My Long March in the Yid Army


Tottenham Hotspur, the North London English Premier League football—that’s “soccer” to you—team that I have supported body and soul through five decades of glory and abject misery, also go under another name: the Yids. This wasn’t always the case, and let me say at the outset that the nickname is not derogatory, or, rather, it isn’t only derogatory, but also celebratory. But let me backtrack before I explain.

The Jewish population of Greater London, currently estimated at 283,000, has, since the Second World War, largely been concentrated in North West London, a shift away from both the East End, where the community has its origins, and North London, first stop on the move out of poverty. London’s Jewish footballer supporters, while they are divided among a large number of teams with home grounds all over the city, including Chelsea, West Ham, Watford, and Brentford, are traditionally split, in their majority, between Tottenham and their fierce down-the-street rivals, Arsenal. Tottenham’s greatest seasons came in the 1960s, although the team generally does well in years ending in a one (there is a song that marks this unusual accomplishment). Arsenal, although it pains me to say it, have been consistently successful for the last 30 years, not to mention the 30 years before that.

No one has ever taken a body count but it is my guess that Arsenal has just as many Jewish fans as Tottenham. In the 1960s the Arsenal game day program took care, come September or October, to wish its Jewish supporters a Happy New Year. A match scheduled for Yom Kippur was even once postponed out of respect for the team’s Jewish supporters. Spurs were never so accommodating. Jewish support of Arsenal and Tottenham is, of course, only a tiny minority of general English support of the two teams. As with all English clubs, with the exception of Manchester United, who draw in a famously fickle international crowd, the teams supporters are primarily drawn from the English gentile working and middle classes. Nevertheless, sometime around the late 1980s or early 1990s, Tottenham Hotspur became indelibly identified with their Jewish supporters, while Arsenal did not. Perhaps this had something to do with the fact that Tottenham’s owner from 1991 to 2001, Alan Sugar, a man who had made his millions from the Amstrad electronics-and-computer company, was Jewish. But then again, other clubs, including the current incarnation of Manchester United, have Jewish owners, but they are not called “The Yids.” Sugar or no sugar, rival fans began to heap anti-Semitic abuse upon the Spurs supporters. “Yids” certainly formed part of the vocabulary of insult. In time the Spurs fans executed the maneuver favored by many an abused group: they appropriated the insult that had been hurled at them and wore it as a badge of honor. “You want us to be The Yids,” the team’s working class non-Jewish supporters seemed to say, “OK, we’ll be the Yids—and screw you.”

Nowadays, everybody calls Spurs “The Yids”: the team’s supporters, its detractors, and neutrals. In February 2002 I flew back to London because Spurs had reached the final of one of England’s three major domestic football competitions, the Worthington (now Carling) Cup. Admittedly it was the least important of the three, and in the years that it was sponsored by the beer company Worthington had been known as the “Worthnothing Cup.” My nephew James and I then traveled by train to Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium where major games have been staged while Wembley, London’s super stadium, has been under reconstruction. I had not been to a live game for a long time, not, in fact, since before Spurs became the “The Yids.” At first I was suitably freaked out. We got off the train and began the long march to the stadium flanked by cops and separated from the rival team’s supporters. The Spurs fans began a warlike chant “Yids! Yids! Yids!” It was all a bit too Nuremberg for me. Then, inside the stadium, among 75,000 fans, a group of Tottenham supporters suddenly unfurled a huge Israeli flag. I asked my nephew “Is this political?” “No,” he replied “They couldn’t find Israel on the map.” Stewards quickly rushed over and removed the offending flag—banners of all kinds were prohibited from the stadium in case they obscured a spectator’s view. Tottenham emerged from the dressing room on to the field, at which point the team’s supporters began to beat drums and chant in unison “Yid Army! Yid Army!” Up the other end of the ground the fans of the opposing team, Blackburn Rovers, had massed and they too had something to chant about Yids, but it was not supportive. When you watch Spurs games on American television, the “Yid” chants are mysteriously absent from the crowd noise.

In Europe, Spurs are not alone in their Jewish identification. The Amsterdam powerhouse club Ajax are also a “Jewish team,” and frequently the object of anti-Semitic abuse. Ajax’s fans sometimes engage in verbal battle (they chant Joden! Joden!) with their rivals under the Star of David. Sometimes things have even gotten physical. Ajax has hardly any Jewish fans, but pre-war, the club’s ground was, like Tottenham’s and Arsenal’s, adjacent to a Jewish neighborhood, and hence the affiliation.

Is all this good news, bad news, or no news at all? In PC America it’s hard to imagine all this “Yid” stuff as benign. And yet, on some peculiar level it appears to be. My brother was at his gym in London a few weeks ago, and two Londoners, West Indians both, were talking football at the next locker. “You watching the game tonight?” one asked. “Course,” his friend replied, “I’ve always been a Yid.” On the other hand the name-calling can easily spiral out of control. At West Ham in East London recently, the crowd began to make gas-chamber hissing sounds when the Spurs players ran on to the pitch. The club was warned about its crowd’s racist and anti-Semitic behavior by the governing Football Association, and could face a hefty fine.

As I write, a petition is in circulation designed to press the Oxford English Dictionary to change its definition of a Yid from the familiar derogatory term for a Jew to “a Tottenham Hotspur football fan.” Now that would be something.