A couple of seasons ago an altercation broke out a few rows in front of my seat in the Bobby Moore Lower Stand at West Ham. The cheapest section of the ground, it is largely populated by shaven-headed, overweight, middle-aged men not dissimilar to myself, but on this occasion a mother had forsaken the family enclosure at the other end of the ground, turned up with a young son and was railing against the language around her.
Never one to miss the opportunity of making my opinions known I informed the poor lady I had been sitting in the same seat for years and wasn't to be lectured on football etiquette by somebody attending their first game. Repenting at leisure I felt uneasy over whose rights were being most infringed as my views as both a football supporter and social liberal clashed.
That conflict came to the fore again this weekend following West Ham's 3-1 defeat at Tottenham with reports of the away fans taunting their rivals with jibes about a Spurs fan stabbed before a recent Europa tie against Lazio as well as anti-Semitic chants at the home side's Jewish element. I wasn't at the game and am not about to pass judgement. But just as I've spent fruitless hours attempting to persuade keyboard warriors on various websites who inform me 'black bastard' is no more offensive than 'white bastard' and that context is all, so it may be useful to offer a historical perspective on the Tottenham/West Ham antagonism.
The social history and enmity between the clubs' supporters goes back to inter-war times and the docks and sweatshops of east London. As a demographic, Hammers fans drew from the Royal Docks - men who were both tough and working class, taking pride in both. Many of their wives, mothers, girlfriends and sisters worked as seamstresses for low pay in the employ of entrepreneurial Jewish families. Having made their money, bit by bit those owners moved away from the area, decamped in north London and started supporting a football team that better matched their aspirations than the grubby proletarian outfit in E13.
My contention is the rivalry between the two clubs isn't like that of West Ham and Millwall (who also draw upon a dockland history) but based on class. Whereas Spurs fans I know would routinely describe our support as "chav" or "unwashed", the middle-class 'glory, glory' fanbase at Tottenham was evident long before the post-Sky gentrification of the game.
Obviously this is a generalised observation and ignores a significant number of West Ham supporters I know who are Jewish. Supporting a club like West Ham is never easy - but for them it is surely a constant trial maintaining a sense of belonging. One of the favourite chants around the ground even when we're not even in the same division is the "I've got a foreskin, haven't you" adaptation of She'll Be Coming Round the Mountain. Mildly amusing on it's own (this is football, don't forget) the occasionally added "Fucking Jew" suffix is nasty, offensive, designed to offend and about as far from funny as you can get. Since Sunday I have watched an initial despair among Jewish acquaintances morph into first anger, then rage - and frankly I'm not surprised.
The movement from a working class to embourgeoised sport has overtaken West Ham and left much of the fanbase in its wake. A presence of great black players wearing the shirt has led to a massive diminution of that form of abuse - the reaction of all parts of the ground to Orient winger John Chiedozie in the early 80s made me feel physically sick - but Len Goulden, Eyal Berkovic and Yossi Benayoun among others seem not to have struck the same chord. Even if Avram Grant was probably the least liked manager ever, David Gold is a personable co-owner with an obvious love for West Ham who has pumped much of his own money into rescuing the club from its post-Icelander woes. It appears their 'Jewishness' isn't recognised in the same way say, Rio Ferdinand, Trevor Sinclair and Carlton Cole are immediately identified black. Maybe the racist mind isn't well enough equipped to process anything but the most obvious physical characteristic?
The attitude of Tottenham fans is where I'm most uncomfortable. It's easy to condemn West Ham fans (and many have) even if it seems likely the hissing noises claimed to represent gas chambers were actually a comment on the lack of volume from home fans. Talking of which, noises have recently been made over Spurs referring to themselves as 'Yids'. As much as liberals would want to believe this behaviour to be a reclaiming of offence similar to gays using the word 'queer' that is errant nonsense. Far from London Jewry standing loud and proud behind the Yid Army banner (I strongly suspect many doing the chanting have little if any Jewish ancestry) this is little more than a terrace tactic of, 'We dare you ... How dare you!' Would I ban fans from using the Y word? Of course not, any more than I would say, 'Nigga Army' or 'Poof Army'. Yet inviting abuse to grab a moral high ground demeans all parties. West Ham readily and recklessly jumped into the bear trap - but no moral argument is ever won by metaphorically or literally calling in the cops.
The way forward must surely be members within the crowd calling others to account - it's surprisingly easy to say to somebody, "Mate, that's not on" even if you're not as physically imposing as me. In the Championship last season not one West Ham supporter was charged with racism - the only club in the division with a spotless record. The east end fought off the fascists in the depression of the 30s, so now couldn't be a better time to once again define our club and our community.
This post originally appeared on the author's blog A Man of Constant Sorrow