I have to admit that this upsurge in racial hatred has taken me my surprise. My book, Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here?, published in 2013, charted the Jewish community’s journey from alienated and often persecuted east European outsiders, to more-or-less accepted, Anglicised football insiders. For 120 years Jews have been involved in the people’s game as players, fans, managers, directors, writers, administrators and owners. Theirs is a model story of integration, showing how a once-demonised group of immigrants could, after a long struggle, find acceptance and a sense of belonging through an obsessive participation in sport. As a football reporter employed by a national newspaper for 15 years, I really thought I had seen the back of antisemitism.
It is at this point that sceptics usually point out these are isolated incidents. Some argue for contextualisation, arguing that they are the product of tribal rivalries between fans who will stop at nothing to rile their sworn enemies. They don’t mean to be beastly to Jewish people.
According to football’s anti-discrimination organisation, Kick It Out, however, such vile behaviour has been steadily increasing in recent years. During the 2013-14 season 57 incidents were reported. The following term there were 63. And for the last season the figure had risen to 83. “I think we’re going to see more of it,” Roisin Wood, the organisation’s director, recently told a 200-strong audience at the JW3 London Jewish cultural centre. “I would be surprised if we didn’t.”
I was sitting next to her when she made this bleak prediction. The Times’ chief football writer, Henry Winter, revealed that he had called the Football Association to ask for statistics about antisemitism. “They reckoned there was a decrease,” he said. “I go to so many games a year – and I think that’s rubbish.”
A cursory glance at Jewish newspapers, reinforced by anecdotal evidence provided at the JW3 event, reveals that grassroots football is peppered with abuse. “My son played for London Lions,” said Martin Berliner, who heads the Jewish football organisation Maccabi GB. “They have the star of David on their shirts. They experienced it from time to time. There are clubs with a reputation for being intimidating. It’s not unusual for parents and kids to use antisemitic language. You’ve got a generation of 14 to 15 year olds who are growing up right now who think it’s acceptable.”