In September last year, very nearly the whole of Chelsea’s away end at Leicester joined in with an anti-Semitic chant. That set in place a series of events which this week resulted in a club-sponsored trip to Auschwitz for supporters. Dan Levene, on Chelsea at the crossroads.
It is probably 20 years since I wrote my first story about anti-Semitism at Chelsea.
In the time I have supported and reported on this club, a period exceeding 30 years, it has been more or less a constant.
It is a complex matter here, which is not to say the abhorrence of it is in any way diminished.
Many perpetrators claim an antipathy towards Spurs, not Jews.
Some among them probably even believe that.
But the songs about the death camps prevail.
They have ebbed and flowed over that time: from the 80s nadir; to a period where abuse diminished in the post-Champions-League triumph world; to the era beyond the Brexit vote, where aspects of the support have spoken-up with gusto.
Spurs are not Y-ds.
They are a north London team which inhabits a part of N17: once quite Jewish; now very African-Caribbean; with a strong Turkish influence.
Spurs never chose the tag ‘Y-d army’. But they decided to own it: a theoretical strike against the haters. Probably 97% or more of their support is ‘goyim’, as the few remaining Jews in the area might refer to those not of the race.
Had they not taken the moniker on in the 60s, they might have left the search for a badge-of-pride until the 80s or 90s. In which case, would they now call themselves the ‘N****r Army’?
If they did, would that be acceptable? And would abuse of it be tolerable? In both cases, the answer seems obvious.
Chelsea do hate Tottenham, and Tottenham do hate Chelsea, as many are happy to sing. Such football rivalry is to be expected. To be cherished, even, because without it the game is sanitised.
But often, at Chelsea, it feels like many also hate Jews.
“Barcelona, Real Madrid, Tottenham are a load of Y-ds,” goes the song; and absolutely everyone knows what the Y-word stands for.
Should Spurs stop singing it, would it stop?
I recall Chelsea’s Yossi Benayoun, an Israeli international, approaching an away end once to be greeted with a barrage of: “F*** off you Y-d scum” – from his own club’s support. The record books seem to have missed his time as a Spurs player.
So, though many from the north of London sing about being part of a ‘Y-d Army’ with mostly misplaced pride; the songs from the west which mention the word tend to be about hatred, and often threaten.
I’ve had those threats myself, from time to time, over my public calls to stop the racial abuse.
And so to Leicester away last September…
“Its just a football song,” as some insisted to me on the platform post-match.
But when a significant majority of a 2,000+ strong away end sing about a player who ‘hates the f***ing Y-ds’, it becomes a hate crime.
When a supporter I’ve know for years approaches a Jew on that station platform and insists how ‘f**ing brilliant’ his day out was, ‘because of that song’, it elevates the occasion to one of the worst acts of collective racism I’ve seen at football in some years.
If we assume that every single one of those singers: people who live or work in, or visit London regularly, and who presumably know the Jewish origins of their club’s owner, know what the word means; then we must assume they know the chant is racist.
And, on being asked in the immediate aftermath of the match, the club was adamant that it wanted rid of those who thought it acceptable.
A short while later, Abramovich’s campaign against anti-Semitism was born.
I count among my family survivors of the Holocaust. The story of Auschwitz is one that was always known in my youth.
I have made it a part of my existence to hear the testimonies of survivors.
I have learned of history’s most appalling crimes, simply by listening.
But when one such survivor spoke at Stamford Bridge back in March, with incredible power and remarkable fortitude, in front of an audience of supporters – it felt like a watershed.
I sat with Bruce Buck that night, and I will not break the confidence of such a personal moment.
But we spoke of the Holocaust, and he told me of his pride that fans of the club of which he was Chairman would be taken on planes to learn more of history’s greatest ever abomination. To hear, and to share.
On 5th June, there I flew.
On the flight, a mix of Chelsea staff and supporters.
And this, if there is any such point, is where the plan’s flaw is evident.
I saw on that flight people who I knew had spent their lives fighting against any form of intolerance or prejudice.
But I also saw those who I knew to be anti-Semites: with a long history of racist abuse to their names.
The constituency here was clearly a mix of those occupying the echo-chamber of disgust (the majority); and those flying for a freebie.
It is barely possible to do justice to the thoughts and emotions associated with visiting a place where millions were murdered, exclusively on the basis of the blood which courses through one’s own veins.
Though the blood could have been yours, or anyone else’s, depending on the direction in which hate was focused.
Auschwitz-Birkenau is easily written-off as a place created by evil people.
It was not.
It was designed and run by normal people, by all accounts, who took a conscious decision to be evil.
And the bundles of hair, removed from the corpses of the victims are as real as the carpets made by their murderers from those tresses: to furnish the glistening apartments of those who desired them.
It is a place where rape and murder knew no bounds within the confines of history, and where no pantomime villains or Gotham City backdrops exist.
This was your town, with your people, gone horrifically wrong.
Rabbi Barry Marcus, an inspirational man and public speaker, established these physically and mentally draining field trips two decades ago.
And he is rightly given the final say.
Perched atop the memorial at Birkenau, the home of history’s most effective killing machine: he shows sorrow, and respect. And, in a move that removes some from from their comfort zones, pure rage.
And then, as in the case of the hundreds of trips he has led over the years to this place, he offers the chance to say Kaddish – to remember the six million men, women and children snuffed-out.
I saw people who cracked jokes about gas ovens and Spurs on the way there, who remained quiet on the way back. A small advance.
I saw others who claimed to have been cured of any lingering anti-Semitism by the experience. And let time be the judge of that.
And, for the most part, I saw people who happened to be involved in football – for work, for play – who were utterly broken by the sights they had seen, and the stories they had heard.
The images of dead children; the thousands of abandoned shoes or hairbrushes; the utter dehumanisation of beings who were once people.
The test will be how long these reactions endure.
Was the lesson of the Holocaust here learned?
It will be time before we find out.
But if it was, then the take-away for all should be this: the stigmatisation; the victimisation; the dehumanisation which led to the Holocaust – a turn of events seldom easier to replicate these days than in a football crowd – can be halted.
All that is required is for good people to stand in its way.
It has to be hoped a few more know their role in that, from this moment onward.