It’s time to kick antisemitism out of sports

The Italian football federation announced following the Lazio incident that a passage of Anne Frank’s diary would be read aloud before upcoming Series A matches, together with a moment of silence.

February 19, 2018 20:38
4 minute read.
Players wear shirts with Anne Frank's picture to combat antisemitism

Lazio players wear shirts with a picture of Anne Frank before their Serie A soccer match against Bologna at the Dall'Ara stadium in Bologna, Italy.. (photo credit: REUTERS/ALBERTO LINGRIA)

Antisemitism in sports is hardly a new phenomenon, but it has begun to draw major attention of late, due to a resurgence of ugly incidents and a growing awareness that xenophobia and hatred are on the rise, across the field.

We routinely witness fans shamelessly desecrating the memory of Holocaust victims or shouting blatantly anti-Jewish slurs, simply to offend their rivals.

But these demonstrations carry heavy weight, and signify a much more complex problem in desperate need of forceful corrective action. Far too often, intolerance darkens what should be a celebration of competitive spirit, and spirals into hateful violence, both in and out of the stands.

The World Jewish Congress has made a pointed effort to address this phenomenon in recent years, through diplomatic and educational means, and while we have met some play-by-play successes, it has become ever clearer that the fight must come from inside the stadium.

Chelsea F.C., and its owner Roman Abramovich, have taken a welcome lead in tackling this issue headon, to make clear to their extended community that expressions of hatred have no place in sports and that antisemitism must be recognized as a unique issue deserving of strong, tailor-made action. The football club drew a red line last autumn after the repeated use of gleeful and crass anti-Jewish slurs drew widespread rebuke, and by mid-January announced that it would launch an ambitious educational campaign to “say no to antisemitism,” partnering with Jewish organizations including the WJC to develop a comprehensive program to strike directly at the issue.

Its zero-tolerance approach is already making waves: just a week after officially launching its campaign on January 31 during a Premier League match at Stamford Bridge in the presence of 40,000 fans, Chelsea F.C. responded to renewed antisemitic chants by vowing to take action – including outright bans – against fans guilty of using that language.

Such manifestations extend beyond Stamford Bridge, of course, and require wide action by all parties involved. Tottenham Hotspur F.C., for example, is frequently targeted by rivals fans with the antisemitic slur “Yid” to shame its largely Jewish supporter base, coupled with chants about Auschwitz, Hitler gassing Jews, and hisses during games to resemble the sound of emitted gas; Dutch football fans have used pictures Jewish children murdered by Nazis to taunt rivals in Ajax, a team associated with the long-established Jewish community in Amsterdam; and last October, fans of Lazio F.C. posted stickers of Anne Frank wearing an A.S. Roma jersey on the walls of their rivals’ stadium, in the latest of a long stream of incidents plaguing the team.

The Italian football federation announced following the Lazio incident that a passage of Anne Frank’s diary would be read aloud before upcoming Series A matches, together with a moment of silence. Several fans boycotted a subsequent Lazio-Bologna match, in which Lazio players wore T-shirts bearing Anne Frank’s image with the phrase “No to antisemitism,” while others chanted fascist songs and gave Nazi salutes during the reading of the diary passage. A week later, German copycats taunted rivals by posting images of Anne Frank wearing a Schalke 04 football jersey on social media and around Düsseldorf, near the cities of Dortmund and Gelsenkirchen, where the club is based.

These are not isolated incidents. Antisemitic behavior has a long history in sports, and we can no longer suffice by addressing each on a case-by-case basis, with the hope that it will disappear.

As the WJC embarked on its We Remember campaign last month, the largest Holocaust commemoration initiative in the world, we saw strong and active participation by more than a 1.5 million people, including some of the leading sports teams in Europe, Israel and the US, who took great strides to embrace our message of remembrance and share it with the world. Chelsea F.C. was the first to join, and groups including F.C. Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and the UK football association soon followed suit.

The message began to spread.

The WJC urges all sports teams, federations, and associations to follow Chelsea F.C.’s lead and implement widespread and comprehensive educational initiatives to this effect, such as organizing community- wide visits to Auschwitz, bringing in Holocaust survivors to share their stories, and working with youth to ensure that the next generation is aware of the dangers of antisemitism. Beyond this, we encourage others to heed Chelsea’s example in taking punitive measures when necessary. The value of one of the most prominent sports clubs in the world vigorously leading the charge in addressing this crucial issue cannot be overstated. Together, we can kick antisemitism off the playing field once and for all.

The author is the CEO and executive vice president of the World Jewish Congress, the international organization representing more than 100 Jewish communities on six continents.

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