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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

French Comic’s ‘Anti-System’ Salute Is Frequently Used to Mock Jewish Suffering

Video from BFMTV of the French striker Nicolas Anelka celebrating a goal on Saturday with a salute known in France as a quenelle.

Until three days ago, when a French soccer star celebrated a goal for his club in England with a form of stiff-armed salute devised by a stand-up comic who stands accused of inciting hatred of Jews, the English-speaking world was largely unaware that the meaning of the gesture, called a quenelle, is a source of heated debate in France.

The salute is controversial because it was invented by a comedian known as Dieudonné, who frequently makes crude jokes about Jews, and, after its use in a campaign poster when he ran for office in 2009 at the head of what he called an Anti-Zionist List, it was adopted by anti-Semites.

Within hours of the incident on Saturday, the player, Nicolas Anelka, got into a public spat on Twitter with the French minister for sport and youth, Valérie Fourneyron, who denounced the salute made in front of a worldwide television audience as a “disgusting, shocking provocation.” There was, the minister wrote, “no place for anti-Semitism and incitement to hatred on the football pitch.”

The player responded, in English and in French, that the salute was simply a way of dedicating his goal to his friend, the comedian. Over the following 24 hours, Mr. Anelka continued to defend the gesture on Twitter: first by posting an image of President Obama, Jay Z and Beyoncé making a different but vaguely similar-looking gesture of brushing dirt off their shoulders; then by quoting a Dieudonné tweet tagged “the quenelle is not a Nazi or anti-Semitic sign”; and finally by arguing, as the comedian himself has, that the salute is “anti-system,” rather than anti-Semitic.

“With regard to the ministers who give their own interpretation of my quenelle,” Mr. Anelka concluded, “they are the ones who create confusion and controversy without knowing what this gesture really means.”

Two other French sports stars, the soccer player Samir Nasri and the basketball player Tony Parker, offered similar explanations this week after images of them making the quenelle in private surfaced online.

“While this gesture has been part of French culture for many years, it was not until recently that I learned of the very negative concerns associated with it.” Mr. Parker wrote in a statement on Monday. “Since I have been made aware of the seriousness of this gesture, I will certainly never repeat the gesture and sincerely apologize for any misunderstanding or harm relating to my actions. Hopefully this incident will serve to educate others that we need to be more aware that things that may seem innocuous can actually have a history of hate and hurt.”

Mr. Nasri was less willing to acknowledge that the gesture could have any negative meaning, writing on Twitter: “The pose in the picture I posted over 2 months ago symbolizes being against the system. It has absolutely nothing to do with being anti-Semitic or against Jewish people. I apologize for causing any hurt to anyone who might have been mislead into thinking this means anything of that nature.”

But, as John Lichfield explained in The Independent, what Dieudonné’s critics see as an inverted Nazi salute, his fans, including far-right politicians, call a version of a traditional, and obscene, French hand signal, known as the bras d’honneur, which signifies roughly the same thing as a raised middle finger in the Anglo-Saxon world. Although a quenelle is a kind of French meat dumpling, Mr. Lichfield notes that, in frequent off-color jokes about assaulting the Zionists that Dieudonné sees as a global enemy, he “always uses the word quenelle in its slang meaning as a ‘finger,’ or a ‘penis.’ ”

As my colleague Maïa de La Baume reported last year, Dieudonné’s recent obsession with Zionism has alienated many former fans, and his childhood friend, the Jewish comic Élie Sémoun, but earned him the cult following of a shock-jock. The mixed-race comic once brought a noted Holocaust denier onstage with him, to present him with an award, and he recently joked that criticism from a Jewish journalist made him nostalgic for the gas chambers.

The tribute from Mr. Anelka came one day after France’s interior minister announced that he was considering a ban on public performances by Dieudonné, in the name of preventing hate speech.

In an interview in September with the French newspaper Libération, an academic who studies far-right culture, Jean-Yves Camus, described the quenelle as a kind of code for a certain rebellious identity, like a gang sign, “which has acquired a real popularity among the young.” Many of those flashing the sign, Mr. Camus suggested, might not have any awareness of “the significance of the gesture.”

Dieudonné himself and his most ardent fans, however, seem to see it as a sign of a populist resistance to “a world order dominated by a Washington-Tel Aviv axis,” orchestrated by Jews. “Behind speeches criticizing NATO and the global financial system, while supporting Bashar al-Assad,” Mr. Camus suggested, “there is the conviction that deep down it is the Jews who pull the strings.”

That interpretation seems supported by comments Dieudonné made in August in a YouTube clip in which he introduced images of police officers and soldiers making the salute with the comment that he dreamed of a coup against the French establishment, supported by the people, along the lines of what took place in Egypt last summer. The fact that the comic made that comment while wearing a Hamas scarf, which he described as a personal gift from the militant Islamic group’s leader, suggested some confusion about the dynamics of events in Egypt, where the military ousted an elected Islamist leader.

Video posted on the YouTube channel of the French comedian Dieudonné in August.

Support for the idea that the salute is seen by some in France as a relatively harmless sign of cheeky disobedience can be found in thousands of images posted on social networks showing young people from all walks of life â€" from basketball stars to glamour models to doctors â€" making the gesture in settings as innocuous as ski slopes and class photos. A lawyer defending Dieudonné against charges of incitement to hatred told Le Parisien that he had colected more than 9,000 images of people making the quenelle in photographs posted on social networks and that “99.9 percent of them have no racist of anti-Semitic connotation.”

However, as Stephan Marche explained in a post for Esquire, it is not hard to find a significant number of photographs online where the gesture is clearly intended to mock Jewish suffering. “Making the quenelle has turned into an anti-Semitic game played on social media, where people post themselves making the gesture in the most Jewish places they can find,” Mr. Marche wrote. “Auschwitz for example, or the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, or at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.”

In response to Mr. Anelka’s claim that there was nothing anti-Semitic about the salute, several bloggers, including the socialist politician Yann Galut, shared links to dozens of images posted on social networks showing young people flashing the quenelle in front of sites associated with the Holocaust and the Jewish people.

Others mocked Mr. Anelka by pointing to Nazi salutes that looked very like the quenelle.

The most shocking of the images appeared to show a man making the quenelle salute outside the Jewish school in Toulouse, France, attacked by Mohammed Merah, who killed three French soldiers, a rabbi and three young children last year. The French police began an investigation this week into that image, hoping to identify the man who struck the pose outside the scene of the rampage killings.

Writing on the left-leaning French news site Rue 89, the journalist Pierre Haski argued that it was vital for supporters of the Palestinians to clearly denounce this popular form of anti-Semitism, as it lent support to the argument in Israel that all anti-Zionism is really just a front for anti-Semites. Mr. Haski noted that one militant supporter of Israel had written on a social network that Dieudonné “deserves a gold medal from the Israeli military for discrediting anti-Zionism.” The viral popularity of the quenelle, Mr. Haski concluded, “forces those who want to sincerely oppose Israeli policy to better define and to break with those whose agenda has nothing to do with Israel, but with a quite classic anti-Semitism.”