The Y-Word debate: should the chanting of Yid continue at Tottenham Hotspur F.C matches?

Edited by Mark Walters

Tottenham Hotspur supporters have long chanted ‘Yid’, a “derogatory epithet” for a Jewish person, as a self-designator and battle-cry for their team. Simmering controversy on whether they should do this recently boiled over when the Football Association (FA) stated Yid was “offensive”, banned the chanting of it and emphasised it can result in prosecution. Whether the FA is right in these assertions is open to question.

Initially, one might be right in thinking that the ban is justified. It is certainly difficult to defend the chanting of something demeaning to the Jewish faith as a legitimate form of free speech. However, using this to justify the FA’s position is superficial because of the historical reasons for chanting Yid. Tottenham is in North London, a heavily populated Jewish area, so has numerous Jewish supporters and is known as England’s “Jewish club”. Opposing fans resultantly labelled Tottenham supporters “Yids” and shouted this at them as anti-Semitic abuse. In self-defence and to blunt the edge of the taunt”, Tottenham began chanting “Yids” back, which became their battle-cry and self-designator. Tottenham reclaimed Yid to defy subordination and defend Judaism, so to many supporters chanting it provides a sense of identity and solidarity.

Alongside being taunted as ‘Yids’, Tottenham also have to bare gibes about Jewish dietary practice and circumcision, like “Tottenham boys, Tottenham boys – No pork pies or saveloys” and “we’ve got foreskins, you ain’t”. Worse is abuse based on the Holocaust, like hissing to mimic a gas chamber. West Ham supporters even chanted, Adolf Hitler, he’s coming for you” and “Viva Lazio, to celebrate the anti-Semitic stabbing of a Tottenham fan before a match with Lazio. Tottenham supporters argue that it is this callous chanting that needs to stop, not their innocuous ‘Yid’ chants. However, due to Tottenham reclaiming ‘Yid’ and chanting it as a battle-cry, opposing supporters feel justified in chanting it back, together with wider anti-Semitism. Without banning Tottenham saying Yid, opposing supporters will continue to “legitimise” their bigotry, supporting the FA’s decision to completely ban the term.

Tottenham supporters also point to David Cameron’s disapproval of the FA’s action:

There’s a difference between Spurs fans self-describing themselves as Yids and someone calling someone a Yid as an insult…Hate speech should be prosecuted but only when it’s motivated by hate.” 

However, Cameron is mistaken – at least in law. Chanting Yid does not have to be hateful to attract prosecution.  Despite modern attempts to reclassify anti-Semitism as anti-religious, Jews remain a “racial group” as set out in the case of Mandla v Dowell Lee,. This means the racism provisions in the Football (Offences) Act 1991 (FOA) should apply. S.3 of the Act makes it illegal to chant something “threatening, abusive or insulting to a person by reason of his colour, race…or ethnic…origins.” At a football match in 2002, one set of supporters chanted “you’re just a town full of Pakis” at the other. The court in this case held “Paki” has “derogatory or…insulting racialist connotation[s]” and fell under s.3 because the modern understanding of “Paki” is “as a slang expression which is racially offensive” and it is not an affectionate abbreviation for nationality, like “an Aussie or a Brit”. Accordingly as chanting Yid is deemed to be “insulting” to many Jewish people, both Tottenham and opposing supporters potentially fall foul of s.3 and commit this offence. Much depends on context and a determination of whether the chant is considered to be racialist may well depend on its intended use. However, the Act does not specifically mention what the offender intended but simply that he is chanting something of a “racialist nature”. Hence, what may matter, is not what the offender intended, but whether others are likely to perceive the chant to be abusive or insulting.  If this is the case this leaves open the possibility that the Tottenham battle-cry is a form of racialist chanting.

In many respects the FOA merely “supplements” the Public Order Act 1986 (POA) and Crime and Disorder Act 1998 (C&DA) with the POA applying to football matches as it does elsewhere. S.5 POA, the basic offence, makes it illegal to use threatening or abusive words or behaviour…within the hearing…of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress”. Under s.31 of the C&DA such an offence can become racially or religiously aggravated (turning the offence into a “hate crime”) where there is evidence that the offender demonstrated, or was (partly) motivated by, hostility towards the victim’s racial or religious group. This carries with it an enhanced sentence.

It is under s.5 POA and s. 31 C&DA that David Cameron’s comments, emphasising Tottenham supporters’ lack of hatred to Jews when chanting Yid, become credible. It is clear Tottenham supporters are not motivated by hostility towards Jewish people. Given the context in which their chants are made it would also be difficult to prove that such a chant objectively “demonstrates” hostility. Moreover, such chanting is unlikely to be considered to be abusive or threatening given the sentiments behind the chanting, and as such it is less likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress.  Note here that the word “insulting” has recently been removed from the s.5. This may make all the difference, as while the word Yid might be considered by many to be insulting, it would be difficult to prove that when chanted by Tottenham fans that it is “threatening” or “abusive”.  This is because Tottenham fans have performed what is called “value-switching”, whereby “pejorative terms [are] undermined and given a positive valence”. They have in a sense reversed Yid’s meaning. It is conceivable that words develop ameliorated meanings. Yid’s prejudicial meaning has been subverted in the context of Tottenham employing it as battle-cry. This should mean that chanting Yid is not considered to be threatening or abusive when Tottenham supporters chant it. Hence even if someone was to claim that it caused them alarm or distress the first element of the offence will not be proved.  Indeed, in a very recent case, the CPS dropped Public Order charges against three Tottenham fans who had chanted Yid at matches because they did not consider it “threatening” or “abusive” when used in this context.  This decision is to be welcomed.

For opposing fans, however, use of the word Yid is different. Here context is everything. Its use takes on an abusive and potentially threatening character. It is chanted to disparage Tottenham’s Jewish connections, so is very likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress. ‘Harassment’ and ‘alarm’ are undefined, but ‘distress’ means emotional disturbance or upset. With the abusive sentiment of opposing supporters when they chant Yid, people may well become upset leading to emotional disturbance. The question of whether such chants demonstrate racial or religious hostility is also easier to prove here. Although the word “hostility” lacks statutory definition, the CPS has described it as ill-feeling”, “spite” and “unfriendliness”. Whether someone has demonstrated hostility “is a question of fact” for the jury. If we consider the fact that opposing supporters chant Yid to belittle Tottenham’s Jewish connections there will surely be evidence of “ill-feeling” or “unfriendliness” towards  Jews.  For example, in the case of SH in 2010 the court held that a “prima facie” demonstration of hostility existed when a Nigerian was called a “monkey”. Similarly, Yid insults the Jewish race, creating a presumption of hostility when used.

Readers may still be thinking: But are football fans really demonstrating racial or religious hostility? Surely the real intention is to confront rival fans with “banter”, commonplace at matches. However, banter can quite easily be used as a cloak to hide genuine prejudices. Anti-Semitism lies beneath the surface of cognition for many individuals and is activated when Jews become involved in their everyday lives. Confronting other supporters is familiar to opposing fans, but Tottenham’s Jewish connections force them to air latent anti-Semitic prejudice, which objectively demonstrates hostility.

For all these reasons, it is highly likely a jury will find opposing supporters chanting of Yid a demonstration of hostility and they are therefore guilty of committing a “hate crime”. However, Tottenham’s good intentions when chanting Yid should preclude hostility to Jews, meaning there is no basic s.5 POA offence or racial or religious aggravation attached to it. This may be of little consequence though, as currently s.3 FOA means that even Tottenham supporters may fall foul of the law on racialist chanting. This seems unfair and the legislators may do well to remove the words “insulting” from this Act in line with s. 5. Only then can we properly differentiate between innocuous battle-cries and racially aggravated chanting.







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