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.