The quenelle is a salute attributed to French comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala. Dieudonné, who started his career as a liberal anti-racist, has, in recent years moved to the far right and embraced the politics of Jean Marie Le-Pen. A few days ago France fined him again for his continued incitement against Jews.
The salute has made the news recently because a French born soccer player, Nicolas Anelka used the salute after scoring a goal. The gesture drew criticism from the French government and spurred an investigation by the English Football Association, which could suspend Anelka “for violating the league’s anti-discriminatory rules.” Anelka said that he was merely offering a tribute to his friend Dieudonné.
Then a picture came out of Tony Parker, star of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs, using the quenelle some three years ago. When confronted with the fact that it was, in fact, offensive, Parker immediately apologized, saying that he was unaware of the connotations.
I suppose I should be encouraged that a football league is investigating Anelka and that the French government is prosecuting Dieudonné. But I’m not.
What bothers me was expressed very well by Deborah Lipstadt in Tablet Magazine. Lipstadt compared the popularity of the quenelle with the refusal of the IOC to commemorate the Munich massacre:
At the root of both the IOC’s actions and the quenelle is simple anti-Semitism. One was an expression of covert anti-Semitism offered by buttoned-down elitists, well-heeled professionals and politicians who have entered the highest echelons of international sports. The second, the quenelle, is an expression by people we generally associate with the hoi polloi, the many, the common folk. By this I don’t mean to suggest that the people involved in giving this salute are necessarily stupid or uneducated. That is certainly not true of Dieudonné, of Anelka, or of many others who have participated in the quenelle wave. But it is nevertheless a mass phenomenon. …
One group cloaks its prejudice in high minded rationalizations. The other openly appeals to people’s most base hatreds. The elites might never personally assault anyone or espouse violence. However, they create an atmosphere that allows others to more freely engage in anti-Semitic actions. It is not a matter of one group being worse than the other. It is that both are necessary for the perfect storm. This storm might take a very long time to gather to gale force—but the atmospheric elements increasingly seem to be falling into place.
To too many people, expressions of antisemitism are acceptable. They’re not reasons for opprobrium. In the United States, the man who spurred a pogrom is now a talk show host. Academics who promote anti-Jewish conspiracy theories are not shunned but welcomed as an additional voice to the debate. And a movement that targets Jewish commerce poses as a moral conscience.
The popularity of the quenelle is a sign of the degree that a certain intolerance – antisemitism – is tolerated. But I don’t think any amount of legislation or legal action will stop it. The politics that blame Israel first make for a comfortable environment for the quenelle to thrive.
UPDATE: The quenelle is not unique to French born athletes. (Tony Parker is French.) According to Lipstadt, those using the salute have been photographed near the Otzar Hatorah school in France where a Jewish teacher and three students were murdered by a Muslim gunman two years ago, near the Anne Frank House and in Auschwitz. A number of quenelle photographs have even surfaced at the Kotel – Western Wall – in Jerusalem. The ubiquity of these photographs with the perpetrators smiling prompted Lipstadt to observe:
Generally the subjects are smiling broadly—if not laughing—at the secret handshake they share. Anti-Semitism is treated as a joke.
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