French soccer player Nicolas Anelka spurred controversy Saturday after flashing what supporters have called an innocuous gesture in celebration of his first goal with West Bromwich Albion. The gesture — called a “quenelle” and sometimes described as a reverse Nazi salute, with one arm extended downward and the other hand touching its shoulder — has once again raised accusations of anti-Semitism in a sport that has a long and complicated history with Jews.
At the very least, Anelka should have know better, given recent, high-profile backlash against anti-Semitism in soccer. In March, Greek footballer Giorgos Katidis was banned for life from the national team after giving a Nazi salute, despite his protests that he was unaware of the gesture’s meaning. In November 2012, some West Ham United fans were arrested and banned by the club for participating in crowdwide taunting of Tottenham, a team with strong associations to the Jewish community. The horrific showing involved a coordinated Nazi salute, chanting, and hissing to mimic the sound of gas chambers, and came just days after a Spurs fan had been stabbed in Rome in a suspected hate crime. West Ham fans denied that their actions were racially motivated, insisting that the gestures and chants were just part of their usual rally cry, “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles.”
Anelka is taking the same approach, claiming his use of the quenelle was misunderstood. After making the gesture, he defended himself on Twitter, insisting that the quenelle was simply a tribute to a friend, and even posting a photo of what he said was President Barack Obama making the same gesture. Both claims are dubious: Obama was, in fact, mimicking the gesture from the Jay Z classic “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” alongside the rapper himself; and the friend Anelka was honoring has an anti-Semitic streak that is anything but simple.
You see, the quenelle is the invention and trademark of Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala, a French comedian and anti-Semitic activist whose humor and politics tend to come at the expense of Holocaust victims. According to the BBC, the gesture is a variation on the bras d’honneur, which means “up yours,” and can be traced back to the comedian’s performances as well as his 2009 campaign for a seat in the European Parliament as the head of an anti-Zionist party. The BBC notes that Dieudonné “once said he would like to put a quenelle — a rugby-ball-shaped serving of fish or meat paste — up the backside of Zionists.” The comedian has been repeatedly fined and convicted for hate speech, and the French Interior Ministry is exploring its legal options in banning Dieudonné from the public sphere.
The controversy has extended to U.S. shores, with San Antonio Spurs guard Tony Parker drawing criticism for making the quenelle alongside the comedian in a recently circulated photo. The Belgium-born NBA star and French citizen apologized today for the three-year-old photo, saying he was unaware of the offensive connotation of the gesture and hoping that this can serve as a teachable moment for those who dismiss it as a harmless part of French culture.
Anelka’s supporters, including Dieudonné himself, euphemistically maintain that the gesture isn’t anti-Semitic, it’s anti-establishment. Coming from someone who’s paranoid that the establishment is run by Jews, the two aren’t mutually exclusive, and the distinction isn’t exactly reassuring. Dieudonné’s rise in the public eye has mirrored a rise in anti- Semitic violence in France, a country with half a million Jewish residents, the third-largest Jewish population behind the U.S. and Israel. A 2007 profile of Dieudonné in The New Yorker traces many of these attacks to the comedian’s status as a folk hero among the North African immigrants living in ghettos outside of Paris, who have found themselves at the heart of burgeoning xenophobia, with white French citizens viewing demographic shifts as a threat to their national identity. Dieudonné has found a following among the far-left immigrants and youths who far too easily fall into the ancient trap of scapegoating the Jewish population for broad, societal issues, from the ills of capitalism to racism. The New Yorker’s Tom Reiss wrote about the movement:
“Dieudonné is the spokesman, the godfather, the icon of a new kind of anti-Semitism,” Alain Finkielkraut, the philosopher and memoirist of Jewish identity, told me. “It is an explicitly anti-racist anti-Semitism, which inverts traditional anti-Semitism by asserting that the Nazis today are in fact the Jews. The idiom of anti-Semitism is no longer racism; it is now anti-racism. Dieudonné’s followers say that they don’t hate Jews, they hate Jewish racism. They say that Israel is like Nazism, like apartheid.”
The French divide along color lines is especially stark in soccer. In 2011, reports that the national team had met to discuss instituting racial quotas drew ire, a far cry from the unity inspired by the 1998 World Cup champion team that boasted as its hallmark “Black, Blanc, Beur” — black, white, Arab. That success was short-lived, with far-right politicians questioning the very Frenchness of players of African descent, highlighted by the very public calling-out by National Front leader Jean- Marie Le Pen of captain Zinedine Zidane, whose parents emigrated from Algeria under French rule. A recent report by the American Center for Democracy that uses soccer as a measure for immigrant integration in Europe notes the social and cultural disintegration that has occurred in France as a result of political dysfunction and economic failure is highlighted in soccer’s inability to reconcile its racial issues.
And so we return to sports. By flashing the gesture, Anelka — himself the child of Caribbean immigrants — emboldened legions of fans caught in the midst of convoluted and often contradictory racial tension to follow the lead of an opportunistic comedian and his anti-Semitic message. We don’t know if Anelka himself is anti-Semitic, and it doesn’t really matter: What does matter is how the gesture can be interpreted to further an agenda meant to divide, not unite. It would serve him best to simply stay out of these political issues that are far more complicated than he probably realizes. At least someone in the footballer’s camp has advised him as such: West Brom confirmed today that Anelka would refrain from using the quenelle going forward. It seems it’s much easier to dismiss an innocent gesture when you’re unaware of its harmful implications.
Kavitha A. Davidson is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes about sports. Follow her on Twitter at @kavithadavidson
Photo: Dan Brown via Flickr