A non-Jewish professional soccer player in the Netherlands has become the latest example of how the most virulent anti-Semitism can be directed at someone who isn’t a Jew and yet is perceived to be one.
Steven Berghuis announced last week that he was transferring from one top side, Feyenoord of Rotterdam, to another, the current Dutch champions Ajax of Amsterdam. The Ajax-Feyenoord rivalry is one of the most bitter in European soccer, with scuffles involving both sets of supporters a routine feature of the De Klassieker contest between them. Any player who moves from one to the other should expect a furious response from the fans of the club he just bade farewell to.
So it was with the 29-year-old Berghuis. Except that there was another layer to the hatred directed at him by the Feyenoord fans that was even more venomous.
On the day the news of Berghuis’s move to Ajax broke, a mural mocking the player appeared on a wall near Feyenoord’s stadium in Rotterdam. A fusion of graffiti art with hardcore Nazi iconography, the mural showed Berghuis wearing a kipah and a striped concentration camp uniform marked with a yellow “Jews’ Star,” while his face was endowed with an unfeasibly large “Jewish” nose. Next to this charming depiction was the message Joden Lopen Altijd Weg—“Jews Always Run Away.”
Why this virulent, putrid anti-Semitism? The answer is that in the folklore of Dutch soccer, Ajax is seen as a “Jewish” club—an image that some of its fans revel in, waving Israeli flags and calling themselves “Super Jews” as some opposing fans chant “Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas” in their direction at matches.
It’s true that most Dutch Jews lived in Amsterdam before World War II and the team’s old stadium was located in a Jewish neighborhood in the east of the city, but nonetheless, the idea that Ajax as a soccer club is institutionally or ethnically “Jewish” is absurd. And as the Berghuis mural demonstrates, this isn’t exactly one of those harmless urban myths either.
However, the issues of anti-Semitism and racism in European soccer, as serious a set of problems as they represent, are not my focus here. Foremost, what struck me about the Berghuis mural wasn’t the imagery, as appalling as that was, but the message, “Jews Always Run Away.”
The message comes across as an observation, rather than an injunction of the “Kill the Jews” variety. In and of itself, it doesn’t advocate for discrimination or mass violence against Jews, but it is still profoundly disturbing because it recycles one of the many caricatures of “the Jew” in the imagination of the anti-Semite.
According to this caricature, Jews (more precisely, Jewish men) “always run away” because they are weak, cowardly, bookish, hunched, bespectacled, painfully skinny or grotesquely fat, happily chained to their desks making money instead of pining for life in the great outdoors. Women don’t figure here for the simple reason that when these stereotypes were generated in the nineteenth century, women didn’t participate in athletic contests. That is why historical cartoons and other representations of the “weak” Jew, contrasted with the virile blonde Aryan, tell us a great deal about the importance of masculinity in the portrayal of Jews in anti-Semitic propaganda.
As the world tunes in to the Olympics in Tokyo, watching an enormous variety of sports in which athletes of all nationalities compete, it’s evident that these ideas connecting race with sporting ability belong in the garbage can of history. But at the time, they presented a serious challenge to the rights of Jews to fully participate in their wider societies, not least by preventing Jews from joining athletic clubs.
Had it not been for a concept that these days seems somewhat dubious, not to mention male-centered, in its wording, Jews might have taken the punishment of the non-Jewish athletic establishment lying down. But at the Second Zionist Congress of 1898, Theodor Herzl’s deputy, Max Nordau, launched a counterattack by delivering an address devoted to “muscular Judaism.”
“Let us take up our oldest traditions,” Nordau exhorted the delegates gathered in the Swiss city of Basel. “Let us once more become deep-chested, sturdy, sharp-eyed men.” An ardent Zionist who had abandoned observance of the Jewish religion as a teenager, Nordau went on to argue: “For no other people will gymnastics fulfill a more educational purpose than for us Jews. It shall straighten us in body and in character. Our new muscle Jews have not yet regained the heroism of our forefathers who in large numbers eagerly entered the sports arenas in order to take part in the competition and to pit themselves against the highly trained Hellenistic athletes.”
Some critics of Zionism have taken this speech as proof that Nordau was himself trafficking in anti-Semitic stereotypes. Actually, he wasn’t. Rather, he was giving his own interpretation of the impact of discrimination—“In the narrow Jewish street our poor limbs soon forgot their carefree movements. In the dimness of sunless houses, our eyes began to blink shyly. The fear of constant persecution turned our powerful voices into frightened whispers”—on the bodies of the Jews as well as their souls.
In practical terms, thousands of Jews responded to Nordau’s call, setting up athletic associations from Manchester to Constantinople and creating sporting competitions for Jewish athletes. Looking at the photos of the time—mainly populated by sculpted, unsmiling men in serious poses that seem to declare, “We are the muscular Jews!”—you can’t help thinking that the explosion of this particular anti-Semitic caricature was hugely liberating and satisfying to boot.
Partly because of this tradition, the Jewish generations of today can engage in sports without fretting about these ancient myths, and with a range of Jewish gymnasts, swimmers, soccer and basketball players, judokas and others as role models. Israel, meanwhile, strikes an enviable balance between the cerebral pursuits traditionally associated with Judaism and life on the sporting field. True, Israel has achieved more in some sports than others—its record in international soccer is, sadly, one of notorious failure—but it’s a work in progress that is making progress. Whatever that sordid mural in Rotterdam says, Jews are running towards the action, not away from it.
Ben Cohen is a New York City-based writer and journalist who covers Jewish affairs and international politics.