In simpler days, a quenelle was just a food item, popular in French cuisine, made up of fish, meat, cheese, mashed potatoes—it could be almost anything, really–wrapped in a small dumpling-like exterior; an “elegant, football-shaped” endeavor, far more refined than, say, a traditional scoop of ice cream. Some believe the word originates from the German “knödel,” meaning dumpling, though that’s apparently up for etymological and gastronomical debate. (Here’s a helpful video of a chef making a quenelle, if you’d like a topical last-minute addition to your New Year’s Eve menu.)
How, then, did the quenelle come to be the controversial gesture du jour, the ‘reverse Nazi salute’ that has the world’s attention, and has French Jews (and their American counterparts) crying foul? The gesture was created and popularized by Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, the Cameroonian-French comedian and political provocateur—known primarily by his first name, like Madonna—who has described Judaism as “a sect, a fraud, which is the worst of all, because it was the first,” and who this month was found guilty of defamation, libel, and incitement to hatred and racial discrimination by a French court.
But back to the quenelle, an object BBC News explains Dieudonné once reportedly expressed a desire to put “up the backside of Zionists,” and a gesture he’s incorporated into his various routines since as early as 2005:
The gesture involves touching or gripping your shoulder with one hand while holding the palm of your other hand outstretched and pointing to the ground. Some describe it as a combination of the bras d’honneur with a bent arm (which means “up yours”) and the Nazi salute.
Also, a nifty way to avoid trouble for giving a Nazi salute, which is outlawed in France.
Who’s done it recently? French soldiers outside a synagogue in Paris, who were later sanctioned by the army. French soccer star Nicolas Anelka, who plays for West Bromwich Albion in the Premier League, did a celebratory post-goal quenelle, which he said was in solidarity with Dieudonné and for which he will likely be suspended. NBA player Tony Parker, meanwhile, apologized after the ADL and Simon Wiesenthal Center slammed him for a photograph in which he does the quenelle with Dieudonné himself.
And now you know.
Stephanie Butnick is deputy editor of Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.