Borderline View: A Tottenham 'Yid' in Israel

You can change your family, colleagues and even your country, but you can never betray your sports team.

spurs 88 (photo credit: )
spurs 88
(photo credit: )
Many of the readers of this newspaper are, like myself, immigrants from English-speaking countries. We weren't pushed out by anti-Semitism, but as the recipients of a strong Jewish and Zionist identity, we came here because we felt that this was where our lives would be enriched and where we could make a positive contribution to the Jewish state. We have no major antipathy toward the countries in which we grew up and continue to visit them on a regular basis, where we feel as much at home, albeit in a very different way, as we do here. Questions of dual loyalties are often raised, and it can be difficult for someone in America or the UK to understand why we voluntarily chose to come and live in the troubled and conflict ridden Middle East. For us it is not difficult to explain, but for them it is hard to comprehend. When ambassadors who originated from these same countries are appointed, such as Yehuda Avner to the UK in the 1980s, or Moshe Arens and Michael Oren to the US, the first thing they have to do is to renounce their former British or American citizenship to ensure that they will not be suspect of dual loyalties. They often prove to be among the best ambassadors because not only do they know the language, they are also familiar with the nuances, hidden meanings and customs of the country and its people. But after 30 years of living here, it has become increasingly clear to me that there is one loyalty which never changes - the loyalty to the sports teams with whom we identified in our younger years. There are two reasons for this. First, there is the fact that transferring one's sports allegiance to the local teams means that we will forever support the losers and the underachievers. To put it simply, Israeli sports teams simply do not compete at the same highly professional level we became accustomed to before immigrating, while the chances of them ever winning an international or European trophy are close to zero. More important however is the fact that serious sports allegiances are for life. One can change one's family, one's colleagues and even one's country, but one can never betray one's sports team. It is unnatural. I am, and always have been, a proud Tottenham Yid. Now, many of you (especially the non-Londoners) may ask what sort of creature is this? It is simply that I profess an undying allegiance to the Tottenham Hotspur football club, one of the two large North London soccer teams (actually football - the original football), more commonly known as the Spurs. This team acquired the "Yid" nickname because it has a large contingent of Jewish supporters. I grew up in the Jewish areas of North London with strong Tottenham affiliations and have retained them throughout my life, even here in the Negev. WHY SHOULD a soccer team have a nickname such as the "Yids." The simplistic (and probably correct) explanation is that prior to the 1950s, most Jews still lived in the East End of London. Few of them had cars and they would go to the sports grounds by public transportation. The rail links from the East End to the Tottenham stadium are more direct and simpler than the equivalent links to their neighbors - although the sad truth is that this other club, whose name I prefer not to mention - probably has as large a Jewish support today as does Tottenham, and even includes within its ranks the present chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks. There is also a theological explanation. To use a British understatement, one could say that Tottenham has a tendency to underachievement, although it is self perceived as being one of the great English teams - much of it based on historical nostalgia for the period in the 1960s when it was indeed a great team. Every year, about this time in the buildup to the new season, there is much talk of the fact that finally it will return to greatness, that it will compete with the "big four" and that its latest managerial appointment will indeed prove to be the long awaited messiah. But, alas, in the same way that our Passover yearnings for the messiah never come to fruition, so too the harsh realities of the Tottenham supporters. It is Jewish self-suffering and masochism, not experienced by the other famous teams in the UK, which Israelis have a tendency of supporting from afar - the sort of remote control support which we "true" fans sneer upon. There is also a serious discussion about whether the use of the term "Tottenham Yids" is nothing more than an anti-Semitic epithet. I was present at a session at last year's UK Limmud conference where John Mann, the member of Parliament who is chairman of the cross-parliamentary commission on anti-Semitism, led a discussion on the topic of racism and anti-Semitism in sport. There were many Tottenham supporters in the audience and the discussion revolved around the use of the term "Yiddo" by 30,000 chanting Tottenham fans. Mann argued that this was anti-Semitic and needs to be stopped by the police authorities. To his surprise, many of the Jewish supporters disagreed, attesting to the fact that they too joined in the chanting, including those who attend the games wearing their kippot (something that would have been out of the question in the more dangerous and hooligan-prone days of two decades ago). The sure sign that a new player or a new manager has finally come good is when 30,000 fans sing his name and brand him as a Yiddo. The present manager is as non-Jewish as they come, but he is considered to be a true Yiddo. He is the current messiah and until he is proven to be yet another footballing Shabtai Tzvi, "Arry" (as he is known in the cockney parlance) will be one of "us." A look at his family tree on the Internet shows that one of his ancestors married a dressmaker Sarah Pressman in the East End in 1833, while names such as Joseph, Reuben, Sara and Levi all appear just a few generations back. Notwithstanding, he and his fellow "Yiddo" players don't even require a painful circumcision to be part of the faith. They just need to be good soccer players and appreciated by the crowd. I am told that there are other olim from the UK who profess support for such teams as Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal and even Manchester United. But none of us are perfect. The writer is professor of political geography at Ben-Gurion University and the editor of the international journal Geopolitics.