- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 25, 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 this weekend at 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 and, on one occasion, teenagers on an amateur Jewish soccer team were attacked with sticks and metal bars.

Both 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.

Roman Jewish community official Raffaella Spizzichino remembered the moment in November 1998 when she came to Rome’s Olympic stadium to support her team AS Roma and read the Auschwitz banner hung by extremist supporters of crosstown rival Lazio. Rather than turning away from the sport, she helped organize the upcoming soccer events.

“We chose to do this to break the taboo in the soccer world, which often forgets the Holocaust,” she said. “Why do this in the world of soccer? Because the world of soccer is what draws most attention.”

However, 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.

Mr. 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.

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