
Chelsea midfielder Yossi Benayoun says he is “trying everything to play in the MLS next season” ahead of the Israeli national team’s soccer friendly against Honduras in New York on Sunday, June 2. The game, Israel’s first in New York for over 35 years, will take place at Citi Field, after the annual Celebrate Israel parade.
The English Premier League star, who won a Europa League champions medal with London giants Chelsea this season, said that he is currently in talks with several clubs. His contract expires in June and “playing in America is one of my favorite options and I am trying everything to find a team in the MLS.”
The Israeli national team captain, and former Liverpool and Arsenal player, denied that his wishes to leave the English Premier League are a result of his being a repeated target of anti-Semitic hate speech on Twitter from British fans, saying that he thinks “the whole issue was exaggerated.” Benayoun continued to say that “there are racist people all over the world, even in Israel, and I don’t pay attention to those people no matter where I play.”
The Drunken Ship pub in Rome was host to 30 Tottenham Hotspur fans, in town to watch their soccer team’s Europa League encounter with S.S. Lazio last Wednesday night. At approximately 1 a.m. Thursday, Lazio so-called ultras —extremist hooligan fans — turned up at the bar armed with stones, metal bars, and knuckle dusters and clad in motorcycle helmets and scarves to obscure their identities.
The ultras smashed up the place, breaking windows and turning over tables, and then proceeded to assault the Tottenham fans. Of those who attempted to escape, Ashley Mills, 25, was stabbed in the leg with a switch blade and received several wounds to the head. The whole incident was over in around ten to twenty minutes, but in all ten Spurs supporters were injured, one seriously. Two Lazio ultras, Francesco Ianari, 26, and Mauro Pinnelli, 27, have been charged with attempted murder for the attack on Mills.
Police are currently investigating the motive behind the assault, with a number of factors pointing towards anti-Semitism.
Lazio has had a long association with Italian fascism. It was as the club favoured by Benito Mussolini, and this connection has not dimmed amongst the ultras who continue to unveil pro-fascist banner at matches. Witnesses at the scene of the assault heard the assailants shouting “Jews!” as they entered the bar and carried out the battering, and at the game itself on Thursday evening home supporters chanted “Juden Tottenham” as the two teams played out a 0-0 draw.
Lazio fans also unfurled “Free Palestine” banners in the stands.
Fans of London’s Tottenham Hotspur soccer team have long referred to their club) as the “Yid Army”, seizing and transforming a nasty pejorative into a peculiar badge of honour, as a way of pushing back against their abusers and detractors.
Not the first time, however, this modern tradition is being called into question, with London’s Society of Black Lawyers threatening legal action against Tottenham if their supporters do not retire their chants. Chair Peter Herbert told The Daily Mail, “In discussions with members of the Jewish community, we were made aware that this practice is still continuing and it has to come to an end. If neither Tottenham FC nor the FA are willing to take a stand then we will report the matter to the Metropolitan Police for investigation and, if necessary, prosecution.”
A deadline of November 20 has been set.
It is not uncommon for us here in the small world of Jewish journalism (or, as Marc Tracy over at Tablet so aptly dubbed it, the “shtetlsphere”) to marvel when The New York Times runs a story that would seem even too narrowly Jewish (or Israeli) for us. It happens, strangely, all the time. We don’t even feel beat, just confused.
But it is rare when, embedded in such a story, there is an acknowledgment of the inordinate interest that the paper of record takes in Jewish life. This morning I was reading an article in the sports section about the soccer team of Kiryat Shmona, one of Israel’s northernmost cities just on the border with Lebanon, home to 25,000 people. That’s right, the soccer team of Kiryat Shmona. At least the Times had the good sense to anticipate my incredulity with this:
When The New York Times recently contacted Adi Faraj, the club’s 26-year-old press officer, about doing an article about the team, he was initially convinced the phone call was a hoax.
“Why would The New York Times want to write about us?” he said.