Is it always wrong to use racial epithets, regardless of the context? It’s an old debate, recently revived and applied to football fans. The Football Association (FA), anti-racism campaigners and Jewish groups all say such terms should have no place in football. But Tottenham’s “Yid Army” would disagree.
It’s a hot topic right now as The FA has issued a statement warning fans that those caught using the term “Yid” are liable for criminal prosecution and a Football Banning Order.
The word “Yid” (literally meaning “Jew”) emerged from the Eastern European language, Yiddish. It originally had no pejorative connotation and was used as a term of endearment and familiarity. The word only became a derogatory epithet employed by antisemites when the Nazis started to abbreviate Yiddish speakers to “Yids”.
The FA’s warning was aimed at the fans of Tottenham Hotspur, a football club with an historically complicated relationship with the term “Yid” for over 40 years. This stems from Tottenham traditionally attracting Jewish fans as a result of its location in north London, near Hasidic Jewish communities that settled there in the 1930s as they fled persecution in Europe. This relationship has been perpetuated by Tottenham historically having Jewish players, coaches and especially owners, including the last three chairmen: Irving Scholar (1982-1991), Alan Sugar (1991-2001) and Daniel Levy (2001-present).
However, this Jewish connection led to Tottenham fans being targeted as “Yids”. Songs about the Holocaust are often aimed at them, together with hissing sounds simulating the noise of Nazi gas chambers, particularly from sections of London rivals Chelsea and West Ham United’s fans.
In response to this bigotry in the 1970s, many Tottenham supporters – both Gentiles and Jews – appropriated “Yid” and variations such as “Yiddo” in their own chants as a badge of honour. This apparent attempt to deflect the antisemitic abuse and defuse its power as an insult is now a cornerstone of Tottenham fan culture. Some Tottenham fans (like those of AFC Ajax in Amsterdam) have even adopted the Star of David on flags, clothing and tattoos even though the sign is not permitted by the club on official merchandise.
This use of “Yid” can be understood as a form of “linguistic reclamation”, that is, the appropriation of a pejorative epithet by its target to challenge and expunge the stigma associated with the word. There are parallels here with the reclamation of other slurs by feminists, gays and lesbians, and the black community.
Looking at the word “queer”, Robin Brontsema argues that there are at least three identifiable goals to this reclamation: 1) value reversal to transform the negative meaning into a positive one; 2) neutralisation to nullify the force of the word; 3) stigma exploitation whereby the stigma is purposefully retained as a confrontational, revolutionary call.
These goals can also be understood – but are often overlooked – as driving factors behind the use of “Yid” by Tottenham fans. Another oversight is that many rival fans innocently refer to Spurs fans as “Yids” in the same way that fans of Arsenal are referred to as “Gooners” or fans of Liverpool and Everton as “Scousers”. For many fans today, the word “Yid” has become disconnected from its original Jewish meaning and is now synonymous with Tottenham Hotspur.
The FA’s statement has reignited a major debate in the national press, on radio phone-ins and via social media between football fans, Jewish groups, social commentators and the Society of Black Lawyers.
Even David Cameron has had his say, attempting to highlight the potential different uses and contextual meanings of the word.
There’s a difference between Spurs fans self-describing themselves as Yids and someone calling someone a Yid as an insult… Hate speech should be prosecuted - but only when it’s motivated by hate.
Cameron was accused of hypocrisy by Jewish comedian, David Baddiel, on the grounds that the Prime Minister would not have had the same reaction if the chants had been about other ethnic minorities. Baddiel has long fought against antisemitism in football. He and his brother Ivor, both Chelsea fans, made a short film in 2011 campaigning against use of the “Y-word” for football’s equality and inclusion organisation Kick It Out. The film caused resentment among the Tottenham fan base, who believed that they were misguidedly the focus of the film, rather than their abusers from West Ham and Chelsea.
Many Tottenham fans resent The FA’s warning, pointing to the context in which they use “Yid” – as a term of endearment – in contrast to its use by some of their opponents as an epithet. Last weekend, many Tottenham fans voiced their disapproval with defiant choruses of “We’re Tottenham Hotspur! We’ll sing what we want!” followed by their chant of “Yid Army!”
Tottenham have announced that they will canvass fans on their opinions on “whether now is the time to stop using this [Jewish] identity”. But despite this many fans are concerned that their voices are not being heard.
One way to progress this sensitive and complex debate would be through achieving a greater understanding of antisemitism in football and of Tottenham Hotspur’s relationship with Judaism. We must recognise the complexity of language: that the use of once-racist terms can have different meanings and effects in different contexts.
A more sophisticated and comprehensive understanding of the uses of “Yid” in football fandom would acknowledge the fluidity of linguistic reclamation and “ownership”. This is something The FA, the “Y-Word” filmmakers and the Society of Black Lawyers have failed to do thus far through their “zero tolerance” approach.