Borussia Dortmund and the German soccer league fight anti-Semitism in European football

Most American football fans who follow famous German club Borussia Dortmund see it as a modern, progressive and global team that was home to American stars Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna.

But Dortmund was not always like this. In the 1980’s, a politically right-wing hooligan movement grew up within the fanbase of a club that had a member of the Nazi Party as chairman in the 1930s. These 80s fans chanted about send supporters of rival club Schalke to Auschwitz.

For a long time, Dortmund did not directly fight these feelings. Only in the last decade has it managed to reverse the trend. But his success in doing so has allowed the club to continue the fight.

Dortmund will try to combine words and deeds on Wednesday when they host a conference at their famous Signal Iduna Park stadium focusing on anti-Semitism in world football. The event was organized in conjunction with groups such as the German Football League and the World Jewish Council.

“For footballers, it’s really not common that they have good relations with the Jewish community,” Dortmund’s corporate responsibility manager Daniel Lörcher told The Inquirer. “There is a kind of fear: if we name the problem [as] anti-Semitism, what comes out in the media or whatever, it’s always full of stereotypes.

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These stereotypes have been in the spotlight during the pandemic. Some protesters who marched against lockdown measures did so wearing fake replicas of the yellow Star of David badges that the Nazis forced Jews to wear in the 1930s and 1940s. These protesters were widely condemned, but their feelings are still there.

“Antisemitism is on the rise all over the world, but especially when it comes to the COVID protests here in Germany, you can find antisemitic stories everywhere,” Lörcher said. “It’s quite important for our league and all clubs to tackle and learn about anti-Semitism, understand it and know how to react to it.”

Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke, who is also the current Chairman of the Supervisory Board of the German League, will be one of the speakers on Wednesday. The event will be streamed live for free on YouTube in English and German, from 5 a.m. Eastern Time. (If you don’t want to wake up early, the stream will be archived for later viewing.)

“It’s quite easy to hold up a sign or join a campaign,” Lörcher said. “It was really interesting to see that even our club board, the top brass here in the club, they learned about it, and they realized that they were having an impact as an individual but also at the within the club.”

This includes openly acknowledging, as Lörcher said, “our history and our mistakes” at Dortmund.

“We have a history of far-right hooliganism in Dortmund for over 30 years,” he said. “It was a topic within the city, but also within the club. And it’s not really possible to exclude him or to push him to the city and say ‘It’s not our problem’ , and the city can’t push it on us.”

In 2013, the team finally changed its ways.

“Until 2013, we very often told people that we were open to diversity and that included everyone, and that there was no exclusion of the extreme right,” Lörcher said. “We never named the problem exactly, as if it was ‘a racist incident’ or ‘an anti-Semitic incident.’ … In this context, it was a big step for the club to approach the problem as it is and to create a network of positive force.

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This plays out in Dortmund’s stadium by letting fans know that if they report discriminatory behavior – Nazi salutes, for example – to stadium security staff, any issues will be dealt with properly.

“We expelled a person from a right-wing party who was a member of the club,” Lörcher said. “We are giving stadium bans to people from a far-right party here in Dortmund.”

The club also does a lot of education work beyond matchdays. When Dortmund won the German Cup last season, they made a point of touring the trophy among the city’s various communities, including Jewish groups. This year, the club is inviting local Jewish children who are having a bar or bat mitzvah ceremony at the age of 13 to come to the stadium for a visit.

Lörcher said these efforts have been welcomed by Dortmund’s Jewish community, a significant portion of which have immigrated from elsewhere.

“They are looking for identification points in their new hometown,” Lörcher said. “And what our Jewish community in Dortmund taught me is that when you stood up and made clear statements against anti-Semitism for our Jewish community, it had a really huge impact. Because they now feel in their new hometown, the club – the most iconic thing about their new hometown – is against anti-Semitism and is open to Jews.

Lörcher’s remarks resonated with Cory Weiss, director of digital advocacy for the World Jewish Congress. Not only do they fit in with WJC efforts, but they take on added importance right now in the midst of Russia’s war in Ukraine. As millions of refugees have left Ukraine to seek safety elsewhere in Europe, thousands of Jews left Ukraine for Germany specifically.

“In the history of dealing with anti-Semitism and the Holocaust and understanding their impact on society, Jews have always been seen as ‘the other’ and the ultimate version of ‘the other’ said Weiss. “In the case of refugees, when they cross borders, they are first or can be seen as ‘the other’. So dealing with anti-Semitism, raising the issue, raising the question of remembrance, provides the tools… to understand that people are people and that they need to be taken care of when they are threatened.

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Weiss also praised Lörcher for helping the World Jewish Congress connect with German soccer leaders to get the league seat on board.

“It is very valuable, the fact that the BVB [Dortmund’s nickname] reaches out to lend a platform to a community,” Weiss said. “Because there aren’t a lot of organizations or companies or anything like that that are really looking at it.”

But when it does, the biggest sport in the world can make a big difference.

“From a German perspective, churches in general no longer have that impact,” Lorcher said. “Unions no longer have that impact. But football still has.

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