Monday, October 30, 2006
A Saturday afternoon, sometime in the early 1990s. My friend Hans had got us two tickets for the Ajax-Feyenoord game at the old Olympic Stadium in Ambsterdam. This was always an event fraught with mob emotion, even violence. Amsterdam versus Rotterdam; the capital against "the peasants"; the city of arts and culture against the city of honest toilers; Mokum, the erstwhile Jewish city, against the Dutch salt of the earth. These are the cliches in which urban rivalries trade.
Soccer partisanship is often rooted in ethnicity. Many European capitals -- Berlin, Budapest, London, Vienna -- had clubs that were once associated with a Jewish following, and these legacies die hard, even when there is no more factual basis for them. Ajax had had a fair number of Jewish members before the war, but most of them were killed. There were a few Jewish Ajax players after the war, but not enough to make a difference. Nonetheless, just as postwar Amsterdam still had several Jewish mayors, Ajax still had Jewish owners, at least some of the time. The phantom of Mokum still haunts the city, and has been given a strange new lease on life in the soccer stadium.
After Provo and the first critical discussions of the Holocaust, to be Jewish in some Dutch circles became rather chic. At least until the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Israel was widely admired. And Israelis still warmed their hearts with the myth of the gallant Dutch who stood up for the Jews in their darkest hour, of the doughty Amsterdam workers who, uniquely in occupied Europe, went on strike in protest against the Jewish deportations. The strike had indeed taken place, in February 1941. It was inspiring, even though it did no good. At a time, decades later, when people would rather not think about the past at all, it could still produce a spark of pride.
This spark went into the mystique of the great Ajax teams of the 1970s. Something in the freedom of their play, the swagger of their "total football," was attributed to the urban myth of Mokum. The fans from rival cities sensed this and began to refer to Ajax as "the Jews," or rather "the rotton Jews," "the cancer Jews," "the filthy Jews." This had little or nothing to do with ancestry, or with the war. Every supporter of the "Jew club" had to be a "Jew." Things began to escalate from there. The more supporters from Rotterdam, Utrecht, or The Hague cried "Jew!" the more the myth of Mokum, and by extension Israel, was evoked. By the 1980s, Ajax fans turned up in their stadium wrapped in Stars of David and the Israeli flag.
When Hans and I arrived at the Olympic Stadium, it was soon clear that a terrible mistake had been made. Hans was an Ajax supporter, but through some unfortunate error our tickets put us in the middle of the Feyenoord block. This meant that we had better keep our heads down. Things were already getting heated at the gates. Cops on horseback tried to keep the supporters in line with truncheons and sticks. Thousands of men, rowdy from drinking beer since the early morning, had to be pressed through one tiny gate. "Fucking Jews!" they shouted as they were being herded toward the stands.
"Fucking Jews!" they went again every time an Ajax player touched the ball, even if he was a black Surinamese. "Cancer Jew!" they shouted when the blond referee from the northern province of Friesland whistled for a Feyenoord foul. And then I heard it for the first time, a sinister hissing sound from hundreds, maybe thousands, of beer-flecked mouths. I didn't know what it meant, until Hans explained it. The sound got louder: the sound of escaping gas. In Budapest soccer stadiums, players of a side owned by a Jewish businessman were greeted by rival supporters shouting: "The trains to Auschwitz are ready!" In the Olympic Stadium of Amsterdam, the fans were a touch more inventive.
There is more, from a somewhat different angle, in an interesting 2003 post at Peaktalk.
The question is, what does it mean? The Ajax fans and their Star of David strike me as not too far removed from the supporters of the Atlanta Braves, Cleveland Indians, or Washington Redskins. The people who defend these team names from the politically correct who would abolish them argue that they are respectful. Well, Ajax fans who waive the flag of Israel are also being respectful, insofar as they honor an ancient identity. There is, however, at least one big difference: No fans of teams that play against the Braves, Indians or Redskins -- not even fans of the Dallas Cowboys -- have concocted a cheer about the massacre at Wounded Knee.
UPDATE: Pieter Dorsman of Peaktalk has just posted a review of Buruma's book that is also well worth reading.
since when does "mokum" mean "The City" in Yiddish? Yiddish for "The City" would be "di shtat" or
perhaps "der krakh". The word "mokum" is more like place, or location (it's from a similar hebrew word).
NYTimes, March 28, 2005, AMSTERDAM JOURNAL, A Dutch Soccer Riddle: Jewish Regalia Without Jews, By CRAIG S. SMITH:
AMSTERDAM - Just minutes before a high-stakes soccer game not long ago between this city's home team, Ajax, and their rivals from the southern city of Eindhoven, a chant built to a roar ... "Jews, Jews, Jews!" thousands of voices cried. ... Few, if any, of these people are Jewish.
"About thirty years ago, the other teams' supporters started calling us Jews because there was a history of Jews in Ajax," explained Fred Harris, a stocky man with brush-cut hair and a thick gold chain around his neck, "so we took it up as a point of pride and now it has become our identity."
For years, the team's management supported that unique identity. But over time what seemed to many people like a harmless - if peculiar - custom has taken on a more sinister tone. Fans of Ajax's biggest rivals began giving the Nazis' signature straight-arm salute or chanting "Hamas, Hamas!" to provoke Ajax supporters. Ajax games have been marred by shouts of "Jews to the gas!" or simply hissing to simulate the sound of gas escaping.
* * *
There is no clear reason why Ajax, founded in 1900, became known as a Jewish club. Amsterdam has always had the largest Jewish population in the Netherlands and the club had two Jewish presidents in the 1960's and 1970's. It has had Jewish players at various times. The club, which owns 73 percent of the listed company that owns the team, also has some Jews among its 400 members, but no greater a percentage than their representation in the city's general population. There are no Jews on the club's current board.
"The club has no real Jewish origins," said John C. Jaakke, the club's dapper president, speaking before the Eindhoven game.
Nonetheless, the club became identified in the public mind with Jews in the 1950's, and by the 1970's, opposing fans began to call Ajax supporters Jews. The supporters adopted the identity in a spirit of defiance.
* * *
The club has asked an independent committee, headed by the Dutch foreign minister, to discuss the issue and try to come up with a strategy for ending the practice. Mr. Jaakke said there had been some suggestion that fans substitute the word "Goden," or gods, for "Joden," or Jews, and call themselves "sons of gods," on the logic that Ajax was a sort of god.
Mr. Jaakke conceded that forcing the fans to change their behavior was a daunting task. "It's difficult for the supporters because it has become part of their identity," he said. "Many people are walking around with Jewish stars tattooed on their bodies and they're not Jewish at all."
Standing in a section behind the goal reserved for hard-core Ajax fans, the leader of the more fanatical of the teams' two supporter associations said he understood that it hurt Jews who lost family members during the war, but complained that it was the fault of other teams' fans.
* * *
"It'll never change," he said. "It's been our identity for almost 30 years - you can't erase it." He tugged down the neck of his shirt to reveal a large light-blue star of David tattooed on his chest with the word AJAX emblazoned above it in black gothic letters.
And what does this say about the Euros?
One conclusion MIGHT be that there is a disconnect between the European population and the smarmy overdressed snobs they elect or appoint.
I'd like to hear one of these PC snobs respond to this situation. I wonder what Jan Englund or that ass Malloch-Brown would have to say.