British Prime Minister David Cameron has stirred a hornet's nest by wading into a debate about the right of Tottenham Hotspur supporters to describe themselves using a racially sensitive word.

For years, sections of the north London football club's support have described themselves as 'Yids', in a bid to reclaim the pejorative term from anti-Semitic opposition fans who have used it to make slurs about Spurs' Jewish connections.

Spurs have traditionally attracted support from London's Jewish communities and chairman Daniel Levy is the latest in a line of Jewish businessmen to have managed the club's affairs.

However, in its bid to clamp down on discrimination in the English game, the Football Association has asked their fans to refrain from using the term 'Yid'.

In a statement released last week, the governing body said the word was "likely to be considered offensive by the reasonable observer" and that fans "should avoid using it in any situation".

The FA warned that use of such words could lead to a banning order or even criminal charges, but the response from Spurs' supporters was voluble, with chants of "Yid Army!" and "We'll sing what we want!" aired during Saturday's 2-0 win over Norwich City.

Tottenham have approached the issue carefully, announcing plans to distribute a survey about the use of the word among their season ticket-holders, but Cameron threw his weight behind the chanters.

In an interview with the Jewish Chronicle newspaper published on Tuesday, the prime minister said supporters who used the term should not face prosecution.

"There's a difference between Spurs fans self-describing themselves as Yids and someone calling someone a Yid as an insult," Cameron said.

"You have to be motivated by hate. Hate speech should be prosecuted -- but only when it's motivated by hate."

Spurs manager Andre Villas-Boas agreed, saying on Wednesday: "I think his intervention was probably what Spurs fans would want to hear."

He added: "I think our fans sing it with pride, it is something that they defend. It is not sung with offence. I see no problem with it."

Cameron's stance has been criticised, however, with Jewish comedian and writer David Baddiel arguing that it is unacceptable for the term to be appropriated by people who are not Jewish.

"Most Spurs fans are not in fact Jewish: the club's 'Jewishness' is just a historical association with the area," Baddiel wrote in The Guardian newspaper.

"So the reclamation argument does not apply, unless it's OK for a race-hate word to be reclaimed by people who do not own it.

"The equivalent case would be a club in Brixton (a racially diverse district of south London) made up mainly of white fans adopting the N-word as their 'badge of honour'. This, I think, would be stopped fairly quickly."

Rival fans -- and sometimes players -- have occasionally used Spurs' links with the Jewish community as a means by which to rile the club's supporters.

Last November, police launched an investigation into claims that West Ham United fans had chanted the name of former Nazi leader Adolf Hitler and imitated the noise of the gas chambers used to slaughter Jews during World War II.

Two West Ham supporters were cautioned by police and one of them was given a lifetime ban by the east London club.

Former Aston Villa goalkeeper Mark Bosnich was fined in 1996 after reacting to taunts from Spurs fans by performing a Hitler-style salute during a game at White Hart Lane.

Last season, meanwhile, Spurs fans travelling to watch their team play in Europe were attacked in Lyon and Rome by hooligans with apparently anti-Semitic motives.

Clarke Carlisle, the chairman of players' union the Professional Footballers' Association, has added his voice to calls for the term 'Yid' to be banished.

"Do they have a right to appropriate that term when it would be indescribably offensive to anyone else?" he asked Britain's Press Association.

"It is not for them to appropriate a derogatory offensive term that was used to belittle a whole section of society in a terrible era."