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Si­mon Ku­per Ex­am­ines Anti-semitism in Dutch Soc­cer Cul­ture

Forward Magazine - - Front Page - By Dan Fried­man


By Si­mon Ku­per

Na­tion Books, 257 pages, $15.99

Bill Shankly, the leg­endary soc­cer coach of the British club Liver­pool FC, is of­ten quoted as say­ing, “Football is not a mat­ter of life and death, it’s more im­por­tant than that.” The at­tri­bu­tion is er­ro­neous, but in the face of the Holo­caust, even the play­ful­ness of the sen­ti­ment rings hol­low. Soc­cer’s fa­nat­i­cal sup­port and cul­tural cen­tral­ity, how­ever, can pro­vide a cru­cial prism through which to view life and death, war and peace.

Si­mon Ku­per, au­thor of “Soc­cer Against the En­emy: How the World’s Most Pop­u­lar Sport Starts and Fu­els Rev­o­lu­tions and Keeps Dic­ta­tors in Power,” is the world ex­pert on the in­ter­sec­tion of soc­cer, cul­ture and pol­i­tics. His newly rere­leased book, “Ajax, the Dutch, the War,” is a re-eval­u­a­tion of the Dutch role in the Holo­caust, start­ing with the sur­pris­ing si­lence of the coun­try’s big­gest soc­cer club, Ajax, re­gard­ing its ac­tions dur­ing the Nazi oc­cu­pa­tion.

The Holo­caust is a sub­ject that ap­peals to writ­ers for the same rea­sons that World War II films ap­peal to movie di­rec­tors: The bad guys are re­ally bad, and the good guys don’t have to jus­tify them­selves. In this book, though, Ku­per, who grew up Jewish in the Nether­lands, goes the other way. He makes us re­con­sider our char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of the Dutch peo­ple as in­no­cent by­standers and helpers of Anne Frank. Us­ing the tight-knit club­bi­ness of soc­cer clubs, and es­pe­cially that of Ajax — pop­u­larly, though with ten­u­ous cause, known as the “Jewish” club — he in­ves­ti­gates how “goed” (“good”) the Dutch peo­ple ac­tu­ally were.

Stand­ing in op­po­si­tion to the gen­eral per­cep­tion of Dutch tol­er­ance and pro­gres­sive­ness (friendly tourists, marijuana at “cof­fee shops” and Am­s­ter­dam’s fa­mous Red Light Dis­trict) is a bru­tal fact. As Ku­per starkly puts it, “About three-quar­ters of [Hol­land’s Jews] were mur­dered in the gas cham­bers; in all of Europe only Poland lost a larger pro­por­tion of Jews.” Even Anne Frank was prob­a­bly killed as a re­sult of a Dutch in­former. How does Am­s­ter­damsche Football Club Ajax — and, by ex­ten­sion per­haps, the en­tire Dutch na­tion — square the ev­i­dence of their be­ing “fout” (“wrong”) with their own self-per­cep­tion? And if, as Raul Hil­berg’s “The De­struc­tion of the Euro­pean Jews” shows, 120,000 of the Dutch Jewish pop­u­la­tion of 140,000 were lost in the war years, why do Is­rael and the English-speak­ing world still love the Dutch?

Ajax is asked this ques­tion by Ku­per not only be­cause it is the largest and most suc­cess­ful of the Dutch teams, but also be­cause its fans re­fer to them­selves as “Jews” and shake Stars of David at matches. Sup­port­ers of op­po­si­tion teams, most no­tably Feyeno­ord from Rot­ter­dam, per­form anti-Ajax songs, of­ten with an anti-Semitic bent: Most chillingly, Feyeno­ord fans hiss to mimic the gas com­ing into the death cham­bers. But Ajax, sit­u­ated near the now largely deJu­daized Jewish quar­ter, re­mains of­fi­cially silent about its cur­rent and his­tor­i­cal Jewish con­nec­tions and its ac­tions dur­ing the oc­cu­pa­tion.

What Ku­per finds in his in­ves­ti­ga­tion is a mix­ture of shame and of­fi­cially en­cour­aged ig­no­rance of both the club’s Jewish­ness and its ac­qui­es­cence to the Naz­i­fi­ca­tion of Dutch so­ci­ety dur­ing the oc­cu­pa­tion. Al­though Ku­per doesn’t limit his scope to Ajax or even the Nether­lands, it is that coun­try’s par­tic­u­lar form of so­cial ar­range­ment that fas­ci­nates him. Seem­ingly, be­long­ing to a club — of­ten a soc­cer club — was a pri­mary form of af­fil­i­a­tion. Though it could re­flect other loy­al­ties (re­li­gion, class, lo­ca­tion), club mem­ber­ship could also su­per­sede them. This made the Ger­man edicts pre­clud­ing Jewish mem­ber­ship so in­vid­i­ous, and the clubs’ re­ac­tion to those rules the most telling.

As the war in Europe raged on, soc­cer con­tin­ued. On June 22, 1941, the day Ger­many in­vaded the Soviet Union, a self-ev­i­dently cru­cial mo­ment in the war, 90,000 peo­ple watched the Ger­man league fi­nal in Ber­lin. Ku­per asks with ex­as­per­a­tion, “What were they think­ing of?” In a fas­ci­nat­ing trawl through as many of­fi­cial min­utes of wartime club meet­ings as he could find (Ajax did not give him ac­cess), Ku­per is able to show how the laws of the oc­cu­pa­tion were re­fracted through club by­laws.

Sparta Rot­ter­dam does not seem to have thrown away a scrap of pa­per, and Ku­per shows us how “col­lab­o­ra­tors, Jews, and ev­ery­day folk mud­dling along — add up to a mi­cro­cosm of the Dutch war.” Ku­per trav­els to the back­wa­ter of Gor­cum, where he dis­cov­ers that the club Uni­tas ended up re­sist­ing the Nazis be­cause they were in con­tra­ven­tion of club by­laws. And he shows how the nu­mer­ous Jewish play­ers, sup­port­ers and of­fi­cials, as well as their Jewish sur­vivor phys­io­ther­a­pist, Salo Muller, are all side­lined from the of­fi­cial his­tory be­cause it’s eas­ier to pre­tend that the Jewish in­volve­ment with Ajax is a myth and that the club’s ac­tions in the war were goed than to tell the com­plex story of a con­flict.

Over­seas the power of a sim­ple nar­ra­tive is ap­par­ent. The Jewish in­volve­ment in Ajax is known in Is­rael: The sis­ter of Ajax’s great­est player, Jo­hann Crui­jff, mar­ried a Jewish man, and Crui­jff vis­ited Is­rael with great fan­fare and mu­tual love. The 1974 World Cup fi­nal — where the Ger­mans beat the fluid and pop­u­lar Dutch team — ce­mented the Dutch as the “anti-Ger­mans” for a gen­er­a­tion in the global soc­cer community. For for­eign­ers not party to Dutch schol­ar­ship of their wartime guilt and largely un­aware of the Dutch lan­guage racism of re­cent years, it’s easy to think of the Dutch as the non-Ger­mans and, given a vis­i­ble royal fam­ily, con­flate them with the Danes. It’s easy, it doesn’t seem to mat­ter, but it’s wrong.

Ku­per’s stock has never been higher. In ad­di­tion to his ap­pear­ance as “Si­mon” in his wife’s best-sell­ing book “Bring­ing Up Bébé,” the widely re­ported links of the Egyp­tian Rev­o­lu­tion to groups of soc­cer sup­port­ers make his ear­lier book seem pre­scient. More­over, in the time be­tween the ini­tial Amer­i­can re­lease of “Ajax” and now, Ku­per co-wrote (with sports econ­o­mist Ste­fan Szy­man­ski) soc­cer’s ver­sion of “Money­ball.” And, for rea­sons that he out­lines in “Soc­cer­nomics,” soc­cer, es­pe­cially Euro­pean soc­cer, is in­creas­ingly im­por­tant to Amer­i­can view­ers.

Ku­per’s af­ter­word be­gins to ex­plain how Dutch so­ci­ety has be­gun to frac­ture in the 21st cen­tury. In­stead of iden­ti­fy­ing with Anne Frank’s helpers, or as vic­tims of a Nazi oc­cu­pa­tion, the Dutch have

Ku­per makes us re­con­sider the stereo­type of the Dutch as in­no­cent by­standers.

left the post­war mind­set be­hind en­tirely. Ku­per quotes Ian Bu­ruma in his book about Pim For­tuyn’s funeral, “Murder in Am­s­ter­dam”: “Rot­ter­dammers pride them­selves on be­ing hard work­ers, the salt of the earth, tough guys. Am­s­ter­dam, to them, has a namby-pamby im­age of city slick­ers, snobs and cos­mopoli­tan weirdos.” Ku­per com­ments, “Maybe Feyeno­ord fans have come to sum up these slick­ers, snobs and weirdos with the word ‘Jews.’”

With the ad­vent of right-wing pop­ulist politi­cians like For­tuyn and Geert Wilders, ca­sual racism, anti-im­mi­grant sen­ti­ment and rhetor­i­cal anti-Semitism

have be­come per­va­sive in Dutch cul­ture — and, in­creas­ingly, throughout Europe. As the mem­o­ries of the Holo­caust fade, an un­der­stand­ing of the hor­rors of Euro­pean racism be­comes the prov­ince of his­tory buffs. In­stead of stand­ing up against big­otry, the Ajax chair­man sug­gests that the fans stop call­ing them­selves “Jews.”

But as Ku­per wrote in a col­umn for the Fi­nan­cial Times in which he dis­cussed his wife’s book, “Writ­ing a book about one’s adopted coun­try is the so­lu­tion to the in­te­gra­tion is­sue.”

“Ajax” may take as its start­ing point soc­cer and Dutch so­ci­ety, but it’s the story of an out­sider try­ing to un­der­stand the peo­ple among whom he’s liv­ing — and look­ing for in­sight to the hard­est part of re­cent his­tory. It’s a story about the con­ve­nient nar­ra­tives that cit­i­zens tell about their home, and that groups tell about them­selves and other groups. It is, in short, about the ig­no­rance, lies and half-truths that get mixed up with facts in the process of af­fil­i­a­tion, and baked in the ovens of na­tion­al­ism and soc­cer ri­val­ries. And the ovens of Europe are as wor­ry­ing now as at any time in the past 70 years.


Stronger Than Dirt: Fans of the Dutch team Ajax re­fer to them­selves as Jews and wave Stars of David at soc­cer matches.


Dutch Boys: Ajax won its 31st Na­tional League ti­tle this year.

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