‘We are the yid army’ and we don’t need sanctimonious moral crusaders in football

As Cameron intervenes in the 'Yid' row to says Spurs fans should be able to use the phrase, we republish this piece from last year

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The Society of Black Lawyers appears to have a lot of spare time on their hands.

Its latest project is to re-educate Tottenham Spurs Football supporters and ban chants like ‘we are the yid army’ from the terraces. Last night Spurs fans sang ‘we’ll sing what we want’ in  defiance of the  imperious command to censor their voice. The response of the Society of Black Lawyers was to again repeat its threat to report the fans to the police for their alleged anti-semitic chanting.

The chair of the SBL, Peter Herbert has adopted the project of censoring Spurs fans as his personal crusade. But who made Herbert God? And how did he gain the authority to define who is and who isn’t an anti- semite?

As a life-long football and Spurs fan I can confirm that as in all walks of life, football is not immune from the scourge of racism and anti-Semitism. And after many years of sitting next to fans yelling Yiddo I can also confirm that what they are doing is giving expression to their self-chosen identit  and not insulting Jewish people.

Indeed, when my fellow Spurs fans shout ‘we are the yid army’ you can feel their palpable sense of pride.  For many of them, their positive embrace of the word yid expresses an act of self-determination. To turn what for some is a term of abuse into a positive expression of self identity represents a significant accomplishment.  To flaunt the phrase ‘we are the yids’in the face of the rest of the world is to deprive those who perceive this word to be a slight of its power to degrade  and insult.

It is actually quite an empowering experience to hear the word ‘Yiddo’ shouted by thousands football fans. This chant can last for 30 to 40 seconds and for a brief moment everyone has a sense of emotional solidarity with their self-consciously chosen identity. 

I say this as someone who is not only a Spurs fan but also Jewish and also as someone who has faced real anti-Semitism on more than one occasion. At the age of eight, I was suspended from school for two days for hitting out at a classmate, who called my mum a ‘fucking Jewish whore’. In the seventies I had my share of direct confrontations with the racist and anti-semitic National Front in East London. And throughout my adult life I have encountered my fair share of more subtle forms of middle class anti-Semitism. Since most of my family died in the Holocaust I am naturally sensitive to any manifestation of anti-Jewish prejudice. But unlike Peter Herbert and his mates that is not what I hear when Spurs supporters chant ‘we are the Yids’.

We should be very careful about policing language. The meaning of words is not always self-evident and depends on the context. Yes, the word Yid is usually used as a term of insult. However, it is sometimes used as a positive term of self-definition. So according to the Oxford English Dictionary,  the 1874 edition of Hotten’s Slang Dictionary notes that the word Yid is used by Jewish people ‘very frequently’. In my own lifetime I have heard the word used positively, neutrally and as a term of venomous hate. But then I have also heard the word Jew used in a variety of ways. In any case anti-Semites do not need to use a specific word to communicate hate. As an undergraduate at a North American University in the late sixties I knew that references to someone as ‘really New York’ was a not too subtle way of saying that he was ‘too Jewish’. Fortunately SBL has not yet come up with the idea of zero-tolerance towards the word New York.

Of course the SBL is entitled to peddle its fantasy about the spectre of anti-semitism haunting White Hart Lane. But they have no right to force people to chant according to their sanctimonious script. Their moral crusade seems to be little more than a publicity stunt, but one that is at the expense of a much loved way of life.

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