LONDON – The 40,000 soccer fans who packed London’s Stamford Bridge Stadium for Chelsea FC’s Premier League game against AFC Bournemouth on Wednesday took a break from the customary pregame chants for their team and against their rivals and stood silently and respectfully as the home team showcased its new campaign to counter antisemitism.
While the pitch’s center circle was covered by a banner calling for an end to the age-old expressions of Jew-hatred, a video appeared on the stadium’s jumbo screens, launching the Blues’ new tolerance-promoting campaign.
Images of the team’s star players, management, staff and fans, interspersed with prominent figures from Israel and the local and international Jewish community were shown. All those depicted were holding up signs reading “Say No To Antisemitism,” a clear message of support and acceptance for the Jews in the crowd and rejection of the ugliness that is increasingly tarnishing the beautiful game.
But Wednesday’s event was by no means a one-time effort. In an exclusive interview with The Jerusalem Post
ahead of the game, club chairman Bruce Buck said the club, backed by its Jewish owner Roman Abramovich, was trying to make a small change in what they see as an increasing problem worldwide.
“We’re not naive to think that our little program is going to solve antisemitism, but we are hopeful that if we do something and it’s just a little bit successful, then other sports clubs and other institutions like ours will also pick up the cudgel and engage in similar activities. And if we can get all of society to work along these lines, then we can make a big dent in the problem,” he said.
The campaign’s steering committee includes prominent Jewish leaders such as president of the World Jewish Congress Ronald Lauder; vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations Malcolm Hoenlein; and national director and CEO of the Anti-Defamation League Jonathan Greenblatt.
Together with their partners, including the Holocaust Educational Trust, the Jewish Museum, the Community Security Trust, Kick It Out, the World Jewish Congress and the Anne Frank House, the club’s Building Bridges Foundation designed a program they hope will lead to real change and perhaps even become a model on which other organizations can build similar initiatives.
As part of this work, the Chelsea Foundation’s equality and diversity workshops in primary schools, which are already being held and focus on general issues of diversity, will be extended to talk specifically about Jewish faith and culture.
ANOTHER NEW and original avenue to tackle antisemitism among fans – one that was actually proposed in a special meeting of the fans forum – was to replace traditional bans for improper behavior with a re-education effort. Last year, four fans were banned for antisemitic incidents, out of about 40 who were banned for acts of racial discrimination.
“Historically, we reacted with punishments, with bans of one sort or another. But over the last year or so, we’ve come to the view that discrimination can best be dealt with through education,” said Buck. “If you just ban someone for three years or for life, then you’ve got someone who’s going to be committing antisemitic behavior over and over again. So you haven’t solved very much. But if, in appropriate circumstances, where people recognize that they’ve done something wrong, then education is much more suitable for solving the longer-term issues.”
Additional activities taking place throughout the year will include educational visits to former concentration camps for staff, fans and stewards; an exhibition at the Chelsea Museum on football and British Jews; and screenings of Liga Terezin, a documentary about a soccer league run from a concentration camp during the Holocaust.
The club also invited Holocaust survivor Harry Spiro to Chelsea to share his and his family’s story with players and staff, in what one executive described as “a life-changing experience.”
The game’s ushers were all provided with small pamphlets instructing them on how to identify acts of antisemitism and what to do in case they spot them. The club also operates a hotline to which people can report incidents of antisemitism either in the stands or on the way to and from the game.
“All of our actions are not because we think we have a problem with Chelsea Football Club. In fact, we don’t. We think over the last 20 years our fans in this area have improved their behavior considerably,” said Buck. “But rather, we are trying to use our program to educate generally throughout the UK and abroad. We have a feeling that in the world, in general, antisemitic activity seemed to be increasing. So that’s some of the impetus for us to do this.”
The club had a chance to put its money where its mouth was last year, when fans who were heard using antisemitic slogans in one of their chants were condemned by the team and their then-new star player.
Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, United Kingdom chief rabbi, said after the match that the campaign is “hugely significant.”
“First of all, Chelsea is courageous enough to publicly acknowledge they have a problem,” Mirvis said. “I think that all clubs have a problem, but Chelsea have acknowledged it and they said ‘Right, let’s develop a strategy, and not just an ordinary strategy but a great strategy. One which is comprehensive one which will educate and inform and inspire players, supporters, and with a whole wrath of educational infinitives.’ I’m exceptionally impressed and I hope that other clubs will follow suit. You know, for clubs worldwide, this is a very impressive initiative.”
MIRVIS SAID the threat of antisemitism in the UK
is not left to the Jewish community alone to deal with, and the campaign is the first step for British society at large facing the issue.
“All clubs are addressing the issue of hate, of racism. The campaign is something that’s going to feature in football for many years, and now there is a specific emphasis in place on antisemitism, which I think is the right approach. Well done to Chelsea for doing this. That doesn’t say that other clubs haven’t been involved and they’re not doing their thing, which they are, but I think a particular strategy, which is well thought out... here we are this evening for a proud launch of it, wanting the world to notice it,” he said.
World Jewish Congress CEO Robert Singer also praised the campaign.
“I think it’s amazing. Full credit should go to Roman Abramovich for deciding to do it. It’s obviously the right time to do it, not only in sport, but sport is one of the areas that needs this kind of campaign, and the World Jewish Congress is 100% behind them,” said Singer. “They lead by example because there’s such a strong brand to Chelsea.
“They had 42,000 people in the stadium today, so 42,000 people were exposed to [the campaign]. Add to this TV and radio and newspapers, the start of the campaign is the start of the dialogue is the start of the process, and at this point, that’s very important. At the end of the day it starts and ends with education,” he said.
Chelsea believes that if their initiative works well, they can use it to tackle other issues, like Islamophobia.
“This is the start of an important journey and we all have a part to play,” Abramovich wrote in a forward to the special match-day program.
“We can all do something to challenge discrimination at our club as well as within the world around us. With your help, Chelsea can play a leading role in this vital area of work and demonstrate to everybody that we are a club open to all.”
Asked whether the club was not concerned that its association with a Jewish cause might cost it the support of some fans, Buck responded: “We’ve talked about that and I guess I would say there is some risk, but we can’t let that be something that prevents us from doing what’s right to do.”
The game might have ended with a bitter 0-3 defeat for Chelsea, but the team will find solace in the knowledge that they are on the good path.
The writer was a guest of Chelsea Football Club. Tamara Zieve contributed to this report.