The other day, Mireille introduced the weird philo-semitism of Ajax Football Club. Ajax fans, however, are not alone in appropriating Jewishness. A number of teams worldwide identify with Judaism. Among them are M.T.K. Hungaria and England’s Tottenham Hotspur.
There are multiple reasons a club gets tagged as “Jewish.” MTK was founded in 1888 by Jewish businessmen. Through the end of World War I, this held little stigma. However, post-war nationalist politicians explicitly attacked MTK in the press, and the team was shut down in the 1940s. Although the Communists revived the club under a series of political patrons, it still remains identified as the “Jewish” team; which may explain their poor attendance despite an impressive league record.
“Those who consider themselves proper, working-class Hungarians oppose the spirit of business conduct practised by upper-class Hungarians with foreign roots. The upper- class supports MTK, and Fradi [Ferencvaros] supporters have always felt that they are the oppressed, ordinary children of the nation, while the Jews have secured their place in high society.”
Ferencvaros fans chant “the trains are leaving for Auschwitz,” among other things, and through the 1990s celebrated goals with Nazi salutes. These days the club has bigger problems, having been demoted to the Hungarian second division due to financial mismanagement. Predictably, supporters blamed the “red media” and the Jews.
Tottenham is a different animal. The club has no particularly Jewish roots in its founding. It earned the badge of Zion either because of the large number of Jews in the White Hart Lane neighborhood; or because of a 1970s television show. Whichever the cause, opposing fans have long targeted Spurs supporters with chants about Hitler and gas chambers. Obviously, the great majority of Tottenham fans are gentiles. They have met these taunts by building the “Yid Army” identity, a strange co-optation of Jewishness if there ever was one. Franklin Foer, whose book is the source for much of this post, relates the story of Manchester City fans chanting the following during a game against Tottenham in the 1980s:
“We’ll be running around Tottenham with our pricks hanging out tonight,
We’ll be running around Tottenham with our pricks hanging out tonight,
Singing I’ve got a foreskin, I’ve got a foreskin, I’ve got a foreskin and you ain’t
We’ve got foreskins, we’ve got foreskins, you ain’t.”
How did Spurs fans reply? A handful went around their group identifying Jewish supporters, and then brought them together to simultaneously drop their pants and wave their dicks at the Manchester City crowd. Statement made.
What does it mean when a largely gentile group decides to identify as Jewish? Michael Brenner, author of Emancipation Through Muscles: Jews and Sports in Europe, notes that Spurs fans also began flying Argentine flags during and after the Falklands War. The co-optation of Jewish identity is an attempt to build solidarity and kinship through victimhood. Marginalization, real or perceived, adds depths to the supporters’ emotional ties to their club. Unlike MTK, there is no historical Jewish context for Tottenham supporters to draw on. Simply, as Brenner cites one fan saying, “Spurs supporters…really like putting two fingers up to the rest of the world.”
Judaism is useful shorthand for any number of things: defiance, group unity, or even hipness. Witness the counterculture philo-semitism of Holland’s greatest club. During the 1960s, it was Johann Cruyff and Ajax whose “total football” trashed traditional formations and forced players, coaches, and fans to rethink the game. Cruyff, who was not Jewish, had a pregame ritual of eating Kosher salami and decorating his pep talks with Yiddish phrases. The club’s Jewish physiotherapist recalled, “the players liked to be Jewish even though they weren’t,” and Cruyff himself has been spotted wearing a yarmulke in Israel. Foer suggests a link between the cultural radicalism of Amsterdam in the 60s and the faux-Jewishness of the Ajax clubhouse. While it is obviously impossible to prove directly, it can’t be a coincidence that the one club revolutionizing football was the one trying hardest to look like outsiders.
It’s strange watching non-Jews revel in Jewishness, probably not unlike how Chuck D must feel knowing that rap is mostly consumed by suburban white teenagers. Fake Jewish identity gives the gentile fan something to cling to, a sense of victimhood and authenticity without the historical baggage that would actually justify those feelings. (All the sympathy, half the Holocaust!) There’s an old saying that a philo-semite is simply “an anti-semite who loves Jews.” That may be a little unfair, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find some of those gentile Spurs fans voting BNP before donning their Yid Army gear for match day.
Go out and get Foer’s book for more on this and other random social insights drawn from the beautiful game.