‘Yid Army’ and the race-hate debate

Several decades ago when racism wasn’t just rife, it was accepted as normal and served up as part of the Saturday night family entertainment TV package, the term ‘Yids’ – a race-hate term used against Jews – was adopted by the supporters of Tottenham Hotspur FC. Why? Well, as part of the ‘banter’ (abuse) thrown between fans at the time, opposing fans, London clubs mainly, would use the term against Spurs supporters whose fanbase has historically strong roots within the Jewish community (a rough estimate is that 5% of Spurs fans are Jewish). In retaliation to this Spurs fans became the ‘Yid Army’, using the term as a ‘defence mechanism’ and to unite their fans, mocking those who used it against them.

Over the last few days this ongoing issue has been grabbing headlines and dividing opinion, with the Football Association, Tottenham Hotspur, David Cameron and David Baddiel all making statements on the subject. The ‘Let’s Kick Racism Out Of Football’ campaign was launched in 1993, with ‘Kick It Out’ being formed as an organisation in 1997. Whilst the campaign has faced criticism for carrying insufficient weight, particularly when instances of racism by players or fans have occurred, to a large extent this campaign has worked.


Yet whilst racist chanting, in the UK in particular, has seen a massive decline since 1993, the Spurs fans (and the opposition’s too) use of this particular race-hate term has remained constant. It is extremely clear that Spurs’ use of the term is not meant to cause offence, indeed they see it as representing a triumph over prejudices of the past. But as is the want of football fans across the world however, it is designed (in part) to mock. Football fans have always, and will always taunt their opponents. Not all fans, obviously, and recently such taunts have become less offensive. Knowing the history here the reasons behind Spurs fans adopting this term are, particularly in the 1970s and the general ignorance at the time, understandable.

So who’s been saying what on the subject? Well, the FA recently made a statement saying the term ‘Yid’ was “derogatory and offensive”, adding “The FA considers that the use of the term ‘Yid’ is likely to be considered offensive by the reasonable observer and considers the term to be inappropriate in a football setting. The FA would encourage fans to avoid using it in any situation. Use of the term in a public setting could amount to a criminal offence, and leave those fans liable to prosecution and potentially a lengthy Football Banning Order.”

Tottenham Hotspur FC responded, saying, “We are acutely aware of the sensitivity of this issue. Our fans historically adopted the chant as a defence mechanism in order to own the term and thereby deflect anti-semitic abuse. They do not use the term with any deliberate intent to cause offence. Last season saw a number of incidents where fans were targeted by allegedly far-right activists on the Continent and subjected to anti-semitic abuse by opposition fans. Subsequently, the debate on this issue has two key considerations. Firstly, whether or not its use now plays a role in deflecting or attracting unjustified abuse, abuse that is inexcusable on any grounds; and secondly, whether it is liable to cause offence to others even if unintentionally.”


David Baddiel has been at the centre of recent discussion. A Jewish Chelsea supporter, he has backed the ‘Let’s Kick Racism Out Of Football’ campaign, highlighting the ongoing use of the term ‘Yid’ in a video (below) made in 2011 with his brother, Ivor, which includes participation from Spurs legends Gary Lineker and Ledley King. In an excellently written article in The Guardian, he speaks without a crumb of bias towards any particular team, instead with a focus on the fact that, as a race-hate term, it should not be used at all. If other similarly offensive terms are no longer acceptable, why is widespread use of ‘Yid’ still tolerated?

Despite his Chelsea allegiance, he highlights the fact that his campaign video was “sparked by the behaviour of a Chelsea fan who, sitting a few seats behind me and Ivor one Saturday, decided to upgrade the chant – regularly heard at Stamford Bridge whenever anything Spurs-related comes up – to a more pointed one of “Fuck the fucking Yids! Fuck the fucking Jews!”. The chant, and various anti-semitic tropes which always grow out of it – involving hissing to represent gas and celebratory references to Auschwitz – exists far beyond White Hart Lane: at Chelsea, Arsenal, Millwall, West Ham, even at Ajax, in Amsterdam.”

Unsurprisingly, Baddiel’s article and opinion has been the catalyst for a huge public debate. Much comment has been in support of his stance, whilst there are still a minority who appear to stand behind the use of the term. One person who has made it known that Spurs fans use of the term is acceptable is David Cameron, who recently said, “You have to think of the mens rea. There’s a difference between Spurs fans self-describing themselves as Yids and someone calling someone a Yid as an insult,” Cameron told the Jewish Chronicle. “You have to be motivated by hate. Hate speech should be prosecuted – but only when it’s motivated by hate.”

Mr. Cameron, it really is not as simple as that is it? Surely a message that regardless of its origins the use of a race-hate term in today’s society is not acceptable, would be more welcome. Baddiel has welcomed the PM’s views, tweeting “To those asking – yes I’m OK with David Cameron taking an opposing position to me on The Y-Word. To be honest, it’s a dream come true.” Clearly such opposition will only add fuel to the debate.

This debate will, if the FA acts on their word, rumble on for a very long time to come. I fully expect Spurs fans will continue to call themselves the ‘Yid Army’ and opposing fans will continue to chant anti-semitic abuse. Most importantly then will the FA, stewards and the police act? Have the FA been intentionally vague saying use of the term could amount to a criminal offence”? I believe, rightly or wrongly, the outcome of this issue lies in the hands of Tottenham Hotspur FC. They are currently gauging opinion from their own fans on this issue, but such is the history and deep-rooted passion about the subject, my guess is they will focus on the ‘non-offensive’ use of the term rather than the wider issue. They are in a hugely difficult position born out of a long-standing nationwide tolerance of racism, and only with high profile backing from the likes of Gary Lineker and Alan Sugar, as well as strong backing from the FA, do they have any chance of changing what has now become part of the club’s tradition.

There are many reasons why the use of this term should end as soon as possible. 1. It is a race-hate term. Think of the n-word or p-word in its place and it instantly becomes unimaginable. 2. When used offensively it is illegal. 3. Should we not be focusing on and actively promoting racial harmony, particularly at a football match in a stadium populated with children and adults of every age from every culture? Society has evolved from the 1970s, racism has become unacceptable and whilst Spurs fans initial reasons for adopting the term were understandable, surely football too has evolved and moved on from taunts and mockery based on race and religion?


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