English soccer was plunged into yet another anti-Semitism scandal this weekend, following a goal-scoring celebration by Nicolas Anelka, the highly-regarded French striker who currently plays for West Bromwich Albion in the Premier League. After beating the goalkeeper for the second time during a six goal thriller against West Ham United on Saturday, Anelka delivered an anti-Semitic salute, known as the quenelle, originated by his close friend, the French-Cameroonian comedian and provocateur Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, who calls himself an “anti-Zionist” while engaging in what looks suspiciously like anti-Semitism.
As with the recent Tottenham Hotspur “Yids” controversy which preceded it, there are plenty of voices arguing that L’Affaire Anelka is really a big misunderstanding, and that Jew-baiting was the furthest thing from Anelka’s mind. Keith Downing, Albion’s coach, defended his player by irritably declaring that “It (the quenelle) has got nothing to do with what is being said…It is absolute rubbish.” For his part, Anelka tweeted, “This gesture was just a special dedication to my comedian friend Dieudonné,” later adding a photo showing President Obama with Jay-Z and Beyonce supposedly doing the same thing (what’s shown in that image is, in fact, a harmless tribute to Jay-Z’s song, “Dirt Off Your Shoulder.”)
How much weight will these protestations of innocence carry? To begin with, you don’t need an artist’s vision to realize that the quenelle is a none-too-subtle variant of the traditional Hitler salute, whereby a straight right arm is pointed downwards instead of upwards, and the left hand touches the right shoulder. Nor do you need to do much digging in order to ascertain that Dieudonné has, in the words of a 2007 profile in the New Yorker, an unhealthy “obsession” with Jews that has landed him in severe legal trouble in France recently: earlier this month he was found guilty of defamation, libel, and incitement to hatred and racial discrimination. It was this ruling that led to Anelka’s expression of solidarity on a soccer field in England.
Dieudonné’s airy description of the quenelle as an “anti-establishment” gesture (“true, because he thinks the establishment is run by Jews,” a Jewish leader acerbically observed in an email to me,) was given short shrift by Philippe Auclair, a leading French soccer journalist, who publicly slammed Anelka for his “cretinous” act. Mindful of the viral trend in France for posting quenelle photos on social networks—two soldiers were photographed doing it while standing outside a synagogue in Paris—Auclair insisted that there was no room for more benign interpretations of the salute. “It is a deeply offensive gesture in the current political context in France, especially to our Jewish community. Objectively,” he said.
Unsurprisingly, concern at the quenelle trend is most acute among France’s 600,000 Jews, whose feelings of vulnerability have been heightened since the March 2012 terrorist attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse in which three young children and a rabbi were murdered. Jewish leaders have complained directly to the Interior Ministry about the gesture, branding it a “Nazi salute in reverse,” while six militants belonging to the French branch of the Jewish Defense League were arrested last week in connection with attacks on individuals who had posted images online of themselves performing the quenelle.
All the signs suggest that the French government is poised to crack down on Dieudonné’s antics. “Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala no longer seems to recognise any limits,” read an Interior Ministry statement released shortly after the comedian said on French radio, “When I hear [journalist] Patrick Cohen speaking, I say to myself, you see, the gas chambers … too bad.” The ministry is now considering “all legal options that would allow a ban on Dieudonné’s public gatherings, which no longer belong to the artistic domain, but rather amount to a public safety risk.” As for Anelka, after the photos of his quenelle surfaced, Sports Minister Valerie Fourneyron raged against the soccer player’s “shocking, disgusting provocation.”
None of this bodes well for Anelka’s immediate future. England’s Football Association is currently reviewing the incident; if recent tussles over racism on the soccer field are any kind of a yardstick, he is likely to face a lengthy match ban. The fact that Anelka is a seasoned player, with a career that has included stints with top flight teams like Chelsea and Real Madrid, as well as a known trouble-maker who was expelled from France’s 2010 World Cup squad for screaming, “Go fuck yourself, you son of a whore” at then-coach Raymond Domenech, means that England’s football authorities will be that much more reluctant about treating him with a soft touch.
Equally, the unrepentant Anelka can be expected to launch an energetic counterattack, perhaps by arguing that his 2004 conversion to Islam has singled him out for special opprobrium. As Daniel Harris, the author of a widely praised book about present English champions Manchester United, told me in an email, “most telling is the reaction: acceptable people, when confronted with accusations of inadvertent racism, respond with horror, sensitivity, conciliation and mortification, not flippancy, justification, diversion and indignance.”
If “indignance” is the mark of Anelka’s approach to his woes in England, that will doubly be the case with Dieudonné across the Channel. Having skilfully welded the anti-Semitic tropes of the far left and the extreme right to the point that his supporters include both Muslim philosopher Tariq Ramadan and Jean Marie Le Pen, elder statesman of French fascism and godfather to one of the comedian’s children, Dieudonné can smugly assert that whatever legal sanctions are leveled at him, the quenelle, along with the sinister politics it represents, has taken on a life of its own. And, as the images of NBA star Tony Parker doing the quenelle with Dieudonné suggest, even America is not immune.
Ben Cohen, a former BBC producer, is a writer based in New York who publishes frequently on Jewish and international affairs. His Twitter feed is @BenCohenOpinion.