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Why I changed my mind on the Y-word

By Stephen Pollard

Stephen Pollard is the Editor-at-Large of The Jewish Chronicle (The JC) and a lifelong Spurs fan. The below piece was published in the newspaper on Wednesday 16 February, 2022. Stephen has given the Club his permission to print the article in-full in today’s matchday programme, donating his fee to the Tottenham Hotspur Foundation.

For a man famously unable to remember which football team he supported, David Cameron might not seem the most authoritative voice on the great Spurs Y** controversy.

Back in 2013, the Football Association had declared its opposition to Spurs fans chanting "Y** Army" and other variations on that theme. I happened to be seeing the former PM that week, so I did what any Spurs-supporting JC editor would do: I asked him what he thought.

His answer, I thought at the time, was spot on: “You have to think of the mens rea. There’s a difference between Spurs fans self-describing themselves as Y**s and someone calling someone a Y** as an insult. You have to be motivated by hate. Hate speech should be prosecuted — but only when it’s motivated by hate.”

For decades, that was my view, too. How could something that was meant in a spirit of unity and good cheer, and was received in that spirit by those at whom it was chanted, be classed as racist? Context is all.

I proudly sang along to cries of “Jermain Defoe, he’s a Y**do” and other such terrace chants.

And then I changed my mind.

For as long as I have been chanting what I’m now going to refer to as The Y Word, fans of other teams have asked me not to. One close friend, a Chelsea fan, would tell me how it made things even worse at Stamford Bridge. Our use of The Y Word gave license to their antisemites to use it, alongside their hissing to mock the gas chambers. Context is all.

My response was that I should not have to alter my behaviour to accommodate the behaviour of antisemites. And in theory, that’s still what I think. But I’ve come to realise that you have to look at things as they are, not as you consider them to be in principle.

In recent years, a defining issue for British Jews has been the rise in antisemitism. Unleashed by the Corbynites and with a renewed far right vigour, a poison has taken hold that is getting worse every year as every set of figures from the CST shows. It is no longer possible for Spurs fans to pretend we live in a bubble and that our warm, unifying use of The Y Word can be isolated from the way it is spat out elsewhere.  We have to recognise that by using it, we hinder attempts by other clubs to tackle its racist use by their fans.

Last week [10 February, 2022], Tottenham Hotspur released the delayed findings of an extensive consultation carried out before the pandemic. Crucially, those consulted were Spurs fans. The results were clear. Spurs fans themselves – Jewish and non-Jewish alike – opposed its use. Specifically, even those who used it said that if it was offending others or making things worse they could see why it should stop. As a result, the club asked fans to stop using The Y Word.

It's important to be clear about what is happening. No one is banning it. No one is saying that people who use it are being racist. No one is attacking those who use it. The club – and people like me, who now think it needs to stop – are simply asking for our fellow fans to stop using it, and explaining why.

It won’t happen overnight, of course. It was still being chanted on Sunday [13 February] when we played Wolves (not that we had anything to sing about then). And it will carry on being chanted. The important point of the past week, however, is that the club now has a formal position against its use, and will start a process of persuasion.

The worst possible approach would be to seek to ban it, as happened in 2014 after the FA declared its opposition to the use of the word, when the police arrested three Spurs fans on suspicion of using it. The case was rightly dropped before it came to court. I would oppose any attempt at a ban – because context matters. While I might now seek to persuade people not to chant it, I know that those who do have no racist intent whatsoever, and the idea that they could be prosecuted for not altering their behaviour to take note of the antisemitic views of others is repellent.

A good friend and fellow Spurs fan tells me this is all nonsense, and that as a proud Jew he will keep on chanting The Y Word. How dare our freedom be constrained by other clubs’ inability to control their racist fans.

It’s a powerful sentiment, and it’s my default reaction, too. But regretfully the world is as it is, and it’s clear to me that so long as we keep chanting The Y Word, other Jews are going to have it spat at them. And I can’t be part of that.