On Saturday, North London-based soccer team Tottenham Hotspur face an old cross-town rival, Chelsea. Fans of Tottenham (or Spurs), have endured a barrage of abuse over the years—including from Chelsea fans. Traditionally renowned for its large number of Jewish supporters, Tottenham fans once contended with the collective hissing of rival supporters in the uglier days of English football — the hissing is meant to mimic the cyanide being released at Nazi concentration camps — and relentless, anti-Semitic chants using the derogatory Y-word in a sort of mass snarl: “Yiddo! Yiddo!”
At some point over a period of time, a strange shift happened: Spurs fans — only about 5% of whom are thought to be Jewish today — began to refer to themselves as “Yids”. They appropriated the term to the extent that they self-identified as the “Yid Army” and chanted the word “Yiddo” in a spirit of unity and exultation. The word has been reclaimed — in a similar way to how some black rap and hip-hop artists have reclaimed the offensive racial slurs aimed at blacks.
But over the past couple of years the use of the Y-word has provoked fresh debate, roping in even the country’s top politician. The English Football Association (FA) made a statement on Sept. 11 that labeled the term “derogatory” and warned that any fan chanting it on the soccer terraces could face criminal charges. Then in a somewhat surprising move British Prime Minister David Cameron weighed in on the row, contradicting the FA. Speaking to the Jewish Chronicle on Sept. 17, he insisted that Spurs supporters should not be prosecuted for using the Y-word as they are not “motivated by hate.”
Ellis Cashmore, a professor of culture, media and sport at Staffordshire University in the U.K., agrees with the Prime Minister, arguing that language ought to be interpreted in context. “Here is a term that was designed as an insult but over a period of time its meaning has changed,” he says. “As a general philosophy, I think it’s a very good thing if you take terms that have been used in a malicious way and change their meaning to the point where there is no longer any stigma attached to it.” It is this last point, however, that generates debate: Has the meaning of the Y-word really changed to the extent that it no longer has any stigma?
Ivor Baddiel, a London-based Jewish writer and producer, believes that it is totally unacceptable for Spurs fans to use the Y-word. He is currently campaigning with Kick It Out – a U.K.-based soccer equality and inclusion advocacy group – to raise awareness about anti-Semitism in football. “In the same way as the N-word, the Y-word is a race hate word,” he says. “And the so-called reclaiming of the term hasn’t worked because it has made fans from other teams chant it back to them even more – it’s made things worse.” Baddiel adds that it also causes “ridiculous confusion” as the vast majority of Spurs supporters chanting the word are not Jewish.
Baddiel’s views are backed up by the Board of Deputies of British Jews (BDBJ), the main representative body of Jews in the U.K. A recent post on the BDBJ’s website read: “Even if [Tottenham fans] are using the term endearingly, it still has no place in a football stadium. And by using it, they encourage other fans to respond, often in highly unpleasant ways.” They are not the only organization to take this stance: back in Nov. 2012, the Society of Black Lawyers announced that they would report Tottenham fans to the police if fans continued to refer to themselves as “Yids.”
Not all Jewish people oppose the use of the term, though. Frank Furedi, a professor of sociology at the University of Kent in England, is both Jewish and a lifelong Spurs supporter. While he says he makes no compromises in the fight against anti-Semitism, he tells TIME that he resents the way the current debate is causing problems where he thinks there aren’t any – and creating a backlash as a result. “When you go to a match and the fans start chanting ‘Yiddo, Yiddo’, it’s quite electrifying and a defiant gesture of who we are,” he says. “People who think it’s a problem just don’t understand football and don’t understand the context.”
Darren Alexander, chairman of the Tottenham Hotspur Supporters’ Trust, told the Telegraph on Sept. 16 that the club will be sending out questionnaires to fans to gauge their opinions on the controversial chants. For now, an air of defiance reigns: at a recent match against Norwich City deafening chants filled White Hart Lane, the team’s venerable stadium: “We’re Tottenham Hotspur and we’ll sing what we want.” The debate, along with the moral and political controversy it causes, is set to continue.