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In Europe, Elites Create the Atmosphere That Allows Popular Anti-Semitism to Grow

The furor over the ‘quenelle’ salute mirrors the refusal of Olympic officials to commemorate murdered Israeli athletes

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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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In Europe, Elites Create the Atmosphere That Allows Popular Anti-Semitism to Grow

The furor over the ‘quenelle’ salute mirrors the refusal of Olympic officials to commemorate murdered Israeli athletes

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