Chelsea are committed to engaging any racist supporters in educational courses which could include funded trips to Auschwitz as part of their wider drive to stamp out antisemitism, sources have told ESPN FC.
The club want to give supporters found to have engaged in abuse the opportunity to spend time with diversity officers as an alternative to blanket bans.
In a statement issued to ESPN FC, action group Campaign Against Antisemitism praised Chelsea’s drive to change the minds as well as the actions of a minority of their supporters.
“Chelsea Football Club’s decision is a commendable proactive effort to educate some of the club’s antisemitic supporters,” said Stephen Silverman, the group’s director of investigations and enforcement.
But the organisation also warned that attempts to educate racist fans must be deployed in conjunction with, rather than instead of, punishment for incidents of abuse.
“Visits to concentrations camps form an important part of any educational program designed to help combat antisemitism but it cannot replace disciplinary action or, where a hate crime against Jews has been committed, the full force of the law,” Silverman added.
“Offering visits to Auschwitz to fans who have already been identified as antisemites might help those racists to see the error of their ways, but it also presents many opportunities for abuse and should only be offered as part of a broader rehabilitation program that follows on from formal legal proceedings.”
Chelsea are aware of this risk. Sources at the club have told ESPN FC that their policy will not interfere with cases where football banning orders have been imposed as a result of action by the Crown Prosecution Service and the police, but rather target lower level offenders who may prove more receptive to educational courses as an alternative to losing access to matches.
In an interview with The Sun on Wednesday, Chelsea chairman Bruce Buck said: “If you just ban people, you will never change their behaviour. This policy gives them the chance to realise what they have done, to make them want to behave better.”
“It’s innovative, and you could argue that it’s brave,” David Chidgey, chair of the Chelsea Supporters’ Trust, told ESPN FC. “It goes against the flow. Most people are usually very reactive to anything like [antisemitism] and it’s all about punishing them, removing them, getting them out of the way.
“But the reality is that doing that hasn’t worked. It’s still an issue and as Chelsea supporters we know that. Maybe it’s time for a fresh approach.”
Eradicating antisemitism from Chelsea’s fanbase has become a personal cause for the club’s Jewish owner Roman Abramovich, who was granted Israeli citizenship in May.
The Russian billionaire took the unusual step of writing in Chelsea’s match day programme in January to announce the launch of the club’s Say No To Antisemitism campaign. “This is the start of an important journey and we all have a part to play,” he said. “We can all do something to challenge discrimination at our club as well as within the world around us.”
Holocaust survivor Harry Spiro was invited to Cobham to address the Chelsea first-team squad in January, and the club sent a delegation to attend the annual March of the Living at Auschwitz in April. This was followed in June by an official trip consisting of 150 supporters and club officials to visit the notorious Nazi concentration camp in Southern Poland.
Dean Mears, a Chelsea supporter who was part of the Auschwitz trip in June, has no doubt about the educational value of visiting the scene of one of the darkest chapters in human history.
“I didn’t really know what to expect from the experience, but as soon as you walk through the gate you get this eerie feeling,” he told ESPN FC. “It’s quite difficult to comprehend unless you’re there and see it first-hand.
“If someone with anti-Semitic views went there, I don’t think they would still have them. It’s all about education for me — the more you know, the less likely you are to hold these views.”
No further trips have yet been arranged, but Chelsea intend to remain active in their fight against antisemitism. On Tuesday the club previewed a film, written and produced by Ivor Baddiel, about the consequences of anti-Semitic behaviour and its effect on Jewish fans and the wider community in the Houses of Parliament.
“We are just trying to make a dent in the antisemitism in this world,” Buck said at the screening. “We won’t be able to move the needle entirely but hopefully this will allow us to engage with other football clubs, other sports clubs and more people and over time we hope to make a real contribution for good to society.”