Most American soccer fans who follow famed German club Borussia Dortmund see it as a modern, progressive, global outfit that’s been the home of American stars Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna.

But Dortmund hasn’t always been that way. In the 1980s, a politically right-wing hooligan movement grew within the fan base of a club that had a member of the Nazi party as its chairperson in the 1930s. Those 80s-era fans chanted about sending fans of rival club Schalke to Auschwitz.

For a long time, Dortmund didn’t directly combat those sentiments. Only in the last decade has it worked to turn the tide. But its success at doing so has empowered the club to continue the fight.

On Wednesday, Dortmund will try to combine words and actions when it hosts a conference at its famed Signal Iduna Park stadium focused on anti-Semitism in global soccer. The event has been organized in conjunction with groups including the German Football League, the Central Council of Jews in Germany, and the World Jewish Congress.

“For football people, it’s really not common that they have a good relationship to the Jewish community,” Dortmund’s head of corporate responsibility Daniel Lörcher told The Inquirer. “There’s kind of a fear: if we name the problem [as] anti-Semitism, what is coming up from media or whatever, it’s still full of stereotypes.”

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Those stereotypes have been in the spotlight during the pandemic. Some protesters who marched against lockdown measures did so wearing mock replicas of the yellow Star of David badges that the Nazis forced Jews to wear in the 1930s and 40s. Those protesters were widely condemned, but their sentiments are still out there.

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

Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke, who’s also the current chair of the German league’s supervisory board, will be one of the speakers on Wednesday. The event will be streamed live for free on YouTube in English and German, starting at 5 a.m. Eastern time. (If you don’t want to wake up early, the stream will be archived to watch later.)

‘Our history and our mistakes’

“It’s quite easy to hold up a sign or to take part in a campaign,” Lörcher said. “It was really interesting to see that even our board of the club, the high ranking positions here in the club, they learned about it, and they realized that they have an impact as an individual but also within the club.”

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

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

As University of Michigan researcher Pavel Brunssen noted, the catalyst for change came in 2013, when a group of right-wing Dortmund fans attacked two fans involved with official club projects while at a Champions League road game in Donetsk, Ukraine. The incident drew national attention in Germany, and moved the club to act.

“Until 2013, we very often told people that we are open for diversity and this includes everybody, and there was no exclusion of the extreme right,” Lörcher said. “We never exactly named the problem, like there was ‘a racist incident’ or ‘an anti-Semitic incident.’ … Against this background, it was a huge step for the club to address the problem as what it is and to create a network of positive force.”

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

“We have kicked out a person of a right-wing party who was a member of the club,” Lörcher said. “We give stadium bans to people from an extreme right party here in Dortmund.”

The club also does a lot of education work beyond game days. When Dortmund won the German Cup last season, it made a point of touring the trophy among different communities in the city, including Jewish groups. This year, the club is inviting local Jewish children who have a bar or bat mitzvah ceremony when they turn 13 to come to the stadium for a visit.

Soccer’s power off the field

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

“They are looking for points of identification in their new hometown,” Lörcher said. “And what our Jewish community in Dortmund taught me was, when you stood up and did the clear statements against anti-Semitism for our Jewish community, this had a really huge impact. Because they feel now in their new hometown, the club — the most iconic thing in their new hometown — is against anti-Semitism and is open for Jewish people.”

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

“In the history of dealing with anti-Semitism and the Holocaust and understanding how that impacts society, Jews were always viewed as “the other,” and the ultimate version of ‘the other,’” Weiss said. “In the case of refugees, when they cross borders, they are initially, or can be seen as, ‘the other.’ So dealing with anti-Semitism, elevating the issue, elevating the issue of remembrance, provides the tools … to understand that people are people, and that they need to be cared for when they’re under threat.”

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

“It’s very valuable, the fact that BVB [Dortmund’s nickname] is extending out their hand to lend a platform to a community,” Weiss said. “Because there are not many organizations or businesses or anything of that sort that really wade into the subject matter.”

But when it does happen, the world’s biggest sport can make a big difference.

“When it comes to a German perspective, the churches in general don’t have that impact anymore,” Lorcher said. “Trade unions don’t have that impact anymore. But football still has.”