Paris -- When Amsterdam's professional soccer team, Ajax o Amsterdam, takes the field to play other Netherlands clubs, a hissing, whistling sound rises from the stands occupied by the opposing club's supporters.
What is this meant to be? The sound of gas escaping from the gas chambers of Nazi death camps. Why? In the 1930s, Ajax was the favorite club of the Jewish middle class of Amsterdam. Ever since, it has been called the Jewish team.
Today, according to a report in the Paris daily, Le Monde, about 20 percent of the crowd that turns out for Ajax is Jewish. The
proportion of Jews among the club management is less than half of that. Ajax's followers simply reflect the population makeup of Amsterdam itself. But when the team plays, the opposing crowd makes its hissing noise, and ends by shouting "Jews! Jews! Jews! Beat the Yids!"
It is true that most of the young toughs doing the hissing have little real grasp of what they are about, or of the history they are evoking. It is also true that Ajax fans answer the shouts of "Jews' by shouting back "Yes!" "Yes!" and waving the Israeli flag. They wear tee-shirts that say "Ajax Hooligans" and bear a Star of David. The competition thus has a symbolic life unconnected with the reality evoked.
Yet does it really? Soccer hooliganism has a clear connection with the mindless would-be fascism of the skinhead mobs burning refugee shelters in Germany and beating up "Pakis" in London, as well as with the crude ideology (and death-camp "revisionism") of the black-clad toughs who rough up hecklers of Jean-Marie Le Pen in France.
Neo-Nazism and renewed anti-Semitism are not simply German problems, as people would like to make them out to be. They are manifestations of a xenophobia nearly always latent in societies, and which in contemporary Europe has been provoked into the open by the very high numbers of foreign workers and refugees in the European countries, and by the related problem of high unemployment.
Some societies can take immigration and some cannot. The U.S. can, and always has been an immigrant country. Of the European countries, France has been the principal country of immigration. Both countries' national identity is framed in ideological terms. The U.S. is defined by its Constitution. If you accept it you are an American. Modern France was defined by its Revolution, its Declaration of Human Rights and its republican government.
National identity in Germany, the Netherlands, Britain and elsewhere in Northern Europe as well as in the East is a more complicated affair for several reasons, one of them being the much greater homogeneity of these populations until very recent times. It is only since the collapse of the European empires that there has been a significant number of black or Asian faces on the streets of London or Amsterdam or The Hague.
The Europeans turned to immigrant labor in the boom industrial years of the 1950s and 1960s, and that brought Turks to Germany and Africans and North Africans to Italy and France. A wave of political refugees has more recently swept into the Scandinavian countries, and, most of all, into Germany. The war in Yugoslavia and the worsening crisis in Russia and the other ex-Soviet states may soon bring still more refugees -- perhaps a lot of them.
The result in Western Europe has been a paralysis of policy. Justice, decency and morality have seemed on the one hand to demand that these people be taken in. Popular xenophobia has made it clear that it is increasingly dangerous, politically and socially, for governments to let them in.
A responsible case can be made against liberal immigration measures in countries where the historical tolerance of immigration has been low. But mobilization against immigration also functions as a legitimation of xenophobia itself, and of racism -- of those sinister forces of exclusion and murderous hatred the Ajax Amsterdam crowds so lightly evoke, and which should remind us that Europe is not a safe, secure place where bad things will never happen again.
The U.S. certainly is not a safe and secure place, but it is continentally isolated, and has proved to have a very large capacity for absorbing and disarming the crazy forces it contains. Europe is not so fortunate, since everyone is close together. It is a place where things interact among closely interrelated societies.
No one today likes to think or talk about the consequences for the rest of Europe of what now is going on in Yugoslavia and the ex-Soviet Union, in part because it is so hard to know what to do. But those consequences may be bad, and latent forces exist in the West which could make them worse. That is the reality.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.