Following Mark Bosnich's "Heil Hitler" salute, David Cohen offers an insight into his experience of the joys and perils of being a Jewish football fan
It isn’t often that a major Premier League controversy relates directly to me or those of my faith. Racism and football are nearly always in black and white, while Jewish players in England’s top flight can be named on the thumb of one hand. But ploughing through the acres of newsprint dedicated to Mark Bosnich’s Tottenham wind-up – a harmless bit of fun or a war crime of Adolf Eichmann proportions depending on which paper you read – I felt strangely detached from the proceedings.
The Eichmann reference came from Euro MP Glyn Ford, a man of impeccable anti-racist credentials who nevertheless appears to be making an EU race mountain out of an Aston Villa molehill. If Bosnich was guilty of anything it was crass stupidity, something witnessed regularly in football from Graham Kelly downwards.
I honestly believe Bosnich when he says he failed to make the connection between Tottenham, their Jewish fan base and Adolf Hitler. His increasingly profuse apologies became absurder by the day, but at no point did they ever disguise his basic argument, which was ‘I’m sorry, I genuinely didn’t mean to offend Jewish people, I was being racist against Germans.’
This line won him the complete backing of the tabloids, to whom racism on the grounds of creed and colour is of course seriously frowned upon, whereas slagging off Germans is practically a patriotic duty. Bosnich’s apologies reminded me of a Bristol Rovers fan who was in court some years ago, charged with kicking a policeman. His defence was that he was trying to attack a Chelsea fan, but the policeman got in the way.
It would be funny if it weren’t so tragic. The fact is, that apart from recognizing a black face when they see one, most football fans are too ignorant of any culture other than their own to be racist. Before you reach for your red biros and green felt tips to start an angry correspondence with the letters page, I include myself in this sweeping generalization. Until my late teens, I thought of everyone who wasn’t Jewish as ‘Christian’. This included all the Muslims, Atheists, Zen Buddhists and Bahai who attended my school. During my formative years I was as unaware of English culture as you undoubtedly were of mine. Given the lack of Jewish footballers in Britain, your ignorance would hardly be surprising.
As far as I know, any terrace vitriol directed at Ronnie Rosenthal has been due to him having the same surname as Jim. And to the best of my knowledge, no-one has ever taunted Bosnich with cries of ‘Franny Tudjman, Franny Tudjman, you’re not singing any more, ’cos you lost the Bosnian war’.
In America, of course, Jewish culture pervades all areas of life, influencing the language, science and arts to a huge degree. In England, you probably struggle to name half a dozen celebrity Jews – get past Michael Howard, Esther Rantzen and two of the blokes out of 10CC and you’re stumped.
From my own point of view, I was aware of belonging to a minority culture, but that didn’t seem to matter, especially with football. On the contrary, as a teenager, being Jewish and a football fan amounted to the same thing. Either way, Saturday was our Sabbath – the most important day of the week. And I was a Leeds United fan, who, like Spurs, enjoyed a strong bedrock of Jewish support. On Saturday morning we would attend the local Jewish synagogue. Throughout the winter months, there was only ever one topic of conversation, and I can assure you it wasn’t religion. Any mention of God was likely to be referring to Terry Cooper.
Then on Saturday afternoon we would head off to Elland Road along with 30,000 others. We always bumped into relatives or Jewish friends (far more than attended the synagogue), and our first official match post mortem was Monday morning, during Jewish assembly.
This was the early 1970s, and racism hadn’t yet damaged football. The British Movement were handing out leaflets on the terraces, but apart from an old Enoch Powell speech and a few jibes at the expense of Albert Johanesson, they didn’t have a lot to go on. I used to read these leaflets out of curiosity, but I don’t remember anything anti-semitic in them. Teenage Nazis had trouble picking on Jews because they could only recognize us if we’d walked around hunching our shoulders like Ron Moody singing ‘You’ve Got To Pick A Pocket Or Two’. Anyway, when you spent your Saturday afternoon supporting a team that included Dirty Bremner, Scyther Charlton and Bites Yer Legs Hunter, killing Christ doesn’t seem such a terrible thing to be accused of.
In all my years attending matches I can’t recall anyone making an anti-semitic comment. Spurs fans I’ve spoken to say the same thing. You may think ‘ Yiddos’ is a term of abuse, but Spurs supporters sing it with pride.
In some ways Bosnich has done us all a favour. His action and subsequent apologies have brought national attention to the Holocaust, one of the truly appalling crimes of the century. If a few boneheads use this new-found knowledge to taunt us, I suppose we’ll have to live with that.
But when the FA mete out their punishment, in whatever year that is, I hope they don’t come down too heavily on the lad. After all, you know what they say about Aussie-Croats – they’re just a bunch of thicko ignorant racist bastards.
From WSC 118 December 1996. What was happening this month