Antisemitism in European football: Time to change the chants

Borussia Dortmund are setting an example of how 
European football clubs can tackle antisemitism

Borussia Dortmund and Feyenoord are actively combating antisemitism among supporters. Their educational approach teaches that fans and independent fan culture are part of the solution, rather than the problem.

"Jews to the gas!"
"Hitler's coming for you!"
"Auschwitz is your home"

For decades, antisemitic chants have been heard in many of Europe's football grounds, often met with little to no objection.

In Germany, the term "Jews" is still being used in a derogatory manner, mostly in the lower divisions. Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, the rivalry between Rotterdam side Feyenoord and Ajax Amsterdam, whose fans are known to identify as the Super Joden, the Super Jews, is still a hotbed for anti-Jewish sentiments.

The most recent example came when Steven Berghuis, Feyenoord's captain and fan favorite, signed for Dutch champions Ajax. Graffiti seen in the city portrayed Berghuis wearing the striped uniform worn by inmates at concentration camps during the Holocaust, while also wearing a Yellow Star. "Jews always run away," it read.

'They see a face'

Steven Burger, 35, is Feyenoord's supporter liaison officer, a role he's filled for the past 3 1/2 years. Having previously been a season ticket holder among the hardcore supporters, he's now one of those responsible for the club's educational program aimed at countering antisemitic tendencies among Feyenoord's fan base.

At the heart of the club's efforts is an attempt to make supporters reflect on their behavior rather than just punishing them. Feyenoord fans caught carrying out an offense hold conversations with Rotterdam-based Holocaust survivors. The idea, Burger told DW, is to make supporters understand that their intentions don't always match up to the impact chants have on Jews, including those who support the club.

"All of a sudden, it's no longer 'the Jews.' They see a face," Berger said, calling it an "eye-opener" for many participants.

Education professionals get involved

Feyenoord's program was developed in cooperation with the educational department of the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. Willem Wagener, who's been with the institution for 20 years, said the decision to look into antisemitism in Dutch football came due to the understanding that anti-Jewish sentiments often stretch beyond the stadium.

"I was researching antisemitism in Dutch schools, and surprisingly, more than 50% of the teachers who reported incidents said they were football-related," he said.

Feyenoord and the Anne Frank House were among the initiators of the "Changing the Chants" conference, which took place last week in Oswiecim, Poland. The conference marked the end of a two-year project in the fight against antisemitism in European football.

In addition to panel discussions about combating antisemitic tendencies at Europe's football stadiums, the conference also included a visit to the nearby Auschwitz concentration camp. Among about 50 participants were people from the fields of social work, education, journalism and more.

Borussia Dortmund: A key stakeholder

Another club which took a central part in the "Changing the Chants" initiative was Borussia Dortmund. The Bundesliga team, too, used to struggle with antisemitic tendencies among its own fan base. While the city is a stronghold of the left-leaning Social Democratic Party (SPD), it is also known to have far-right factions. Nowadays, many of the club's fan and ultra groups take a largely anti-racist stance, which results in them often becoming a target for the city's far-right scene. Dortmund were among the first German clubs to fully adopt the working definition of antisemitism from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

Daniel Lörcher is BVB's head of corporate responsibility. He's been at the helm of Dortmund's educational program for the past several years. Part of the program sees fans, club employees and employees of BVB's sponsors visit former concentration camps, with the focus being on the city of Dortmund and the Jews who used to live there before the Holocaust.

Borussia Dortmund's Daniel Lörcher (right) with club bosses Hans-Joachim Watzke and Carsten Cramer

"It was interesting for us to learn what's been happening in this area on a European level," he said, calling it "the logical next step" for the club.

By aiming to reach all fans who show interest in the program, rather than just supporters with stadium bans, Dortmund's project targets a different audience than the one by Feyenoord.

In the future, both clubs are looking to implement each other's ideas in their respective cities.
'I wouldn't be here without football'

The influence football can have on an individual is exemplified by Fabian, a 26-year-old ultra from Germany. Growing up in a small village, Fabian was no stranger to the use of Nazi symbols.

"In the village where I grew up and at school, racism and antisemitism were pretty much normalized," he recalls. "There was barely any objection to it, myself included."

Football was always present in Fabian's life. After becoming a supporter of his club from a young age, he started going to games with the local fan club. That's when he discovered his fascination with organized fan culture.

A banner by Freiburg fans: 'Racism kills: Everything and everyone against racism!'

At 18, Fabian took his first steps in his club's ultra scene. His group's left-leaning political stance meant he had to confront the things he had heard and seen during his upbringing.

"It opened my eyes," he admits. "Through the impact of my ultra group, I started learning and reflecting what racism and antisemitism mean and what they do to people. Without football, I definitely wouldn't be here, at a conference about antisemitism in Auschwitz."

Independent fan culture key for change

At the heart of both Dortmund and Feyenoord's projects is the understanding that supporters like Fabian and independent fan culture are part of the solution rather than the problem.

"If, as a representative of Feyenoord, I were to try and force things upon fans, it wouldn't work," says Feyenoord's Berger. "We want to give them ownership of the problem without pointing fingers."

Wagener agrees. "The only way to trigger behavioral change is to speak to football fans in their own language. If fans understand they hurt some of their own fans, breaking the loyalty to fellow supporters, that's a mechanism which can motivate people to change."

Fans displayed banners in memory of the Holocaust at Dortmund's Südtribüne in 2019

For BVB's Lörcher, a former member of a Borussia Dortmund ultra group, initiating discussions between different parts of the club's fan landscape is key.

"Without having the fans on board, none of this would work."

Source: dw