Giving anti-Semitism the boot

Saturday, January 24, 2004

ROME -- Soccer hooligans -- not exactly known for well-mannered behavior -- committed a memorably despicable act at a Rome stadium a few years back, holding up a vast banner at opposing Jewish fans: "Auschwitz Is Your Country; the Ovens Are Your Homes."

Five years on, in a Europe faced with new violence against Jews, Italian soccer is using the same stadium for a charity "Match of Memory" to fund a Holocaust museum. In addition, professional players have been ordered to march onto the field at this weekend's matches in T-shirts marking Holocaust Memorial Day.

Jewish leaders wonder if soccer, Europe's unifying obsession, might be a way to tackle anti-Semitism.

"It's about time," said European Jewish Congress secretary-general Serge Cwajgenbaum. "It's an informal type of education that should maybe be enlarged and maybe should be seen all over."

He and other Jewish leaders have argued that Europe is gripped by a new anti-Semitic outburst, 60 years after the Nazis killed 6 million Jews. In the past three years, Jews in Europe have suffered assaults, synagogues have been targeted.

Fighting racism

Both the world soccer's governing body, FIFA, and its European counterpart, UEFA, fight racism in the sport, but neither has tried to combat hatred of Jews specifically.

The Italian effort has gained considerable support, with dozens of local celebrities signing on to participate in the "Match of Memory" on Tuesday, the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp. The game will be broadcast on state television, with proceeds going to a planned Holocaust museum in Rome.

Among those watching the match will be Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel.

"It's not my style to go to football games, especially not when we deal with a ceremony of such sobriety," he said by telephone. But "it's an important thing everywhere to remember what happened in those times, especially these days when the memories of those times are vanishing together with those who lived them."

Soccer may seem a strange choice for such a solemn event. Soccer violence has killed dozens of fans; fans have pelted black players with debris and taunted them; teams considered to have Jewish supporters suffer grotesque chants and insults.

Journalist Simon Kuper, who studied the links between politics and soccer in his book, "Football Against the Enemy," doubts there is a link between anti-Semitism among soccer hooligans and recent attacks on European Jews.

"The hooligans or hard-core fans know that shouting anti-Semitic stuff is shocking to people, which is why they do it. These are not people who have elaborate neo-Nazi ideologies," he said.

Kuper says anti-Semitism is terrible, but the recent phenomenon has been greatly mischaracterized.

"You get the sense that Europe's on the brink of another Holocaust. Every famous figure who says something anti-Semitic -- it's all proof that Europe's old demons are reappearing, we're sliding back," he said.

But most of the recent anti-Semitic violence was committed in France by Muslim youths who have no political power, he said.

"These acts are not a very good measure of widespread attitudes, and as far as I can see they do not relate to these people at football matches."

Wiesel, however, disagreed, saying current European anti-Semitism is not the work of a small, disaffected group.

"My generation has good antennas," he said. "We have antennas and we feel it's anti-Semitism and it's dangerous. We have a right to say so and a duty to say so."

Although the thugs who hang signs mocking the memory of Auschwitz may never be converted, officials hope millions of other fans who witness such acts will at least begin to say, "Enough."

"I believe it's important for all those who go every Sunday to the stadium," said Francesco Ghirelli of the Italian Soccer Federation. "It's a moment to listen and remember -- an important cultural moment."

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