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Sports Nicknames And The Jews

Sports Nicknames And The Jews

When an ethnic group or race endearingly becomes the nickname for a sports team, does that signal their arrival or shame? Native Americans have long decried the way sports fans have adopted tomahawk chops and tribal chants as ways to either root for or ridicule the Indians, Braves, and Redskins. On the other hand, the Irish don’t seem at all bothered by Notre Dame’s celebration of the poetry to their more pugnacious side.

Now Jews, who have played such prominent roles in the achievements and sufferings of European history – each in disproportionate numbers – have become the subject of a curious and special outpouring of sports fanatacism. Last year, Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" elevated Jews to a special villainy. Now Jewish identity and culture has been linked to the passions emanating from a European soccer team.

Ajax, Amsterdam’s home team in the Europeanprofessional league, has adopted Jewish symbols as both mantle and mascot. Fans wearing all sorts of Jewish regalia, from hats, jackets and scarves emblazoned with Hebrew lettering, to Stars of David tattooed onto bodies, arrive at stadiums shouting, "Jews, Jews, Jews!" Sometimes they simply sing Jewish songs like "Hava Nagila." And in the true competitive spirit of unsportsmanlike conduct, the fans of the opposing teams have responded with Nazi salutes or chanted "Jews to the gas!" In lieu of a group wave, the European version simulates the collective sound of hissing gas.

Not only is this all curious and disturbing, but it has come about quite unofficially and improbably. After all, there are no Jews on the team, and only a few have ever played with the club since its founding in 1900. And while Amsterdam is home to the largest population of Jews in the Netherlands, most of the fans who cheer for Ajax with such mock displays of Jewishness aren’t even Jewish. In fact, given the insult behind this ritualized anti-Semitism and the threatening atmosphere that accompanies the team, Dutch Jews have actually stayed away from the games.

Perhaps this is to be expected. With the increasing rise of anti-Semitism throughout Europe, the political resurgence of neo-Nazis in the German state of Saxony, the success of a recent feature film, "Der Untergang" ("Downfall"), which shows a sympathetic side to Hitler during his final days, and the general numbness that always accompanies the passage of time, there has been a tremendous blurring of moral boundaries and great trivialization of a catastrophe that erased two-thirds of European Jewry.

Not long ago, Italy’s prime minister compared a German politician to a Nazi concentration camp guard. No wonder Europe’s soccer fans are confused. After years of Holocaust sacredness, insensitive language and gestures have now been fully democratized – in the halls of parliament and the soccer stadiums of Europe. Indeed, anti-Semitism again has become fashionable, but in the most banal and casual of ways. After all, Ajaz fans don’t believe they are offending Jews. In the contrary, they have adopted their identity as a matter of pride and defiance. For this reason, is it now possible to honor Jews by adopting them as team mascots while vilifying them at the same time? One thing is for sure, sensitivities have somehow lsot traction even though the memory of Auschwitz for many is still so vividly fresh.

Perhaps this is all a broader reflection of Jews entering the mainstream. What once was an exotic people marginalized around the world has entered the world consciousness in curious ways despite their diminished numbers. Indeed, there is a new ubiquity to Jewish culture. In America, for instance, widespread education about the Holocaust has coincided with great trivialization – from soup Nazis on "Seinfeld," to the gross misuse of the word Gestapo, to virtually everything being deemed a "holocaust."

At the same time, Jews have never been more embraced by American society – from the wearing of kabbalak bracelets, to the presidential candidacy of Joseph Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, to kosher food products being consumed by health-conscious gentiles, to southern Baptists touting Israel as the source of all salvation, to the presence of so many explicitly Jewish characters on television, to klezmer music and Jewish rap heard as manifestations of American jazz and hip hop.

Indeed, the primary audiences for this cultural phenomenon, not unlike the fans who root for Ajax, are not necessarily Jews. Jewish life and values are no longer mere stereotypes but rather artifacts of a common culture. But at what cost?

Many have casually dismissed the anti-Semitic spectacle that surrounds Ajax games as the harmless activities of teenage soccer hooligans.

Yet I wonder, on the eve of Yom HaShoah, what Anne Frank would have said about all this. She too, after all, was a teenager of Amsterdam, albeit from much darker, bygone days. And despite everything, she did believe that "people are really good at heart." I suspect this applied to both Nazis and soccer fans. Yet if Anne had survived the combined death trap of that attic, and then Auschwitz, how might she have cheered for her hometown team?


Thane Rosenbaum. a novelist and law professor, is the author of "The Golems of Gotham," and "Second Hand Smoke."


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