Chelsea’s fans were again at the centre of controversy after singing antisemitic chants in Hungary last December. We investigate the club’s initiatives that aim to teach fans about the impact of their prejudice.
Professional footballers are not used to sitting still. Their world is built on movement, whether gliding across a football pitch or on airplanes and coaches as they travel to and from matches. Even at rest, their muscles twitch. They fidget, tap their feet, fiddle with phones. But when Harry Spiro gave a speech to players at Chelsea Football Club in January 2018, the entire squad of pros sat completely still for the duration. Spiro was scheduled to speak for 20 minutes. In the end, he talked for 40. Bruce Buck, Chelsea’s chairman, said he’d never seen the players so engaged.
Spiro is a Holocaust survivor. His family were murdered at Treblinka concentration camp in 1942; he survived the camps at Buchenwald, Rehmsdorf and Theresienstadt before being liberated by Soviet soldiers. Spiro talks to groups all over the UK about his experiences during the war. His talk at Chelsea was part of the club’s Say No To Antisemitism campaign, an educational programme that includes benefit matches, school visits, films, publications and tours of Auschwitz for the club’s stewards, staff and supporters groups.
In the past, Chelsea has been dogged by a reputation for racist and antisemitic behaviour among its fans – as is the case at several London clubs. The annual report from Kick It Out (the game’s anti-racism body) in December 2018 found that reports of antisemitic, racist and other discriminatory abuse within English football had risen for the sixth year in a row, up 11 percent, and one in 10 reports concerned antisemitism.
This antisemitism usually revolves around Tottenham, who are traditionally seen as a Jewish club. Opposition fans – notably Chelsea, Arsenal and West Ham – routinely call Tottenham fans ‘Yids’. Thirty years ago, amid the songs about foreskins or Jewish Tottenham fans who don’t buy a round at the pub were songs about Auschwitz. These days, the worst of these chants can still occasionally be heard in pubs and trains, but in the ground the use of ‘Yid’ is still commonplace. Many fans argue it’s not offensive because it’s simply a nickname for Tottenham, or point out that Tottenham fans call themselves the ‘Yid Army’. It’s this ignorance, in particular, that Chelsea is combatting as it tries to use its huge reach to educate and change behaviour.
Apart from inviting speakers such as Spiro, the club has produced a guide to help stewards recognise antisemitism, which has been distributed around the country via Kick It Out. Chelsea have also supported Pitch For Hope, a project launched in July 2018 with the World Jewish Congress, which asked young people at universities in the UK, US and Israel to present ideas about how to tackle racism, xenophobia, discrimination and antisemitism in sport.
In June, Chelsea will play a fixture in Massachusetts against New England Revolution, with all proceeds going to international community programmes that combat antisemitism. If it’s successful, Chelsea will expand the programme to other forms of discrimination.
One of the boldest elements of the Chelsea campaign involves re-educating fans who use antisemitic language. “We have a restorative justice element,” explains Simon Taylor, who runs Chelsea’s charitable arm, the Chelsea Foundation. “Instead of being banned for five years, a fan can reduce – not overturn – their ban by successfully completing an education course.” These two-hour courses, led by diversity consultant Chris Gibbons, were misreported in newspapers as including educational trips to Auschwitz. “Often the participant is quite nervous and at the start I make it clear that we distinguish the incident from the individual – just because somebody has made a racist comment doesn’t mean they are racist,” says Gibbons. ”We focus on the incident, we talk about the law and we talk about the impact – what they were thinking and what they thought that impact might be. We then show what the impact actually was, through witness statements and with comments from experts on Judaism and antisemitism. We also talk to them about what can be done to make it a safe and inclusive club.”
When Chelsea decided to tackle antisemitism, some at the club were sceptical. They feared reputational blowback, or being drawn into arguments about Israel and Palestine. But the campaign was the brainchild of the most important person in the club. “It came from the very top,” says Taylor, referring to Chelsea’s owner (and Israeli citizen) Roman Abramovich. “It was a reaction to an awareness from the owner that antisemitism was becoming a problem in the UK, Europe and elsewhere.” When Chelsea launched the campaign at a home game the weekend closest to International Holocaust Memorial Day, Abramovich made the rare step of putting his name to a two-page statement in the match programme. “This was probably the most significant thing he has said to the fans on any subject since he bought the club,” says Taylor.
Chelsea supporter and journalist Dan Levene travels to every game, home and away. He’s also Jewish, and accompanied the club on a trip to Auschwitz in summer 2018, which was attended by supporters’ groups. These fans had not been involved in any antisemitic abuse and were attending voluntarily, out of personal interest, but, says Levene, some were still cracking jokes on the way out. “It was gallows humour, maybe a coping mechanism but based around the usual tropes you hear in the Spurs songs,” he says. “Then when you saw them on the way back, you could see they were shocked and appalled and emotionally affected by the visit. But I don’t know if it will change the way they behave.”
The Auschwitz trip was led by Rabbi Barry Marcus, who has visited the camp more than 200 times with the Holocaust Education Trust, one of many Jewish groups Chelsea approached. “We met with Anne Frank House, the Holocaust Education Trust, the Community Security Trust, Jewish Museum London, the Board of Deputies and many others to get their opinion on what we should do and then we road-tested some ideas,” says Taylor. Rabbi Marcus is enthused by Chelsea’s approach. “They were keen to do something that was more than a photocall,” he says. “They wanted to embrace a meaningful programme that would change people’s perceptions. My wish is that they will lead other clubs in a genuine attempt to confront the malaise that is unfortunately rearing its head in many areas.”
Taylor insists that the campaign was not directly inspired by anything that happened at Chelsea but Levene believes it was prompted by an offensive and antisemitic song fans briefly aired last season for striker Alvaro Morata. After the song was first heard, the club and Morata asked fans to refrain from singing it. It hasn’t been heard since but its use of the word “Yid” as an insult was “entry-level antisemitism”, according to Levene.
Chelsea fans have had a small but persistent right-wing element since the 1970s. While this has declined considerably, there’s a concern that far right groups such as the English Defence League and the Football Lads Alliance are once more bringing active far right politics to football in the form Islamophobia and antisemitism. “I’ve been very vocal in my opposition to the Football Lads Alliance and I get a lot of abuse,” says Levene. “There is an active right-wing recruitment campaign around football fans on social media.”
“We know there’s an overlap between antisemitism and Islamophobia on the far right,” says David Feldman, director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism. Feldman thinks that any approach that intends to educate football fans about antisemitism shouldn’t focus on the Holocaust alone. “There’s a danger that if you teach people to understand the problem of antisemitism as a genocidal phenomenon they might fail to recognise its more commonplace forms,” he says. “A football fan might think they are engaging in banter, even though I and others might regard what they say as antisemitic.” Instead, he says, diversity training should make it clear that antisemitism is wrong in whatever form it takes.
Chelsea fans also need to be able to safely report antisemitic behaviour. This won’t be easy, as the use of ‘Yid’ is so ingrained in the fan culture, but also because it requires a level of self-policing. Levene has found that many supporters’ groups avoid discussing antisemitism, partly owing to a fear of making themselves targets of the far right. “Chelsea fans need to stand up,” he says. “It’s not fun doing this. It can be pretty cold out there.”
But it is clear Chelsea is serious. The club stepped in swiftly to strongly condemn an episode last December in which Chelsea fans chanted an antisemitic song during a game in Budapest, Hungary. “We will continue our initiatives for as long as it takes. It’s very important for the club,” says Taylor. And Rabbi Barry Marcus is bullish. “The fact that they understand the problem is music to my ears. If one football club like Chelsea takes on the challenge the impact will be of historic proportions – because football clubs are the most powerful religious faith-force on the planet.”
By Peter Watts
Visit chelseafc.com to find out more. Peter Watts is a journalist and has written for the Guardian, Daily Telegraph and Prospect among other publications. His latest book, Altered States: The Library of Julio Danto Domingo, is out now.