Over the past few years, I have repeatedly been approached by a broad array of Jews worried about developments in Europe. They have pointed to anti-Israel protests, shootings, and the rising tide of extreme religious identification among young Muslims born and raised in the West; some worried over rumors, all false, that Britain had banned the teaching of the Holocaust. All asked, “Is this 1939 redux? Is it over—once again—for European Jews?” Recognizing their genuine fears, I have tried not to scoff, instead reassuring each that, while some of what we see is indeed disturbing, analogies to the years preceding the Holocaust are way out of line—and historically invalid, since the Holocaust was a unique episode in both human and Jewish history.
Yet some recent developments have left me unsettled. This week, a French soccer player named Nicolas Anelka sparked a firestorm by publicly giving the quenelle salute—a sort of reverse of the Nazi Sieg Heil, in which one stiffly extends the right hand towards the ground and with the left hand touches the right shoulder—after scoring a goal during a match. Created by Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, a French comedian who has been repeatedly condemned and fined by French courts for his anti-Semitic remarks, it has quietly become a phenomenon in the past year: The Internet is festooned with pictures of people making the gesture. It’s been used by athletes in France, the United Kingdom, and even the United States, where San Antonio Spurs guard Tony Parker gave a public apology earlier this week after a photograph surfaced of him making the gesture with Dieudonné.
Dieudonné, who is friendly with longtime National Front leader Jean Marie Le Pen, has openly expressed his contempt for Jews, support for former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the belief that the Holocaust was a hoax. He has invited renowned Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson to appear on his show. Because Holocaust denial is a crime in France, where the comedian is based, he speaks of the “Shoananas”—a play on the words “Shoah” and “ananas,” or pineapple. One can’t be charged for poking fun at a putatively meaningless word.
Dieudonné defends himself by claiming that his beef is only with Zionists, whom he imagines qualify as legitimate open game. But he has expressed overt anti-Semitism, including telling a publication in Lyon that the Jews were “a sect, a scam, which is more serious, because it was the first.” And he has, lately, become a kind of martyr to a fantasy of Jewish power: French authorities are considering banning his one-man show, which has been playing to packed houses in Paris, after he said in a recent performance that hearing Patrick Cohen, a Jewish journalist, makes him yearn for the return of gas chambers.
The quenelle has been given at places directly associated with Jewish tragedies: in front of the Anne Frank House, at concentration camp memorials, at Auschwitz, and even outside the Ozar Hatorah Jewish school in Toulouse, where a French-born Muslim named Mohammed Merah murdered three children and a teacher in March 2012. Sometimes the people in the photos hold pineapples. Passersby unfamiliar with the quenelle are occasionally duped into participating: In one photo, an apparently unsuspecting Israeli soldier stands amidst a group of people, all of whom are giving the quenelle. In another, Chabadniks pose with a young man. They hold tallis bags. He gives the quenelle. There are shots of tourists at the Western Wall doing the same. Generally the subjects are smiling broadly—if not laughing—at the secret handshake they share. Anti-Semitism is treated as a joke.
It is possible that the Football Association, the governing body of English soccer, will come down hard on Anelka and other players who engage in this salute just as they have done on players who have engaged in racist actions. I hope that they do. But in the end it does not matter how the Football Association responds to this particular episode. If this salute is banned, it will not be long before some other symbol will come to take its place—and ironically, banning its use at public events will probably only make it even cooler.
Only 18 months ago, the organizers of the London Olympics had the opportunity to take a stand against the kind of casual anti-Semitism embodied by Dieudonné and his fans. In the run-up to the games, the families of the 11 Israeli athletes asked the International Olympic Committee to agree to just one minute of silence in memory of their sons, fathers, and brothers who were murdered—not killed, murdered—at the 1972 Games in Munich by Palestinian terrorists from the Black September group.
As I wrote then, the IOC refused and offered an array of explanations for its stance, most of which boiled down to “The games are apolitical.” Obviously the IOC forgot that in 1996, the committee’s longtime president, the Spaniard Juan Antonio Samaranch, referred in his opening remarks in Atlanta to the war then raging in the former Yugoslavia. The IOC also seemed to have forgotten that at the 2002 games a moment of silence was accorded the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks.
But the IOC also contended that a memorial moment at the opening ceremonies would introduce a discordant note into what they envisioned as a celebratory event—one that was capped, memorably, with a video in which the queen agreed to be whisked to the stadium at Olympic Park by James Bond. “We feel that the opening ceremony is an atmosphere that is not fit to remember such a tragic incident,” IOC chief Jacques Rogge insisted a few days before the games. Here too they failed to recall that at the opening ceremony of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, a dedication was played to a competitor who died in a training accident. Finally, to add insult to injury, they failed to tell the petitioners that, in fact, the opening ceremonies in London would include an elaborately choreographed memorial, set to the Scottish hymn Abide With Me, to victims of the 2005 terrorist attacks in London.
No tragedy like what happened in Munich has ever occurred at any Olympic Games before or since. It’s impossible to imagine that, had the victims been athletes from any other country, they would not have been commemorated. The only explanation for the IOC’s adamant refusal is that the murdered athlete were Israelis, and Jews, who were killed for no other reason than simply being so. As I wrote at the time, to IOC officials, “Jewish blood is cheap, too cheap to risk upsetting a bloc of Arab nations and other countries which oppose Israel and its policies.” The message was that these athletes came from a country whose citizens are seen as legitimate targets. Hence, their deaths were not worth a minute.
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.
It is not the connection with sporting events that links these two manifestations of anti-Semitism. There is something far more ominous about them. I live in the American South, a region with a long history of terrible racism, lynchings, murders, beatings, bombings, and all forms of discrimination and humiliation. None of it would have been possible without an alliance between two very different segments of society. At one end were the powerful communal elites—bankers, lawyers, wealthy storeowners, and members of the country clubs—who composed the White Citizens’ Councils. At the other end were those from the “lower” realm of the economic and educational spectrum—think good old boys.
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.
Yet, before reading this as a license to panic, let’s remember how different things are today than in the Europe of the 1930s. Even before Jews protested and demanded a response to Anelka’s salute—something we can freely do today—political leaders, commentators, and public intellectuals were already condemning it as an expression of racist and anti-Semitic prejudice. Many among them were clear about seeing the ideas underlying the silly hand gesture as a threat to the kind of society in which they wish to live.
Dieudonné, Anelka, and Parker have all responded defensively, variously insisting that their actions have nothing to do with anti-Semitism or were misconstrued. Thankfully, no one believes them.
Am I suggesting that European Jews should pick up and move? Hardly. Will I curtail my visits to Europe and to Jewish sites, both cultural and religious? No. Am I predicting another human tragedy—terror, or murder? No, of course not. (In any case, I am an historian and not in the predicting business.) But next time, when some Jew approaches me and asks about manifestations of European anti-Semitism am I going to pause for just a nanosecond before dismissing their fears? Maybe even a bit longer—and then I will remind them how different 2014 is from 1939 and how free they are to ensure that it remains so.
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