Commentary Magazine


Topic: quenelle

Anti-Semitism Should Not Be Criminalized

The challenge France faces in stemming the tide of a resurgent anti-Semitism has been on full display during the controversy over its now-infamous anti-Semitic comic and the modified Nazi-like salute he has sadly popularized. Both the bigotry and the government’s discomfiting attempts to quash it were neatly summarized in these two sentences from the Associated Press report on Dieudonne M’Bala M’Bala:

The 47-year-old Dieudonne (pronounced DYEU-dun-ay) denies his act — or the “quenelle” — is anti-Semitic. However, he has been convicted more than a half-dozen times for inciting racial hatred or anti-Semitism over the years.

To deny the quenelle is anti-Semitic is merely to insult the public’s intelligence. The modified Nazi salute is accompanied by Dieudonne’s “comedy” in which he laments the lack of gas chambers for French Jews. But that second sentence is problematic as well. He’s been “convicted” time and again for his racism and anti-Semitism. Dieudonne’s hateful act should be shunned, but not by punished by the government. Yet as Dieudonne’s popularity has increased, so has the French government’s authoritarian response–one that should be anathema to a free society:

Nantes and Tours have become the latest French cities to ban a show by controversial comic Dieudonne M’bala M’bala.

Dieudonne, who has six convictions for hate speech against Jews, had been due to open his tour in Nantes on Thursday.

Bordeaux and Marseille had already cancelled performances.

President Francois Hollande earlier urged French officials to enforce an order authorising the ban, but Dieudonne has vowed to appeal.

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The challenge France faces in stemming the tide of a resurgent anti-Semitism has been on full display during the controversy over its now-infamous anti-Semitic comic and the modified Nazi-like salute he has sadly popularized. Both the bigotry and the government’s discomfiting attempts to quash it were neatly summarized in these two sentences from the Associated Press report on Dieudonne M’Bala M’Bala:

The 47-year-old Dieudonne (pronounced DYEU-dun-ay) denies his act — or the “quenelle” — is anti-Semitic. However, he has been convicted more than a half-dozen times for inciting racial hatred or anti-Semitism over the years.

To deny the quenelle is anti-Semitic is merely to insult the public’s intelligence. The modified Nazi salute is accompanied by Dieudonne’s “comedy” in which he laments the lack of gas chambers for French Jews. But that second sentence is problematic as well. He’s been “convicted” time and again for his racism and anti-Semitism. Dieudonne’s hateful act should be shunned, but not by punished by the government. Yet as Dieudonne’s popularity has increased, so has the French government’s authoritarian response–one that should be anathema to a free society:

Nantes and Tours have become the latest French cities to ban a show by controversial comic Dieudonne M’bala M’bala.

Dieudonne, who has six convictions for hate speech against Jews, had been due to open his tour in Nantes on Thursday.

Bordeaux and Marseille had already cancelled performances.

President Francois Hollande earlier urged French officials to enforce an order authorising the ban, but Dieudonne has vowed to appeal.

The Jews of France should hope Dieudonne wins his appeal. As Jonathan noted last week, banning the gesture and Dieudonne’s “comedy” will only make both more popular.

Additionally, such actions will reinforce Dieudonne’s hateful speech. When anti-Semites anywhere propagandize about malign Jewish influence on their beloved countries, the last thing that would discredit them would be for the Jewish minority to appear to prevail on the government to outlaw anti-Jewish remarks and take away the livelihood of its proponents.

More specifically, the French actions risk retroactively buttressing Dieudonne’s protestation that the quenelle is an “anti-establishment” sign, not an anti-Jewish gesture. Once the government outlaws it and those who use it, the quenelle goes from being anti-Semitic to also being anti-establishment. (Is anything more anti-establishment than a government-banned hand gesture?)

The controversy over the quenelle takes place against the backdrop of Europe’s decades-long struggle to learn the right lessons from the Holocaust. One of those efforts–well-intentioned and an outgrowth of the earlier attempts to get the continent’s surviving Nazis assimilated back into society–was to criminalize Holocaust denial. Unfortunately, criminalizing speech is its own form of legitimization: only dangerous, seductive ideas must be forbidden to be defeated. The exception of course is speech that incites violence, and there is unfortunately a thin line, especially in Europe, between anti-Semitic speech and anti-Semitic violence.

Thus the laws against Holocaust denial and similar hateful speech are part of a genuine desire to grapple with balancing freedom and security. In its 2007 write-up of the Holocaust denial conviction of Ernst Zuendel, the New York Times included this aside:

Interestingly, Mr. Zuendel had spent much of his adult life in Canada — having lived and worked there since 1958, and where he wrote a little book called “The Hitler We Loved and Why.” But the Canadians decided he was a security threat in 2005 and sent him back to Germany.

It can be tempting to consider hate speech a security threat. The two can work in tandem without being equated, but it’s always a struggle for countries–especially those that don’t have a First Amendment–to decide where to draw the line. And European countries dealing with the terrible combination of past genocide and present anti-Semitism should be commended for their desire make pariahs of those who pine for the days of state-sponsored extermination.

But those ideas–when they remain ideas, and not battlefield cries–should be defeated by a society, not outlawed by the government. Jailing anti-Semites for their opinions won’t reduce anti-Semitism. Incarceration can deter action, but it’s unlikely to alleviate grievance, and anyway it is an unjust method of changing minds. The same goes for the government banning “comedians” whose act offends basic notions of decency.

It’s also worth reminding the Jews of Europe that their religious beliefs contain ideas that the modern secular left consider offensive as well. They may find that a heavyhanded government enforcing a standard of righteous thought is on their side this time. If they think it will stay that way, then they, too, have unlearned the lessons of the past.

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More than a Gesture Behind Euro Jew-Hate

Most of us may not have heard of it until recently, but the quenelle, the name given to a hand gesture that is a downward facing Nazi salute, has become an important symbol of the shift in European culture in recent years. Created by Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala, an anti-Semitic French comedian, the quenelle is now all the rage in France. Soccer players do it after scoring goals and the comic’s fans, including soldiers, send him pictures in which it is performed in every conceivable manner, especially at sites like Holocaust memorials, synagogues, and schools. Even Tony Parker, a French citizen and an American basketball star of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs, has had his picture taken performing it with Dieudonné, as he is known on stage, though Parker has since apologized. As such it is an all-too-pertinent example of how Jew hatred has moved from the margins of European society to the mainstream as a result of what the U.S. State Department has termed a “rising tide” of anti-Semitism.

Though M’Bala M’Bala claims the gesture is nothing more than an “anti-system” inside joke, his attempts at humor tend to revolve around resentment against Jews. That allows the jest to be the not-so-secret handshake that brings disaffected Muslim immigrants together with the denizens of the far right in a shared community of hate in which Jewish targets are the punch lines. But while French authorities, including sports league officials, are seeking to discourage its use, the problem here is a lot bigger than one foul-mouthed show-business personality and his followers.

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Most of us may not have heard of it until recently, but the quenelle, the name given to a hand gesture that is a downward facing Nazi salute, has become an important symbol of the shift in European culture in recent years. Created by Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala, an anti-Semitic French comedian, the quenelle is now all the rage in France. Soccer players do it after scoring goals and the comic’s fans, including soldiers, send him pictures in which it is performed in every conceivable manner, especially at sites like Holocaust memorials, synagogues, and schools. Even Tony Parker, a French citizen and an American basketball star of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs, has had his picture taken performing it with Dieudonné, as he is known on stage, though Parker has since apologized. As such it is an all-too-pertinent example of how Jew hatred has moved from the margins of European society to the mainstream as a result of what the U.S. State Department has termed a “rising tide” of anti-Semitism.

Though M’Bala M’Bala claims the gesture is nothing more than an “anti-system” inside joke, his attempts at humor tend to revolve around resentment against Jews. That allows the jest to be the not-so-secret handshake that brings disaffected Muslim immigrants together with the denizens of the far right in a shared community of hate in which Jewish targets are the punch lines. But while French authorities, including sports league officials, are seeking to discourage its use, the problem here is a lot bigger than one foul-mouthed show-business personality and his followers.

At a time when the efforts of European intellectual elites to delegitimize Israel has frequently crossed the line into anti-Semitism, and the growing population of North Africans and Africans have brought their own brand of traditional animus toward Jews onto the continent, the quenelle is the perfect example of the changed atmosphere in Europe and the way practitioners of Jew hatred have managed to portray themselves as trendy rather than throwbacks to the Holocaust.

The conceit of the quenelle is that it can claim to be a counter-cultural symbol, as distinct from those directly associated with traditional anti-Semitism or Nazism. Since in many European countries, and France in particular, hate speech is banned, the furor over the quenelle’s breakout into mainstream culture has led to a discussion about whether the gesture should become illegal as well as if Dieudonné’s shows, which feature soi-disant humorous rants about Jewish “slave drivers” manipulating ordinary people and complaints about claims of Jewish victimhood, should also be prohibited.

This is a mistake, since although France has a strong tradition of government intervention in affairs in which authorities should stay out of, banning either the gesture or the performer will raise justified complaints about rights of free speech as well as making Dieudonné into a victim rather than a perpetrator. More to the point, the exclusive focus on the comedian, which has brought him international notoriety and exposure that he could never have hoped to achieve with his limited artistic appeal, misses the point about the popularity of the gesture and the simmering hate that it exposes.

The quenelle fad, which Dieudonné not unreasonably terms a success, is merely a symptom, not the disease. This outbreak is inconceivable outside the context of the non-stop incitement against Jews that masquerades as criticism of Israel or Zionism that has become a mainstream element of both elite as well as popular European culture. In the decades following the Holocaust this would have been confined to the fever swamps of the far right or far left, but the old constraints against Jew-hatred have slipped away in recent years. At a time when Jewish religious practices such as circumcision and kosher slaughter are under legal attack in many European countries and Israel has become the whipping boy of the international community, traditional hate has become acceptable so long as it operates under the cloak of anti-Zionism.

What is needed in France is not a ban on the quenelle but a determination by politicians, opinion leaders, and cultural figures to fight back against this new variant strain of anti-Semitism. But with so many of the cultural elites there–as well as in other Western European nations–so closely associated with the demonization of Israel, such a campaign may not be possible.

When people are having their pictures taken performing the quenelle in front of a Jewish school in Toulouse where Jews were massacred by a Muslim shooter, as has reportedly happened, France may have reached the tipping point where it is no longer safe for Jews. If Europe truly wishes to avoid the flight of the remnants of Jewry that has put down new roots there since 1945, it must recognize that its problem is mainstream Jew hatred, not a rogue comedian.

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