Andrew Warshaw: They call themselves Yids and they’re proud of it

Sometimes in football, as in other walks of life, a debate splits public opinion so far down the middle that it seems impossible to reconcile the two sides of the argument.

For once I am not talking about the Qatar 2022 World Cup but a highly complex domestic issue in England that is generating emotion-packed comment and opinion.

Anyone who has suffered from anti-semitism knows how vile, pernicious and hurtful the insults and alienation can be.

Hence the surprise by a large section of British Jews – and I suspect many others around the world – at the intervention of Prime Minister David Cameron backing the right of fans of Premier League side Tottenham Hotspur to describe themselves, without fear of prosecution, as ‘yids’, a term deemed highly offensive and derogatory by many in the Jewish community.

Cameron’s attempt at conciliation followed a warning by the English Football Association that those who use the ‘Y’ word face arrest as part of the general effort to eradicate racism from the game. But there are a sizeable number of fans who believe the FA have only inflamed the situation.

Let me explain.

Britain’s 260,000-strong Jewish community is Europe’s second largest and the world’s fifth biggest. Many Jews have historically settled in north London, the home of Tottenham who probably have more Jewish fans than any other professional side in the country.

Well-meaning Spurs fans – not all of them but a good number – 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.

Understandably – and it is important to stress this – Jews who do not follow Tottenham Hotspur and who vehemently oppose such chanting argue that it insensitive and embarrassing at best, and at worst conveys hateful prejudice, provokes persecution and displays an ignorance of history.

This same lobby also argues that most Spurs fans, perhaps 90%, are not Jewish – and that many Jews who attend Spurs games actually abhor the yid references. But this misses a vital point. There is a clear distinction between passionate, loyal fans supporting their club in a particular context and the disgusting anti-Semitic abuse directed at Tottenham by bigoted supporters of rival clubs, notably by hissing to mimick the gassing of Jews in the Holocaust. That really IS born out of ignorance. THEY are the fans who should be prosecuted.

If the ‘Y’ word blasted out with gusto by Tottenham supporters week-in, week-out really was based on religious hatred – and discernibly so – that would be the time to do something about it. But in one sense, it actually defuses the situation, acting – perversely or not – as a way of joyously uniting the fans behind a common cause. Spurs, rightly or wrongly, are known as ‘yiddos’. Just like Arsenal are as ‘Gooners’ or Everton as ‘Blue noses’ or ‘Toffees’. It may not have the same ring of innocence about it but it’s a reality, however unpalatable.

‘Jermain 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. That’s the point. It is not uncommon for 30,000 fans to sing the phrase ‘yiddo’ or ‘yid army’ following the scoring of a goal or in appreciation of a specific player. Are all of them going to be prosecuted?

It was no surprise last Saturday, after the FA’s directive, that thousands of diehard Spurs fans chanted “we’ll sing what we want” in clear defiance of the authorities. Tellingly, the chants came on Yom Kippur, the most religious day in the Jewish calendar though, of course, no-one knows precisely how many Jewish fans were in the stadium.

The Tottenham Hotspur Supporters’ Trust believe that it should be for the fans to decide if they stop using the word ‘yid’. On balance, that is the right and proper way forward. As Cameron rightly pointed out, “hate speech should be prosecuted – but only when it’s motivated by hate.”

Andrew Warshaw is chief correspondent of Insideworldfootball.