I entirely take the point my colleague Andrew Warshaw has made that Spurs fans, “have for years used chants like “yid” and “Yid Army” not as term of abuse but exactly the opposite: as a badge of honour, of identity, of pride, of endearment.”
However I disagree with him that the chanting is now acceptable. Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying such shouts are racist but they damage sport and drag society back to a less welcome age. But before I proceed further let me explain where I come from.
I am a Spurs fan, like Andrew, but unlike him did not follow the club because I was born in London, let alone lived near Tottenham. Nor am I of the Jewish faith. I grew up in India in the most remarkable of religious and cultural melting pots in the world, a Hindu, educated by Jesuits and with my best friend a Muslim and my sister’s best friend Jewish. Indeed my father had many business contacts with Jewish businessmen who had long been prominent in that city, Bombay even has a dock named after a famous Jewish businessman.
If this upbringing was exceptional then my becoming a Spurs supporter was also due to the remarkable international world I lived in. On Monday May 8, 1961, the Times of India led its sports page with Tottenham, the first English team do the double in the 20th century, parading the First Division trophy and the FA Cup through Tottenham High Street. I did not know where Tottenham was and had never heard of the team but I fell in love. That the club had such a strong Jewish support was something I was wholly unaware of and only realised nearly a decade later when I finally saw a match at White Hart Lane.
And in following Tottenham over the years I have heard some vile anti-Semitic chants directed at the Tottenham fans including the appalling cry of “Hitler’s on the march again, the Jews are on their way to Auschwitz”. How any sane, reasonable human being can utter such a cry, even in the middle of a passionate football match, beats me. I can still remember the fear that gripped me one night as I watched Tottenham play at Stamford Bridge in a League Cup match in the 1990-91 season. My seat was amidst Chelsea fans and as they sang their blood curdling anti-Semitic chants I genuinely felt I might not leave the ground alive. That night my old colleague Brian Glanville’s vivid description of Chelsea of the 80s and early 90s reminding him of Nuremberg felt very apt. Certainly nobody can question the contention that, “Anyone who has suffered from anti-Semitism knows how vile, pernicious and hurtful the insults and alienation can be.”
However my point is by chanting yids, albeit it as a term of endearment, these Spurs fans are alienating themselves.
For it is important to stress that anti-Semitism is not the only vile form of racism. I have myself been called all sorts of names while watching football including being chased down the train with fans shouting, ‘Hit the coon over the head with a baseball bat’. This back in the 80s was a very popular song among some football fans. And just before Tottenham played Watford in the 1987 Cup semi-final a group of Watford fans surrounded me and shouted, “Why don’t you f…. go back to Bangladesh”. This was an extremely odd shout as, while it is the land of my ancestors, at that stage I had never visited Bangladesh. But I presume these fans looking at my skin colour could not distinguish between an Indian and a Bangladeshi and, in any case, it was not meant as friendly advice.
Yet it has never entered my head to convert these chants into a comforting badge of honour, pride, identity and endearment by shouting coon or Paki. Andrew mentions that,” ‘Jermaine Defoe is a yiddo’ is one rhyming chant often used to describe the Spurs striker and England international. Is Defoe Jewish? No. Is he worshipped by many Spurs fans? Without a doubt”
But imagine if I, along with many Spurs fans who are non-white, whether black or brown, were to gather together and shout ‘Jermaine Defoe is a coon’. Can you imagine that such a chant would be acceptable? It would rightly be considered outrageous despite the fact that those doing the shouting have often been called coons themselves.
The problem with such chants is that their effect is often the exact opposite of what Andrew says yiddo does. It limits, it alienates and, far from defusing the situation, arouse old hatreds.
And it also devalues sport. This is not something anyone should do lightly.
For one of the great things about sport, particularly in the last century, has been that is has often been ahead of society. So back in the 1920s the MCC, not a body normally known for being progressive, encouraged the Indians to set up their own cricket board, granted them Test status and helped create the first all India organisation through cricket. And this at a time when the British rulers of India argued that it would take 500 years for Indians to rule themselves. Also that there should not be Indian officers in the Army as British men would not like to share a mess with Indians and that Indian doctors could not treat British patients since British men and women had to be treated by people of their own race.
The power of sport was felt even more dramatically in America when in 1947 Jackie Robinson became the first black player to play Major League Baseball. To judge how revolutionary this was it came more than a year before the American army was de-segregated, five years before Eartha Kitt became the first black performer on Broadway and almost 20 years before the Civil rights act allowed blacks the vote in the southern states of America.
The Jackie Robinson story has now been told in the film 42 – the number refers to the one on Robinson’s shirt. It is one of the most moving films I have seen. It powerfully illustrates how sport can change society, give it values to cherish and make it more universal.
And, of course, in the great struggle against apartheid, which for me remains one of the defining moments of my generation, sport played a huge part. Nelson Mandela was very aware of the power of sport and used that power very skilfully to create his rainbow nation, something many doubted was possible.
Against this background shouts of yiddo, however well intentioned, are a backward step. They devalue sport and devalue those of us who believe in the redemptive power of sport.