Football is rooted in love. As kids, we love the simple joy of the game, and as we grow alongside it we love how it melds with what we love – community, family and friends. Football is who we are.
But where there are in-groups there are out-groups, and while as fans our antipathy to everyone who is not “us” mainly constitutes harmless fun … sometimes it doesn’t. The WhatsApp conversations of the Ashburton Army, a prominent Arsenal supporter group, were riddled with antisemitism that included references to Israel, the Holocaust and circumcision. Though I wasn’t surprised when I heard about them because to a Jew, antisemitism is never surprising, when I saw them I was staggered by their harrowing specificity, blase ferocity and mind-boggling abundance – likewise the apparent failure of any of the chat’s administrators to intervene. It is partially because of that omission that police are now investigating the matter.
Obviously all involved are responsible for their behaviour, and football is part of society so reflects its ills accordingly. But it is also a potent social force – why else do nation states want to trap it? – so if we can understand antisemitism in a footballing context, perhaps we can harness the game’s might and reach to make things better.
That it should be necessary makes some kind of sense. Although every Jewish space I’ve encountered has been heavy on football obsession, chances are your team have never had a Jewish player or manager. And because, for reasons of community, most of the UK’s 270,000 Jewish population tend to live in or near big cities, most clubs have few, if any, Jewish supporters, while at the game Jews tend to go incognito, often for reasons of safety. On the other hand, there have been and still are various Jewish owners, many of them unloved and another of them Roman Abramovich, so in the adversarial world of football, Jews tend to be seen as “other”.
This difference is embodied in Tottenham, labelled a Jewish club by rival fans and targeted with antisemitism. As such, hatred for “the Yids” proves loyalty in an environment which fosters competitiveness in that aspect. Unwittingly, Tottenham fans then became part of the problem by “reclaiming” the “Yids” moniker and applying it to themselves, problem being you can’t reclaim that which was never yours. Though their “Yids” and “Yid Army” chants began as ripostes, there now exists the bizarre scenario of non-Jewish Tottenham fans identifying as Jews by using an antisemitic term, thereby baiting rival non-Jewish fans into further antisemitism. Meanwhile, Jews are asked to believe that no one lustily shouting an antisemitic insult enjoys it on that basis – itself insulting – when Spurs’ identity is determined by their rich history, not the bigotry of rivals.
The reality is that a discriminatory epithet referring to any other minority would be banned already, called out by media whenever it was heard – but to be clear, I’m not about to go all “Jews don’t count”. It is wrong to minimise oppression of others to make clear one’s own; fighting bigotry requires unity, not competition; being Jewish is significantly easier than being plenty of other things. Antisemitism, though is present and rising. Communal institutions are protected by professional and lay security, while in Jewish schools kids practise hiding in case they’re attacked by armed invaders seeking their murder. So it’s worth noting that antisemitism is a distinct thing, differing in some facets from other forms of discrimination.
What’s interesting about the Ashburton Army rendition is how a group requiring prospective members to participate in social action could tolerate such venom. Perhaps because the Holocaust is taught in history it’s considered a historical event; perhaps its sheer craziness is a natural conduit for the off-key humour of dressing rooms and football grounds; perhaps six million is too gargantuan a number to process. But it seems fair to say that Holocaust humour is best left to Jews and Holocaust football songs are best left.
In the Ashburton Army group, Holocaust-related antisemitism was directly linked to Israel-related antisemitism, but the latter trope also stands alone and in my view clearly exists in football. It happened in Qatar during the World Cup, has been an issue at Celtic and with the Scotland national team, frequently follows when a club communicates with its Jewish fans, and there are players and nations who refuse to play against or shake hands with Israelis – but no one else.
For many Jews, Israel’s descent into far-right extremism is painful, personal and enraging. But haranguing them for that – when they’re talking football on the internet, say, and yes this has happened to me – is wrong. In which connection, it’s worth acknowledging a view curiously absent from the discourse whenever non-Jews debate the existential legitimacy of the world’s lone Jewish state: Israel exists because the Holocaust forced the world to accept finally the centuries’ worth of evidence proving it could not be trusted to refrain from annihilating its Jews. Whether these debates are antisemitic per se can be argued, but their deployment in the service of antisemitism cannot. Broadly speaking, they are found on the political left wing, and the fissure in society around leftwing antisemitism naturally exists within football.
Polling showed persuasively that the overwhelming majority of Anglo-Jews believed Jeremy Corbyn to be antisemitic and, given his vote share, it’s also likely that he had a strong constituency of support among football fans. In 2017, a Corbyn banner was displayed at Anfield and the Oh Jeremy Corbyn song originated at a football ground, is lifted directly from a football chant and was aired by Liverpool fans during a football match in December 2019. I’m confident those involved did not intend to make Jews feel uncomfortable and were instead supporting Corbyn for his anti-establishment defiance in a city eager for a left-wing government. But given the confrontational nature of football crowds and the community’s well-publicised fear at the time – Luciana Berger, the former MP for Liverpool Wavertree, left Labour because of antisemitism at both national and local level – these were disquieting developments for me and other Jewish matchgoers.
Discrimination is defeated with clarity and policy
So, what to do about all this? Well, discrimination is defeated with clarity and policy, so the stakeholders – clubs, authorities, broadcasters – need to meet with Jewish bodies, social psychologists, and diversity and inclusion experts, take guidance on what is and isn’t acceptable, then make that and the penalties for infraction clear to everyone. There is particular urgency that Tottenham’s London rivals take action to stop antisemitic abuse, while Tottenham themselves must inform fans that they may no longer call themselves “Yids”, as opposed to suggesting it would be nice if they stopped. This is not such an ask and, for those who find it is, tough. If the only way you can express love for your team is via antisemitic insult then the intensity of the relationship is probably too much for you.
Otherwise, there’s no reason why every club can’t be instructed to address their fans directly on antisemitism – and racism, and homophobia, and transphobia, and Islamophobia – by posting, emailing and publishing informative materials, then asking supporters to answer questions to show they’ve read them before buying tickets or memberships. Which is to say it’s time the game showed as much love to Jews as Jews – and other minorities – show it, because love that refuses to honour who we are is no kind of love at all.
• Daniel Harris is a writer and filmmaker