Ajax: a Jewish club in spite of itself

RNW archive

This article is part of the RNW archive. RNW is the former Radio Netherlands Worldwide or Wereldomroep, which was founded as the Dutch international public broadcaster in 1947. In 2011, the Dutch government decided to cut funding and shift RNW from the ministry of Education, Culture and Science to the ministry of Foreign Affairs. More information about RNW Media’s current activities can be found at https://www.rnw.org/about-rnw-media.

In the stadium, fans of Amsterdam football club Ajax chant “Jews, Jews”. They wave Israeli flags and hardcore supporters’ club F-Side has a blue Star of David as its logo. For decades Ajax has been seen as the Netherlands’ own Jewish club. But a dip into the history books reveals that the club barely has any Jewish roots at all.

Ask Ajax chairman Uri Coronel, himself Jewish, and he’ll tell you Ajax is anything but a Jewish club: “Ajax is a club with a limited number of Jewish members and supporters. There’s not much that’s Jewish about Ajax. The club’s image is Jewish and the supporters call themselves Jews but they’re no more Jewish than I am Chinese.”

Historically speaking, there are next to no ties with the Jewish community. Sports journalist Simon Kuper went in search of them for his book Ajax, the Dutch, the War but came up empty handed. “Ajax has never been a Jewish club. Before World War Two it was a middle-class Amsterdam club, the province of administrators and the self-employed. Most Jews were too poor to join.”

“Ajax was located in the east of Amsterdam, home to a relatively large Jewish community. So you could find them on the stands, among the other spectators. Ajax crowds pretty much reflected the ethnic mix in pre-war Amsterdam. There were specifically Jewish clubs in Amsterdam with only Jewish players but Ajax certainly wasn’t one of them.”

Jewish revival
During World War Two over three-quarters of Amsterdam’s Jewish population were rounded up by the Nazis and taken away to be killed. In the post-war years, Jewish spectators at the Ajax ground were few and far between. In the early 1970s, during the heyday of Ajax chairman Jaap van Praag, there was a revival. Simon Kuper continues, “I have the impression that the Jews who survived the War were happy to get together at Ajax games. The chairman at the time was Jewish, so was the masseur and a number of the shareholders. And a handful of players were half Jewish.”

According to Ajax chairman Uri Coronel, tales of the Jewish milieu in the 1970s should not be exaggerated. “Most of the country’s Jews lived in Amsterdam, so it’s logical that they would support Ajax and not a Rotterdam club like Feyenoord. It’s simple: Jews who like football support Ajax.”

In the 1980s, the rise of hooliganism reinforced Ajax’s image as a Jewish club, thanks to the hooligans’ penchant for abusive chants. Simon Kuper explains “Amsterdam was historically seen as a Jewish city, so Ajax was labelled a Jewish club and became a target for anti-Semitic insults. The Ajax fans responded by wearing the label with pride: if you want to call us Jews, that’s fine with us.”

Uri Coronel says “I don’t mind saying I got a kick out of it. It doesn’t bother me one bit that Ajax supporters shout ‘We’re Jews’ when they quite clearly aren’t.” He also remembers how Ajax players were greeted as heroes during away matches in Israel. But it’s a phenomenon with a dark side: “It summons up feelings in rival supporters that I regard as totally unacceptable. That’s why I’d like nothing better than for it to stop.”

Hitler salute
The response that the chants of “Ajax Jews, super Jews” spark can be hard-hitting to say the least. Rival supporters have taken to hissing during games, a reference to World War Two gas chambers. One of the most popular chants these days is “Hamas! Hamas! Give the Jews some gas.”

Even board member Uri Coronel has encountered some grim examples. “In the early 1990s, I remember our bus driving through ranks of Feyenoord supporters to their stadium, all giving us the Hitler salute. When we played against FC Utrecht, the chant was ‘The Jews are going to die’. The intention behind these actions needn’t be anti-Semitic but there’s no doubting the terrible associations they give rise to for people with a Jewish background.”

Recently, Ajax, ADO Den Haag (its rivals from The Hague) and the Dutch football association KNVB decided to tackle the issue of offensive and discriminatory chanting. It was a video shot behind the scenes at ADO Den Haag that was the clincher. After a victory over Ajax, supporters, board members and a player were caught on camera singing “We’re going Jew hunting”.

Ajax chairman Uri Coronel has serious doubts about whether the clubs’ plans will lead to the end of anti-Jewish chants at the football grounds. “That will only come as a result of solid legislation with strong penalties, with offenders receiving a 10-year stadium ban. Only then is there a chance that things might change.”