Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Ajax and the Jewish Issue

From the desk of... Eric Collier (Le Monde newspaper, France)
Translation: Bertrand Chardon
February 16, 2005

Should Ajax Amsterdam, Holland's greatest football club, shed their 'Jewish club' image because its fans are the target of anti-semitic attacks?

A burning carcass. That is what remained of the Ajax Supporters' Home when Ruben arrived on the scene, late at night on Sunday January 30th. Even before he gave the ruins a closer look the Ajax supporter had no doubt: fans of ADO Den Haag (the team they had played that afternoon) were the arsonists... Two weeks later the police are still investigating.

The two clubs have an old rivalry. They're not alone in the Netherlands, where the most hardcore supporters - so-called 'siders' - have been engaged in a merciless struggle for a long time. In March 1997 the fight between gangs of supporters from Feyenoord and Ajax led to the death of a young man. But the violence is also verbal. Since a dominant part of the Ajax fans began proudly calling themselves Joden ('Jews') in repetitive chants, they've been bombarded with hissing sounds from their opponents, references to the death camps and anti-semitic yells.

Although the large part of the Amsterdam followers have no clue as to what Jewish religion is about, they've had the curious habit of carrying Jewish symbols for some time. Before it burnt down the Supporters Home, built adjecent to the Ajax training pitches, was covered with Israeli flags. Willem, the barman, wears the Star of David on his T-shirt, as do many others on their hats or scarves. On match days these F-Siders, around 5,000 people, shout Joden, Joden ('Jews, Jews') and wave huge Israeli flags. "These chants are part of our culture and they're really important to us," explains Erwin Pieters of the Onafhankelijke Fanclub Ajax (OFA), an independent fan club. "We call ourselves Jews in order to to deprive the opposing supporters of the pleasure of calling us so, as if it were an insult."

The F-Side show their pride just before Ajax
vs Valencia, February 2003. [Photo: Ajax Foto Side]

The fans do not understand how their Joden reputation could ever be a problem. They find themselves diametrically opposed to Ajax's chairman, John Jaakke, who wishes to remove the Jewish label, so that the anti-semitic chants will stop. "Our situation is a paradox," Jaakke underlines in an open letter from Ajax, dated January 22nd. "Everybody thinks we're a Jewish club, but in most of the cases our real Jewish supporters are reluctant to attend our home games - let alone away games - because of the reactions it elicits. We have to find a solution for that problem."

Nobody remembers precisely how and when this story, which can also be regarded as a symbol for the unrest in modern Dutch society, really begun. In front of the training pitch, a 50 year-old man claims that the yells already existed back in the old home ground of De Meer, in fact for as long as he can remember. According to Simon Kuper (author of Ajax, the Dutch, the War), Israeli symbols appeared in the early 1980s in the section of the F-Side, the old stand of the club's hard core, soon after the visit by Tottenham, a club known for its connection to the Jewish community of North London. Jewish symbols soon accompanied the 'Jews! Jews!' yells that replaced the 'Boeren! Boeren!' ('Farmers! Farmers!'), which that Amsterdam supporters used to yell at their opponents. Rival fans soon replied with 'ssssssssssss' (the hissing sound of gas) and, more recently, 'Hamas! Hamas! The Jews to the gas!'

For years the phenomenon was never seriously protested against. The Dutch society thought it was just a problem of silly football supporters that lacked the most basic education. But for Rosa van der Wieken-De Leeuw, member of the Amsterdam city council and co-founder of the Anti-Semitism Network, that silence was at odds with the Dutch tradition of respect and open-mindness. "This is not a matter of tolerance, just a lack of interest. Typically Dutch," she regrets.

For Henk Spaan, journalist for newspaper Het Parool and founding editor of Hard Gras, an intellectual monthly about football, those kids try to "create a sort of folklore, partly to clash with the establishment." "It's neither anti-semitic or racist," Spaan thinks. "To them, this has no specific connection to race or religion. They're not affiliated with any political group or party. I see it as a brand. They basically say: 'I'm an Ajax supporter, I'm a Jew'."

The logo used by the independent
Dapp're Strijders fanzine. [Photo: DappreStrijders.nl]

There have been debates about the alleged Jewish identity of the club regularly ever since the foundation of the club in 1900. According to historians the Jewish connection was down to simple geographical facts in the first place: Ajax and the Jewish neighborhoods were both in the East of Amsterdam. Nobody would deny the link, though. For the best, but also for the worst. During World War II, according to Simon Kuper, the club followed the orders of the Germans very strictly in the fall of 1941, expelling twelve Jewish players and board members.

More than fifty years later, the 'Jewishness' is questioned again. Frits Barend, anchor man of a talkshow on national TV, belongs to the people to have been annoyed for a long time by the supporters' behaviour. About ten years ago he told the Ajax board what he had on his mind. "They were really annoyed that we were giving such a minor problem that much importance," he remembers.

Uri Coronel, a former Ajax administrator who lost a part of his family in the death camps, was one of those annoyed board members. Since then he's changed his mind. It was him to drive Jaakke into action three months ago: "One day I was in the players' bus in Rotterdam before a game. Feyenoord supporters crammed around the bus and gave us the Hitler's salute," he explains. "At that very moment I realized that things had gone too far."

The political context was an important factor, too. The assassination of Pim Fortuyn (May 6, 2002), who was known for his nationalist viewpoints was an electroshock to Dutch society. The assassination of Theo van Gogh, a Dutch film maker also known for his firm political views, a few months ago by a young Dutchman of Moroccan heritage, gave the Dutch society's last illusions of tolerance the death blow. "There has since then a feeling of emergency in that particular political field, the people in charge have now realized that we have a problem, that our country is vulnerable," says Paul Scheffer, professor of urban sociology at Amsterdam University. As a specialist in immigration issues he doesn't think that this move by Ajax is going to solve the problem in the stadiums. He wonders about the connection between Ajax's decision and the social tensions of the last few years. According to statistics the number of anti-semitic acts has raised from 75 in 1999 to 334 in 2003.

Ajax chairman John Jaakke establishes the link clearly. In an interview with Italian sports newspaper Gazzetta Dello Sport he admits that his decision "is probably linked with the murder of Theo van Gogh". His open letter of January 22nd mentions the 'tensions in Dutch society'. Curiously, it was a non-racist incident that drew the nation's attention to the issue. On September 11th 2004 the fiancé of Ajax player Rafaël van der Vaart, MTV host Sylvie Meis, was called a 'whore' by Den Haag supporters throughout their game against Ajax. The 'Sylvie Meis affair' caused a major stir in Holland. Many people now regret that the referee did not interrupt the game, like René Temmink did on October 17th 2004, when he interrupted the game between PSV and ADO Den Haag due to constant 'jungle noises' and anti-semitic shouts from the stands.

"Many people then thought: 'it's gone too far, it has become way too aggressive, we can't tolerate this anymore'," says sociologist Paul Scheffer. "This led to a debate on the values to be defended in the public space. Most of the people now think that we've been too tolerant for too long, that we ignored a problem. Now they think that we have to fight such behaviour, because it's a symbol for what's currently going wrong in our society as a whole. There is now actually a debate about the limits of our tolerance."

The Star of David, tattooed on an Ajax supporter's arm. [Photo: DappreStrijders.nl]

About a month ago, the KNVB published a list of words and sounds now forbidden in stadiums. Banned are: hissing, jungle sounds, sheep sounds, the word 'Hamas' and everything referring to prostitution, genitalia, disease, religious faith and ethnic groups. In case of chants referring to any of these things, referees are allowed to call a game off. A decision that the supporters think is unfeasible.

Facing the new ruling the supporters don't really know how they should react. They think in silence. But there would be a solution though: if the president would give them back the old logo of the club (representing the head of the mythical Greek hero Ajax) and got rid of the new one (which is, in the fans' opinion, way too modern) they could think about making efforts. Waiting for a definitive general stance, they haven't changed their habits a few days before facing AJ Auxerre at home.

Apart from the most active groups the other supporters don't try to hide their feelings: "It's like I have a Star of David tattooed on my forehead. It's been like that since I begun supporting the club," testifies Ferry, 52. "In the beginning I thought it was funny to call ourselves Jews. Then, when I heard the reactions of our opponents, I started hating it, and now I don't really care anymore. I just try to ignore the whole thing." He doesn't understand John Jaakke, though. Right next to Ferry an old man is observing training with much interest: "I am Jewish. I don't feel like talking about it."

Unlike most other Jewish supporters of Ajax, Salo Muller really doesn't appreciate Jaakke's project. "John Jaakke is wrong about the whole thing," regrets the old masseur of the Golden Ajax of the 1970s. "Rather than asking his own supporters to remove their flags and scarves and stop their chanting, he'd better invite the presidents of the clubs that cause the problems and urge them to do something! I mean, we know the source of the problems, who those people are, let's deny them access to matches and send them back to school, to learn a few things about the past."

"Our supporters just love their identity, let's just leave it to them," Muller continues. According to him the racist tendency is nothing new. It's only the dimension of the problem that changed: "Back in the 1960s when I was running along the side line to give medical treatment to an injured player I often heard: 'You dirty Jew!'" Muller is still an avid supporter and never misses a home game. "I focus on the game," he says. "The ones that decided to not come to the games anymore did that because of the anti-semitic shouts, not because of our supporters."

In order to underscore his point Muller shows us a newspaper clipping: an article from De Telegraaf quoting Cobi Benatoff, European president of the Jewish World Congress, in Brussels: "It is really sad that Ajax are trying to shed the Jewish image. This is a stupid decision. We'd want the opposite attitude. It is by acting like this that you lose your identity."

Source: Le Monde / Translated for Ajax USA by Bertrand Chardon

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