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Jews are more common in sports than imagined. So is antisemitism.

This summer brings a celebration of sports, starting with Euro 2024. But recent research from across Europe suggests that sports, and football in particular, can also serve as a petri dish for antisemitism.

Dr Keith Kahn-Harris

It’s that time of year again. Another summer of sport awaits, highlighted this year by the Olympics in Paris, scheduled to commence in August, where athletes from different countries will compete for personal and national glory. The curtain raiser for these summer celebrations is the 2024 UEFA European Football Championship, or Euro 2024, held in Germany and starting on June 14th. Like millions of people across the continent and beyond, British Jews will share in the excitement and expectation.

In the UK, national football is a time for fans to root specifically for their country. During Euro 2024, fans of Scotland will be hoping they progress beyond the group stage where they finished last time; fans of Wales and Northern Ireland will wish to see their national teams make it to the next tournament, as they failed to qualify for this one; and, as always, fans of England will sing ‘it’s coming home’ and expect nothing short of victory. If nothing else, it’s a chance to remind people again that David Baddiel is not just the ‘Jews Don’t Count’ guy.

Jews in sports: unfortunately, it’s not all fun and games

Sports play an important part in Jewish life in the UK and elsewhere. The Maccabi World Union spans the globe, bringing Jews together in numerous sporting competitions. The Maccabiah Games, held in Israel every four years, draws about 10,000 Jewish athletes from all over the world. In the UK, the Maccabi Football League includes dozens of teams playing fiercely contested Sunday morning matches. In our 2024 study of Jews in the UK today, JPR researchers found that 3.9% of adult Jews living in the UK had done unpaid voluntary work for a Jewish sporting or exercise group in the year before being asked. While that’s a lot less than the 31% who had volunteered in a synagogue, it’s slightly more than the 3.7% who had volunteered with the sick or disabled.

Sadly, we can’t talk about Jews and sport, and Jews and football in particular, without mentioning antisemitism. Competition, even a healthy one, draws emotions and ‘trash-talk’, which sometimes manifests in antisemitic and racist slurs in the stands. Sometimes, far-right political organisations at football stadiums use antisemitism and other forms of racism for propaganda purposes and as a device to incite violence. Data from the JPR Research Panel suggest that 7.9% of British Jews had witnessed or heard negative statements about Jews at a sports event during the year before being asked (2022). This proportion declined slightly from 2018 when 9% of UK Jewish respondents agreed with that statement in a survey JPR conducted in twelve countries for the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA). That same survey found significant differences between EU countries in how likely Jews were to report hearing negative statements about Jews at sports events. The highest was Italy, at 28%, and the lowest was Denmark, at 4% (the UK was the third lowest).

Most antisemitic incidents in football happen during amateur or children sporting activities

Most antisemitic incidents in football happen during amateur sporting activities

Researching antisemitism in sports

With social research on sports, including football, now firmly established within academia, there is a small but growing literature emerging on Jews, antisemitism and football in European countries. JPR has been collating this research in our European Jewish Research Archive (EJRA), a free-to-use, comprehensive repository of social research on European Jews since 1990. While there has yet to be an extensive and comparative study of the varying levels of antisemitism found in football cultures throughout Europe, the studies we have collated on EJRA offer some intriguing insights:

  • Is football more antisemitic than other sports? Most antisemitic incidents in football won’t appear on Match of the Day. They happen during amateur sporting activities, which makes them even harder to spot and highlight. A German study found an accumulation of cases in football: more than two-thirds (68%) of Jewish amateur football players have experienced an antisemitic incident at least once, compared with 14% in other sporting activities. An Italian study showed that Jews faced discrimination when looking to join a football club.
  • Antisemitism at certain football clubs has received more attention from researchers than other football clubs. Case studies include Celtic FC in Glasgow, the German team RB Leipzig and certain clubs in Poland. It is not clear whether these researchers’ attention is down to greater or lesser problems with antisemitism at the clubs they have chosen to study.
  • Of particular interest to researchers are those fans of some well-known teams whose fans declare them 'Jewish' clubs and adopt Jewish symbols as a response to antisemitic attacks on their club. The most famous examples are London’s Tottenham and Amsterdam’s Ajax. Such clubs and their rivals have also been sites for campaigns and educational activities designed to combat antisemitism, such as the UK’s The Y Word project and The Fancoach Project at Feyenoord in the Netherlands.
  • Antisemitism in football isn’t confined to the stands. Recent studies have shown that online conflicts about football sometimes end up becoming online conflicts about Jews, involving antisemitic language. A Dutch study from 2022 showed how, during the Covid-19 pandemic, football-related antisemitism became more prolific online. A 2023 study of antisemitism on social media found that posts and tweets about the Qatar World Cup often involved antisemitic tropes aimed at Israel (despite the Israeli national team failing to qualify for the competition).
  • Violence and riots by football fans have occurred for many years in football games in many countries. Antisemitism has also become common at games, with ‘ultra’ football fan groups using antisemitic language and fascist symbols against their rivals. A pioneering Italian project has used ‘Open Source Intelligence’ methodology to assess the threat of antisemitic fan cultures. As antisemitism and football evolve, there will continue to be a need for research methods to evolve accordingly.

As fans, JPR staff will watch Euro 2024 as avidly as everyone else. At the same time, part of our upcoming 2024 Jewish Current Affairs Survey will involve gathering vital information on antisemitism in sport, and investigating whether the October 7th attacks on Israel and the war in Gaza have affected British Jews' experiences in the sporting arena. If you are a professional or an amateur athlete, a fan of football or any other sport, or have children involved in sporting activities, we invite you to join our research panel and make your opinions count. No matter which team you support during Euro 2024, you will support the British Jewish community by joining our panel.

That’s a sure win.

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Dr Keith Kahn-Harris

Senior Research Fellow and Project Director of the European Jewish Research Archive

Dr Keith Kahn-Harris

Senior Research Fellow and Project Director of the European Jewish Research Archive

Keith Kahn-Harris has been Project Director of the European Jewish Research Archive since its inception in 2014, managing the collection process and analysing its holdings...

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