The ‘Y’ word

Is it offensive to taunt people with a word they use about themselves? Some believe neither Arsenal nor Spurs fans know what they’re saying, as Jon Spurling reports

In November 2005, Alan Sefton, the overseer of “Arsenal in the community”, announced that the club would be setting up five soccer schools across Israel. Arsenal are already involved in working with a number of primary schools in mixed Jewish/Muslim areas of London, and children are encouraged to co-present religious festivals before playing football together. Sefton later confirmed his and the club’s belief that “…football unites people of different classes, social groups, races and nationalities… We don’t want it to focus on divisions and tribalism.”

Sefton played down the claim that Arsenal had launched the initiative because he and several of the club’s directors, such as David Dein and Daniel Fiszman, are Jewish. Instead, he argued that it was due to Arsenal’s wish that “different races and cultures should mix together freely”.

With Thierry Henry the charismatic front man for the “Let’s Kick Racism Out Of Football” campaign, the Gunners appear to be the most forward-thinking of all clubs in the battle to fight racial intolerance. Yet despite the club’s programme in Israel and the explicit warnings in and around Highbury that “racist and foul language will not be tolerated”, vast numbers of Arsenal fans continue to use the word “yiddo” freely in chants during games. Brendan Batson, the former West Brom star and Professional Footballers’ Association official, says: “The ‘Y’ word is much used among London football fans. Derogatory words used in connection with the colour of someone’s skin are considered more inflammatory than words to do with someone’s nationality or religion. That’s not to say that it’s right. It’s just how it is.”

Max Hyndes is lobbying the club in an attempt to persuade them to clamp down on the use of the word: “It started out as an insult to the large contingent of Jewish fans who supposedly went to watch Tottenham and was also part of a reaction to the large numbers of Jews who came to this country after the Second World War. I’ve always laughed inwardly at the belief many Arsenal fans have that Spurs are ‘the Jewish club’, as Arsenal also have a massive Jewish following.

“The word ‘yid’ is a derogatory term. You’re deliberately drawing attention to the fact that someone either looks different, behaves differently, or follows a different religious orientation to yourself. That – to my knowledge – is a form of prejudice. The chanting at Highbury used to be far more unpleasant than it is now. Up until the mid-1980s, you’d get songs about ‘gassing the yids’, ‘Spurs are on their way to Auschwitz’, and a hissing noise from thousands of fans to copy the noise of gas being slowly released. Is laughing about ‘gassing the yids’ as offensive as calling someone a ‘nigger’? Well, no one’s ever insulted me on account of the colour of my skin, but as a Jewish man, I certainly find the word ‘yid’ offensive.”

But three decades ago Spurs fans began to adopt the word “yid” en masse, as a code of honour and to “protect” their Jewish fans from Arsenal fans’ anti-semitic chanting. When Arsenal played Spurs last season at Highbury, a group of Tottenham fans gave another airing to a chant from recent years: “One yid and his baseball cap went to war with Arsenal.”

As Batson comments, the term is used in “everyday parlance”. Hyndes explains: “All children learn about the Holocaust in school history lessons. Surely their history teachers tell them that the word ‘yid’ is an offensive term? Ashkenazi Jews use the phrase ‘Yidn’ as a way of saying ‘mate’ or ‘buddy’ to a fellow Jew. But if outsiders use the term, it’s not right. ‘Everyone says it’, argued one steward with me, ‘so how can it be offensive?’ Well, I used to go to Highbury in the Sixties when words like ‘nigger’ and ‘coon’ were bandied about freely, but we’ve moved on since then. If we genuinely live in a multicultural country, the widespread use of the word ‘yid’ needs to be addressed.”

Arsenal’s official stance on the use of the word by their supporters is unclear. Max Hyndes claims that two letters on the subject directed to the club went unanswered. Other inquiries proved equally fruitless, although an Arsenal telephone operator was more forthcoming, claiming that the widespread use of the word ‘yid’ by supporters was the “last bastion of cultural ignorance among our fans”.

From WSC 230 April 2006. What was happening this month