Sports

Why do fans still get away with chanting Tottenham Hotspur's racist nickname?

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Tottenham Hotspur's Roberto Soldado is applauded as he is substituted during their English Premier League soccer match against Swansea City at White Hart Lane in London August 25, 2013.

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Eddie Keogh/Reuters

Yid is a three-letter word that's been used as an insult for Jews.

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Yid is shorthand for Yiddish.

Yid is the nickname for fans of the Tottenham Hotspur Football Club.

Writer David Peisner explored the connection between the name and the soccer club in a recent story for BuzzFeed, "When does chanting a soccer team's nickname become a crime?"

He says fans all tell the same story when asked to explain the origin of the nickname. And it starts with the club’s Jewish identity. In the early to mid-1900s, Jewish soccer fans would make a Hotspur match part of their Saturday morning ritual. This continued for the next 70-plus years. But it’s not that different from other soccer clubs. What distinguishes the Hotspur fans is that sometime in the 1970s, after weathering decades of Yid taunts from opposing fans, the Hotspur crowd decided to own the word.

They would be proud of their Jewish Identity. The fans started shouting the word with pride. The Yid Army formed.

But its makeup is complex. The club has no formal ties to the Jewish community. It has a history of Jewish owners. But so do other clubs, like Arsenal.

“The idea of reclaiming it is a little problematic,” says Peisner. “The fans, for the most part, are not Jewish.”

It’s not just the reclamation of the word by Tottenham that has people concerned. Some people, especially those who lived through the Holocaust, are just genuinely offended by the word, Yid. It paints them as “the other” — as having less worth. The nickname has also given opposing fans the chance to externalize their racism under camouflage. Opponents have hissed during matches to imitate World War II-era gas chambers, and directed “Seig Heil” salutes at the Hotspur faithful. It’s all under the guise of hating the team, not the Jews, but it’s nearly impossible to separate the two.

In England, the story gets even more complex. The country was an ally in World War II. They fought against the German genocide of European Jews. But that doesn’t mean the country had wiped anti-Semitism off the map. Peisner says many are quiet about their thoughts on Jews, and Jews themselves are quiet about their beliefs. Jews were taught to pride Englishness above religion. It struck him that many had changed their last names to sound more English. Instead of Goldberg or Silverstein, you have Gardner or Wilson.

“It’s very different from the Jewish tradition in the United States,” he says.

Another difference between the US and England are laws governing freedom of speech. In the states, doing the tomahawk chop at an Atlanta Braves professional baseball game won’t land you in jail. In England, Peisner says it’s different. They have the Public Order Act. It prohibits the use of threatening or insulting language. And Hotspur fans were starting to get arrested for using the nickname. None of the charges stuck. “But [the police] haven’t closed the books on the possibility of there being more arrests,” he says. “It could certainly be taken up again.”

So what’s it like for a Jew to surround themselves with Hotspur fans chanting Yid, Yiddo and Yids? Not what you might expect. Peisner, an American Jew, went to a Hotspur pub to watch a match. He found it a little weird. He says it was a strange mixture of knowing the chants were wrong, while also finding them a little bit cool. “There is something a little nice about hearing all these people shouting out this stuff with pride,” he says. “And it is pride.”

It’s pride in being a Hotspur fan and not necessarily pride in Judaism. But the language to a Jewish man like Peisner, just sitting in the bar listening to it all, the words still sounded the same. That’s why he thinks the team is getting a boost of support from Jewish football fans outside of the city.

Note: The audio refers to David Peisner as a New York Jew. He tells us that while he comes from a long line of them, he actually grew up outside Detroit and has lived in Atlanta for almost 20 years.