The New York Times’ Craig Smith on the curious case of Amsterdam’s Ajax, their supporters’ symbols of choice, and the resulting response.
Outside, souvenir stalls sold Israeli flags or flags with the Ajax logo, the head of the fabled Greek warrior, emblazoned inside the star of David. Fans arrived with hats, jackets and scarves embroidered with Hebrew writing. Until recently, the team’s official Web site even featured the ringing tones of Hava Nagila and other Jewish songs that could be downloaded into fans’ mobile phones.
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.
The most disturbing displays have come during games against teams from The Hague or Amsterdam’s greatest rival, Rotterdam. But even Eindhoven fans get into the act: not long after the game started, a chant arose from the corner section of the city’s stadium reserved for fans of the opposing team.
“Everyone who’s not jumping is a Jew!” the crowd cried over and over again as thousands of people in the section jumped up and down.
Ajax games have become so charged with such anti-Semitic displays that many of the team’s Jewish fans now avoid the games altogether. The offensive behavior is not one-sided: during a game against a German team late last year, a group of Ajax supporters displayed a banner that read “Jews take revenge for ’40-’45,” a reference to the Holocaust.
“We were probably too tolerant,” said Uri Coronel, a Jew who was a member of Ajax’s board in the 1990′s, speaking about the management’s past attitude.
Since then, the atmosphere at the games has become “unbearable,” he said, adding that the fans’ adoption of a Jewish identity is widely misunderstood as something positive.
“A lot of Jews all over the world believe that Ajax fans are proud to call themselves Jews, but it’s a kind of hooliganism,” he said.
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.
Mr. Jaakke said the trend had bothered the club’s management for the past 10 years, and many Jewish supporters have complained that it makes them uncomfortable. Finally, last year, during a period of national debate about the language being used in soccer stadiums, the board decided to take the opportunity to address the issue. One of the main catalysts for that debate was not anti-Semitic chants, but chants calling the well-known girlfriend of an Ajax player a prostitute.