The “Yids” are proving
troublesome in Britain this
week, and over in America
the “Redskins” are off the reservation.
Now, before you harrumph in
indignation, please note that the words in the headline have both been placed
in quotation marks. That’s because, in
the context of the narrative that follows, they are not ‘those’ words – the
ones that most people these days consider offensive, they are the self-imposed names
The “Yids” in question are the
supporters of Tottenham Hotspur, an English football club, who call themselves
the Yid Army. “Redskins” is the name of
the Washington D.C. football team.
Both are in the news because moves
are afoot, and not just in sporting circles, to eliminate both names. Even the
respective heads of government have entered the controversies, though from markedly
Prime Minister David Cameron
thinks it’s fine to call yourself a Yid, if that’s what you wish for, but not
be called one, at least not if the intent is to offend. “You have to think of the mens rea,” he told the Jewish
Chronicle. (Mens rea translates literally as ‘guilty mind’.) “There’s a
difference between Spurs fans self-describing themselves as Yids and someone
calling someone a Yid as an insult.”
President Obama steered a quite different
course, and without the Latin evocation.
“I’ve got to say that if I were the owner of the team and I knew that
the name of my team was offending a sizable group of people, I’d think about
The cases are different in
several aspects but the same question underlies both: is the continuing use of
such words defensible?
Yes, says Tottenham’s Yid Army,
arguing that it has cleverly turned the tables on its tormentors by adopting
their insults and hurling them back. It
was the supporters of opposing teams who started the Yid chants – Tottenham
being traditionally a Jewish-owned team, with a large Jewish following – and to
the extent that football fans are capable of thinking about such matters were undoubtedly
coming at it from a position of mens rea.
(To use such a term in front of them might be to risk a punch on the nose for
calling them male arses.) Clever,
perhaps, but not so smart ….
The Football Association, which
has launched and then re-launched a highly-publicised campaign to rid the sport
of racism, thinks Cameron is wrong. Now,
whenever the FA takes a position on any subject I almost invariably make a
point of adopting precisely the opposite one, but this time I think the FA suits
have a point – even if, in light of the racism campaign, they could hardly
The Yid army, revelling in its
perverse form of hubris, might pause to consider whether followers of a
black-owned club with a largely black following would be entitled to call
themselves the Nigger Army? “Yid” is no
less a pejorative than “nigger” in the unofficial league table of offensive
words, having a similar rating to kike and hebe. The Spurs fans, in trying to
make it sound endearing, are ignoring generations of virulent anti-Semitism of
which (as my wife would readily testify) many vestiges remain around the world.
Adopting the Y word is nothing if
not a novel tactic, but it serves only to delay the time when the word disappears
from circulation. The bizarre sponsorship
of a hate word by a handful of football-loving Jews, however well-intentioned, is
surely a poor excuse for putting off that day.
Having come out against Cameron,
I must logically side with Obama. His remark
represents a perfectly rational opinion, all the more effective for not containing
the slightest trace of threat. He’s simply
appealing, gently, to common sense and the innate decency of the club’s owners.
The Redskins have been so-called
for eighty years (they were previously the Boston Braves) and the team’s
supporters would no doubt mourn the name’s passing with the same kind of
lifelong resentment demonstrated by those residents of Brooklyn who, after more
than half a century, still can’t get over the loss of the Dodgers to Los Angeles. But for now, in the face of fierce lobbying by
Native American and other interest groups, they feel secure. They can pin their hopes on opinion polls showing
that an overwhelming number of Americans want the name kept. They probably also feel that they can rely on
the intransigence of the team’s proprietor, Daniel Snyder, whose opposition to
change falls into the ‘over-my-dead-body’ category. Even so, I think they should be prepared to
Snyder, by the way, is Jewish. I doubt that he’s heard about the Tottenham
debate, but I can’t help wondering which side he would take. Perhaps I should write and ask him. My confident bet is that he would want Yid
expunged, in which case he’d be hard pressed to defend his Redskins position.
Normally, I’d be walking on the
other side of the street from the one on which I stroll today. But some locutions serve no other purpose
than to perpetuate, however unconsciously, the ancient hates and prejudices that
created them. Who, sensibly, can mourn them?
And for pity’s sake, we’re not
talking about renaming countries.