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Explained: The tensions surrounding Tottenham regarding the Israel-Gaza war

Explained: The tensions surrounding Tottenham regarding the Israel-Gaza war


English football’s response to the Israel-Gaza war has been divisive. And for Tottenham Hotspur, with its strong Jewish heritage and the only Israeli player in the Premier League, these divisions have been especially acute.

The Athletic spoke to dozens of fans, representing as wide a range of views as possible, to try to understand and explain the depth of feeling involved. Some fans expressed their feeling that Spurs’ response to the conflict has been a “betrayal” and said there are fans in Israel who won’t renew their memberships. Others praised the club for its response.

Some supporters asked for anonymity because they didn’t want to become involved in the debate publicly.


What has been Spurs’ response to the Hamas attack and subsequent war in Gaza?

Tottenham did not say anything publicly until last Thursday, five days after the attacks began. At that point, they echoed the Premier League’s message and used most of it verbatim when they took to social media: “The club and our footballing family is shocked and saddened by the escalating crisis in Israel and Gaza, and strongly condemns the horrific and brutal acts of violence against innocent civilians.

“Our heartfelt sympathies are with the victims, their families and the communities impacted.”

They added that they would join the rest of the Premier League in wearing black armbands and holding a minute’s silence before their next game “as a mark of respect”.

They did not use the word “terrorism” in their statement or mention the Hamas attack specifically, nor did they reference the club’s winger Manor Solomon, the only Israeli playing in the Premier League.

Why is Spurs considered a ‘Jewish club’ and is that true? 

At the last estimate a couple of years ago, around five per cent of matchgoing fans are Jewish — 10 times the proportion of the UK population.

But Tottenham’s Jewish fanbase is global and the club’s Jewish traditions go back much further. In the 1920s, almost all Jewish football fans in London supported Spurs (support for Arsenal, another Premier League club with a sizeable Jewish fanbase, came later), and it was reported during the following decade that around a third of the Tottenham home crowd was Jewish.

In the 1970s, fans of Spurs’ opponents started to use the racial slur ‘Y*d’ as a form of antisemitic abuse because of the club’s strong Jewish following. Tottenham fans took on the word as a badge of honour, a way to deflect the unchecked racism and show that they were proud of their Jewish roots. Their fans, despite the vast majority not being Jewish, still use the word to self-identity today, although that is controversial. The club itself never uses the word.

Tottenham also have a Jewish chairman in Daniel Levy, while Joe Lewis, who is Jewish, owned the club until last year.

There are many Arabic Spurs fans as well — it’s not an exact science but the @ArabicSpurs Twitter account, for instance, has roughly 144,000 followers.

How has the club’s response been received by some Israeli and Jewish fans?

“Tottenham fans in Israel feel betrayed,” says Ohad Aridan, the Israel Spurs Supporters’ Club chairman. “The rather political statement from the club left a lot of Israeli and Jewish fans disappointed, feeling as if the club is trying to shake off its identity. In doing so, they have done tremendous damage.

“There is no justification, there is terrorism and Tottenham decided to keep quiet, and when you keep quiet about terrorism, it wins.

“I can tell you that quite a few Israeli fans have decided to cancel their membership.”

Aridan also referred to the image, which has been shared on social media, of an Israeli Spurs fan’s windscreen shattered by gunshots with a Tottenham badge hanging up.

Ilan Lavan, of Spurs’ official Tel Aviv supporters group, uses a different but similarly emotive word to describe Tottenham fans’ reactions around him. “With fury,” he says.

“It seems like the Premier League and everyone is worried about making a statement that might upset people so in the end, they made a statement without looking at what happened on the ground. All major American sports and governments around the world were pretty supportive of Israel and condemned the attacks. The fact that the Premier League and Spurs didn’t mention Hamas was disgraceful.”

On Friday, the issue was brought into sharp focus when Jonathan Adelman resigned from his position chairing Tottenham’s Tribute Trust, a charity organisation established to look after former players.

Adelman, who had performed the role for a decade, sent a furious resignation letter to Tottenham’s executive director Donna-Maria Cullen and posted it on Twitter. In the letter, Adelman said he had resigned because of “a chronic lack of moral clarity” and added that he can “no longer engage” with Cullen and Levy as he has “a zero-tolerance approach to those incapable of condemning the bestial slaughter of Jews”.

Adelman wrote: “I simply don’t understand what, if any, moral compass those who drafted and signed off the club’s statement have, given the savage butchery of Jews by Hamas, a proscribed terrorist organisation.

“I expected nothing better from the FA, but I did from our club, not just because we have an Israeli player, not just because of the club’s deep connection with the Jewish community, but also given the commendable stance the club took on taking the knee, standing with Ukraine and so on.”

Many other Jewish and Israeli fans have echoed this point about the club’s level of solidarity with Ukraine after the Russian invasion, and victims of various other tragedies.

Other fans have expressed how let down they feel by the statement and a sense of isolation from an organisation they thought they had a special relationship with. Some say it adds to their sense that Spurs want to remove or at least reduce their Jewish association.

David Angel, a Spurs fan who grew up in England and now lives in Israel, says: “It’s a wider sense of dismay not just about Spurs and football but our identities. We have an attachment to various mainstream cultural things we each enjoy and identify with — whether it’s football, a comedian you like, a band, whatever — and then you realise that your identification with them was predicated solely on you being a regular Brit/Westerner. For you as a rounded whole, which is predominantly Jewish, they don’t give a s**t about you.”

What about fans who are pro-Palestine?

In general, those who identify as pro-Palestine think Spurs have struck the right note with their response.

Ash Sarkar is a contributing editor at Novara Media, a Tottenham fan and a long-time public supporter of the Palestinian cause. In 2018, she was accused of antisemitism for defending Ewa Jasiewicz and Yonatan Shapira, two artists who painted “Free Gaza and Palestine, liberate all ghettos” on one of the remaining pieces of the Warsaw Ghetto wall, the largest Jewish ghetto in Nazi-occupied Europe.

Sarkar wholeheartedly rejected claims of antisemitism” and says now that: “I really regret jumping in two-footed in a way that had no nuance whatsoever. I should have been able to distinguish between someone who is Israeli and Jewish (Shapira) taking part in that action because they felt this really sincere need to speak to people who are part of their community. I should have been able to point that out without saying what I did, which implies it was totally fine for anyone to do, because I don’t think that. It was stupid of me to put it across in the way that I did.”

On Tottenham’s response to the situation in Israel and Gaza, she says: “I can totally understand why people would look at Spurs’ statement and want it to be more partisan in one way or another. Because when you see innocent civilians slaughtered by gunfire or airstrikes and you have very intense feelings of empathy and horror then you want to see all the institutions you believe in take a really strong line on it.


Solomon wanted stronger statements (Eric Alonso/Getty Images)

“But what the club had to get right is that this is a developing series of events that, for some people, began with the Hamas atrocities but others would argue began decades and decades ago.

“So if you’re Spurs and you make the decision to put out a statement that condemns Hamas and only mourns the loss of life of Israeli citizens, then as time goes on and as the bombardment of Gaza continues and more and more Palestinians are displaced, that would look incredibly callous towards the suffering of Palestinians,” adds Sarkar. “Likewise, if they put out a statement only recognising the suffering of Palestinians, then Israelis would quite rightly feel that the appalling bloodshed and ongoing hostage situation would be ignored. Spurs did everything they could do in a situation that looks like it can only deteriorate further.”

Other pro-Palestinian Tottenham fans have said they were pleased with Tottenham’s statement because it kept the club neutral and apolitical. The @ArabicSpurs Twitter account put out a statement on Thursday (before the @SpursOfficial one) in which they said: “As a community deeply passionate about football and our beloved club, Tottenham Hotspur, we believe in the power of sports to unite people from all walks of life, transcending boundaries and differences.

“Our shared love for football, and by extension, our club, has often been a source of solace and unity in times of adversity. Therefore, we kindly request that Tottenham Hotspur, a club that has historically celebrated the values of unity and fairness in sports, maintain a neutral stance in the current situation, refraining from supporting one side over the other in this painful conflict.”

When asked whether this view would have been different if Spurs had just put out a statement relating to Solomon and offering their support to him, Mohammed Butti, one of the people running @ArabicSpurs, speaking on behalf of the account, said in response: “Our thoughts are with every innocent family that has lost members of their families from both sides and that includes Solomon. But Spurs making a statement concerning Solomon only wouldn’t be very well received by their Muslim fans.”

How do other supporters feel about Tottenham’s position?

As in wider society, it’s a mixed picture.

Some are disappointed at Spurs’ response, others have sympathy with the decision to avoid taking a position on such a complex issue. One view put forward is that any stance Spurs took would have led to criticism.

This position will rankle with Jewish and Israeli supporters, who feel that the Hamas murder of more than 1,400 innocent civilians is not something to equivocate on.

One suggestion from a Spurs fan is that the club should have responded quickly after the Hamas attacks to express their solidarity with Solomon, thereby keeping it about their player rather than wading into the conflict. It is worth noting Spurs did not put anything out for Dejan Kulusevski after two Swedish nationals were shot dead in Brussels this week.


Israel flags are sometimes seen at Spurs games (Glyn Kirk/AFP via Getty Images)

Spurs fan Daniel’s view reflects that of many of the supporters The Athletic heard from. “My heart went out to all Israelis when the horrific attacks and kidnapping occurred,” he says, “especially the impact on families and children.

“And now seeing the suffering in Gaza, as well as in Israel, is evoking similar feelings — again, the terrible impact on the families and children. Heartbreaking all round.

“Which I guess is what the club was trying to portray.”

Why have Spurs taken a neutral stance?

Spurs’ stance, explained by the club to The Athletic when questions were put to them for this article, comes from their belief that football should be aligned and that it needs to be apolitical and multi-denominational.

From their perspective, while they have never named terrorist groups, they believe they made it clear in their statement that they were unequivocally calling out and condemning the horrific acts of violence against innocent civilians.

They told us that they totally reject the idea that they want to reduce associations with the Jewish community and insist that they remain firm in their stand against antisemitism. They point to the fact that their zero-tolerance approach has led, and will continue to lead, to many prosecutions for this hate crime — as well as all forms of discrimination and hatred.

Externally, it’s been suggested that given the rise in antisemitic crimes in the UK since the weekend’s events (an increase of more than 300 per cent last week according to the Community Security Trust), Spurs might have been wary of making Solomon or their fans more of a target if they were seen to be weighing into the conflict — especially given the club’s Jewish heritage and Jewish chairman.

And there has already been an attack on the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium since the Hamas killings, with a man arrested for causing criminal damage, though a club statement said there was “no evidence” it was motivated by antisemitism.

Didn’t other clubs say more?

Most clubs echoed the Premier League’s statement, but Crystal Palace and Chelsea diverged.

Palace tweeted on Friday night: “More than 1,000 Israeli citizens, as well as others visiting from around the world, including from Britain, were murdered or taken hostage in Israel by Hamas terrorists on Saturday.

“As a club, we add our voices to the global condemnation of the deaths of all innocent people.”

Chelsea tweeted on Friday: “Chelsea is enormously saddened by the huge loss of life following last weekend’s attacks on Israel. We stand with the Jewish community in London and around the world in the face of the rising tide of antisemitism, which we have long campaigned against.”

Arsenal went slightly further than Spurs by directly referencing the Hamas attacks of Saturday, October 7, even though they did not mention Hamas by name. “We express our deep sorrow to all those impacted by the attacks in Israel on Saturday and the unfolding human tragedy of the past week, claiming innocent lives in both Israel and Gaza,” they tweeted on Friday afternoon.

What about Solomon? 

In an interview with Sport 5, an Israeli TV channel on Monday, Solomon expressed a view similar to many Israeli and Jewish Spurs fans. He said that the Premier League’s statement (which Spurs largely echoed) had been “vanilla”.

He added: “This is very depressing — I spoke to them and explained. There are people who understand the situation and are scared of what will happen. To the club, to the Premier League, I don’t know, everyone seems scared of what will happen to it so they prefer not to be involved.

“We are a very small country and there aren’t many Jews in the world and that’s why big organisations prefer to keep silent.”

In the same interview, he said that it was important “to fight all the disinformation in the media” and on Instagram, he has shared content reflecting his view that Israel has been unfairly characterised in the press. Last week, he also wrote an impassioned message about the horrors inflicted by Hamas. “Supporting them means supporting terror,” he wrote. “Just like supporting Al-Qaeda, ISIS and the attacks on 9/11. Israel has the right to defend itself! Pray for Israel.

“In the past two days my country, my family, my friends and my beloved people have been going through hell.”

Like every Israeli, he has been deeply affected by the conflict and has sent messages to some of those on the front line, such as Ayal Young, a Spurs fan who was shot in the back and the cheek outside the Alumim Kibbutz where he lives, right on the Gaza border, by Hamas fighters on October 7.

Young spoke to The Athletic while he was in an intensive care unit in a hospital in Be’er Sheva, near Gaza, last week, and it was there that his wife showed him the video Solomon had sent. “I heard you were tired and not feeling well, so I wanted to tell you you are a hero, I’m sure everybody is proud of you,” Solomon said. “I wish you a quick recovery, I love you.”

Spurs have not said anything about his situation publicly but behind the scenes, they say they are providing him the highest level of personal and professional support available.

What will the policy be towards Israeli flags at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium?

Tottenham’s flags and banners policy has been in place since 2019, and states that: “The club has always considered that a football match is a time to show allegiance to a football team first and foremost. A football match is not an appropriate arena to display flags of any political or religious affiliation or anything that could possibly be considered inflammatory – this can include national flags during times of political conflicts, campaigns or issues.”

Israeli and Palestinian flags would fall foul of this policy given the “political conflict” that is ongoing. It will be interesting to see how strictly this is enforced in the coming weeks.

go-deeper

In May 2021, the issue erupted when a supporter was forced to put away their Israeli flag in line with the stadium guidelines.

There was further controversy in January when supporters were told not to bring their “Spurs Cyprus” flag to the stadium as it was deemed to be “political”. Tottenham quickly reversed the decision and reviewed their policy.

The Premier League is also expected to issue guidance to clubs regarding a range of matchday operational matters, including flags, in response to the conflict.

(Top photo: Tim Goode/Pool via Getty Images)





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