When is a racist chant not racist chant? That all depends, according to the British Prime Minister David Cameron.
The English FA recently informed Tottenham Hotspur fans and the club to drop references to themselves as Yids in their chants, to the point of threatening banning orders or criminal charges. The team is located in what was once a very Jewish neighbourhood of London, and in other times was branded by derisive anti-Semitic names by opposing fans – this includes hissing at the Tottenham fans to mimic the sound of gas chambers during the Holocaust. Times change and although one would hardly describe the White Hart Lane neighbourhood as Jewish now, the identity has stuck with the club. Fans calling themselves the ‘Yid Army’ and singing songs of their link to that Jewish past are seen by some fans has having reclaimed those derogatory terms and given them a more positive association.
Yet it is this same history and identification with their Jewish history that played a role in the recent troubles some of their fans found themselves in last year while visiting Rome to play SS Lazio, a club associated with fascist ultras and a history of being supported by Mussolini. With the very clear presence of anti-Semitism still around, is it possible to reclaim a term like Yid, even as a sort of historical reference to the clubs old roots?
No. As in the above example, the possibility of real anti-Semitism just makes it problematic for fans to continue to refer to themselves as Yids, especially when one Spurs fan estimates that only about 5% of the current fanbase is Jewish. The word hasn’t been reclaimed, it has been appropriated. Non-Jewish Spurs fans can revel in the idea of being the oppressed minority for the duration of the match and leave the term behind as soon as they remove their scarf or jersey. Actual Jews whether they support Spurs or not do not have that luxury. It may not be intended as hate speech, but it certainly is not free of that racist context – even when used in jest.
In steps the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, who in the past has blessed the electorate with his opinion of Luis Suarez’s suspension for biting another player. Cameron wanting to appear to stand up for the little guy, says that fans using the term should not be prosecuted. How very generous of him. It’s okay to use a derogatory term about a minority religious group with a history of being persecuted because, “it isn’t motivated by hate.” I can’t wait to see a Spurs supporter dragged before the court and use the Prime Minister as his defense witness.
Of course the response to all this from some Spurs fans was to chant “We’ll sing what we want” during their recent game, although the club has opted for a middle road of surveying its fans and hoping they will voluntarily drop the chant of their own accord.
This is very different from the YSA chant that MLS has tried to stamp out. “You Suck Asshole!” while offensive in a potty mouth sense, does not target anyone other than the opposition keeper, nor can you really make this out to hate speech. Maybe the MLS is afraid that YSA is a gateway chant that will lead to harsher chants in the future?
The Yid Army is also clearly different than many of the North American sports franchises that continue to cling to racist mascots endorsed and marketed by the club. Any Jewish associations Tottenham have had have always been informal and adopted by the fans. In North America the endorsed minority of choice would be Native Americans with the Washington Redskins being the most egregious example, but let’s not forget the Atlanta Braves with their tomahawk chop choreography and the Cleveland Indians and their caricature logo. I’ll throw in the Chicago Blackhawks and Kansas City Chiefs as still problematic in their use and depiction of Native Americans as well. All of these are offensive on one level or another, yet completely acceptable to their sports organizations and many in their fanbase. However, I don’t see any of those franchises making any moves to change their identity anytime soon, they’ll cite the history associated with the name just as much as Cameron excuses the use of anti-Semitic terms as part of Tottenham’s heritage.