The Yid army- Proud representatives of London Jews, or offensive anachronism?

Author: Remy Roberts

“We’re Tottenham Hotspur, we sing what we want!

Yid Army! Yid Army! Yid Army!

 Yiddos! Yiddos! Yiddos”

How did Spurs get here? How did one of London’s major football teams- formed in 1882 and in unremarkable circumstances- become the self-professed home of the capital’s Jewish football fans?

It started after the club had been founded.

From the end of the 19th century onwards, a wave of Jewish immigrants found their way to London. Although most of the original migrants may have been Russians, Danubian Jews quickly began to swell their ranks. The majority of these new arrivals settled in the East End of London; and when they ingratiated themselves into London life they found a new dilemma- what football team should they support?

While this concern may appear trivial, and incongruous with typical perceptions of Jews as uninterested in sports, Anthony Clavane does a great job in his book ‘Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here?’ of explaining why sports- and especially Spurs- became so important. Firstly dispelling the stereotype of the un-sporting Jew; Clavane then links the relationship to the relentless anti- Semitism Jews have faced in Britain (which gave rise to such generalisations). Even if they weren’t being discriminated against, the constant fear and spectre of prejudice guided how Yiddish immigrants and their families behaved. It became accepted that ‘becoming English’ was the most effective way to counter anti-Semintism. Whether it be learning the language, giving their children anglicised names, or adopting the nation’s favourite past-time: football. Consequently, as Clavene states, “by playing football, Jews could integrate into English life and protect themselves from discrimination.”

But why Spurs?

Originally it was a matter of geography. Or more specifically, transport.  Spurs folklore dictates that Jews flocked to White Hart Lane because it was easily accessible via the tram or bus. It became a Sabbath tradition to travel up the A10 to Tottenham matches, cementing the club as “God’s chosen team”. The diffusion of the Yiddish population into areas closer to Tottenham, such as Hackney and Harrow, furthered this local connection. Once Yiddish immigrants and their descendants had committed themselves to the team, the relationship between the two became so entrenched that Yiddish culture became engrained in Spurs’ identity, and vice versa.

There have been occasions of tension. A game at White Hart Lane in 1935 between England and Germany saw Tottenham officials raise the swastika during the match- much to the anger of Yiddish supporters. For the most part though the relationship has remained strong. By this time in the 1930s, 1/3rd of the 30,000 fans at a home game were Jewish.

Unfortunately however, Spurs’ Jewish connection has led to sustained anti- Semitic abuse. A particularly unpleasant Jew-bashing chant parodied the 1981 chart-topping “Spurs are on their way to Wembley,” a celebration of Spurs’ participation in the FA Cup final. The original states “Spurs are on their way to Wembley/ Tottenham’s gonna do it again”. The spoof: “Spurs are on their way to Auschwitz/ Hitler’s gonna gas ’em again”. Hissing from opposition fans also become a common feature of Tottenham matches, a reference to the gas chambers of Auschwitz and the other 22 main Concentration Camps.

It was in these circumstances that Tottenham Hotspur embraced its role as the “Yid army”. It was seen as a badge of pride in the face of such vitriol. Spurs fans, such as commentator Paul Newman, saw their usage of ‘Yid’- a construction of Oswald Mosely’s fascist black- shirts- as a way of countering the abuse hurled at them. By vocalising their Jewish-ness they would nullify the insults. As Newman has asserted: “[the hissing] has disappeared, in large part, because Spurs fans brilliantly and joyously embraced what began as the insulting use of the term ‘Yids’ thrown at us and turned it into something positive.”

However, Tottenham’s ‘Yid’ status has been somewhat controversial in recent years. Certain sectors have called the club’s chants racist and out-dated. Jewish comedian and Chelsea fan David Baddiel has claimed that they have sustained anti- Semitism, rather than combated it, by giving it a focal point. Similarly, the Society of Black Lawyers sought to bring prosecutions against those involved in singing and 3 fans were brought to trial.

Naturally Tottenham fans have rejected these criticisms (there are bountiful resources of Spurs fans defending themselves with a quick Google search). They claim they are defenders of Jewish football fans. They proclaim that the police should be focusing on the real anti- Semites who make disgusting Holocaust references. They refer to this as another example of ‘political correctness gone mad’. Yet there is substance to Baddiel’s argument.

Yiddish people had a huge role in the formative years of the club and notable Jewish people such as Daniel Levy, Alan Sugar and David Pleat have maintained this connection; but their influence has waned. According to Baddiel “There are only 250,000 Jews in Britain as a whole and I’d say about three or four per cent of Tottenham’s crowd is Jewish”. Therefore, is it morally acceptable that a crowd predominantly made of goys (non- Jewish people) appropriate an offensive term for Jewish people as an apparent means of self-defence? Baddiel hypothesises that if there was “a team in Brixton called Brixton United, and they had a mainly white support who adopted the N-word as their badge of honour and went round chanting “N***** Army”, they would be closed down tomorrow”. Moreover, the term Yid homogenises the Jewish people to the extent that Yiddish, Israelis and other Jews are hardly distinguished.

The issue is in many ways a reflection of the state of the Yiddish population of London today. The massive Yiddish communities of Whitechapel and Spitalfields are gone. Today only 0.4% of the UK’s population is Jewish and only around 30,000 people in the entire country speak Yiddish to a decent standard, let alone in London. Most of the time it is hard to unpack the exact heritage of Jewish culture and social groups, i.e. what part of the world they’re from, when their ancestors arrived etc.

Yes, Yiddish culture many be in a current era of revival and celebration, but the controversy over Tottenham’s ‘Yid army’ is a sad reminder that the Yiddish people are numerically declining and much of their legacy is disappearing.

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