Of all the wounds that rend the human heart, what aches so keenly or heals so slowly as exclusion? The childhood gang we weren’t allowed to join; the lovers entwined, oblivious to our presence; the decision of Southport’s Reform Synagogue to dispense with our rabbinical services over a matter as trivial as a single Opal Fruit on Yom Kippur; each spurning smoulders on down the years like an Everlasting Light.
And so it has been for all England the last few weeks, as we sat through Euro 2008, envious onlookers at a sumptuous multinational feast. At such times, perhaps, Jews can offer some guidance to our fellow-countrymen. For when it comes to exclusion from the Community of Nations, we have a good millennium or two of experience. As pariahs, we’re unparalleled; as rejects, unqualified successes; as outcasts, way off on our own. So what’s to be done when you’re left without a nation to root for?
First, there is the option of assimilation. This is the one the BBC urged during the Euros, with its strap-line ‘Who will you support?’ If you saw the TV promos, you’ll know just how much the English have to learn about this assimilation business. ‘I’ll go for Romania,’ grinned a bearded skateboarder, ‘Why not? It’ll be funny!’ ‘Italy!’ exclaimed another fan, ‘Cos it’s shaped like a boot.’ Shaped like a boot? When Napoleon asked the Jews of France to define their loyalty to La Republique, they replied as follows: ‘The love of our country is a sentiment so natural, so powerful, and so in keeping with our religious views, that a French Jew feels among strangers in England even if he be among Jews.’ Had they followed the promo’s line, it would have been a very different story: ‘France? Ah oui, Empereur, we’re largely in favour. Excellent cheeses. Plus, “France”, it’s such a nice word! It rhymes with “dance” … er, and “lance”, which is coincidentally what you’re now hurling at us …”’
Indeed, when seeking the correct tone the Beeb could have done worse than glance at a Reform siddur: ‘May the Lord bless Our Sovereign Lady, Queen Elizabeth, and all the royal family … May He give His wisdom to the government of this country, to all who lead it and all who have responsibility for its safety and its welfare.’ You see? That’s how it’s done. Earnest, reverential, more or less entirely craven. Following this model, the skateboarder of the promo might restate his preference as follows: ‘I’m supporting Romania. Thank you so much, Romania, for not hurting me. I promise to be good.’
For those who balk at full national identification of this kind, there is a halfway house between patriotism and parochialism. That is to favour a country on the grounds that one of its players plays for your club side. When Liverpool fans support Spain for Fernando Torres’ sake, or United fans roar on Portugal for Ronaldo’s, they are following a venerable tradition of proxy glory-hunting. They remind me of my Aunt Sadie, a self-declared expert on ‘American Culture’ who knows little of Charlie Parker, Orson Welles or Herman Melville, but turns out to be mysteriously clued-up when it comes to Bob Dylan, Woody Allen and Philip Roth. She may be a bit hazy about what the Constitution is, but she’s pretty sure chicken soup is good for it.
So much for assimilation. Alternatively, you can simply exclude your excluders back — and by this alchemy transform exclusion into exclusivity. The knack lies in convincing yourself that no-one else exists: there is only the Nation — exiled, despised, but surviving. So next time England fails to qualify, its fans should ignore the distressing realities of the present and immerse themselves entirely in the past — specifically, the heady days of 1966. In tribute to the famous Russian linesman, they would dress entirely in black, and following the example of Bobby Charlton shave all their hair except for a single wrap-around strand. Changes to the Laws of the Game as they stood in 1966 would be considered abominations, with goalkeepers proudly handling back-passes as if to say, ‘I am a goalkeeper, and no heretical FIFA mandate will stop me using my hands within the area ordained for such practice by our fathers in days of old.’ Daily conversation would revolve entirely around the Third Goal, whether it crossed the line, the position of lines in general and the importance of determining what does and doesn’t cross them. The beauty of this system is that it allows you to exclude not only the supporters of other countries, but any of your fellow-fans who fail to observe the game with the same ritualistic purity as you. They in turn can look down on you for your anachronistic literal-mindedness, and punkt! — everybody’s happy.
Of course, you could, instead, put your efforts into restoring your place in the Community of Nations. For England, the next opportunity will be the World Cup 2010 qualifiers. Experience tells us, though, that it’s not as easy as it sounds. The men in charge are inept, or corrupt, or both. The tactics are crude and outdated. The press knows no middle ground between blind adulation and fevered hostility. And every time you think you’ve finally won recognition, a couple of years later you have to fight for it all over again.
If those childhood gangs taught us anything, perhaps, it’s that the best response in the face of exclusion is just to laugh it off. After all, the one field where the Jews and the English really do stand apart from the rest of the world is that of self-ridicule. None of that for me, mind. After all, I’m an England fan, a Man City fan and an unemployed rabbi: if there’s one person I’m not accepting ridicule from, it’s me.
Having spent twenty-one years as a rabbi in his native Morecambe, and a brief spell as inside-right for Preston North End, Rabbi Savage is now a freelance Talmudic Scholar.