Back in January, we reported here on the way a heretofore-obscure French comedian had popularized the quenelle — a downward facing Nazi salute — had become the symbol of a crucial shift in European culture in which anti-Semitism had become fashionable in some segments of popular culture. Months after Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala had started making international headlines, he has finally made the front page of the New York Times today with a feature that ponders whether efforts by French authorities to crack own on his activities have helped make him even more popular. As Seth Mandell previously noted, efforts to restrict free speech in this manner — even the sort of hateful, Holocaust-denying speech practiced by Dieudonné — are bound to backfire and this is exactly what has happened in France. Dieudonné’s audience hasn’t just increased as a result of rulings banning his performances and fining him for Holocaust denial have enabled him to bridge the vast gap between Muslim immigrants and right-wing French nationalists who share their hatred for Jews.
This is bad news for France and Europe. But the problem here goes deeper than the way the measures employed by government authorities and Jewish groups to punish Dieudonné have predictably boomeranged on them and turned him into a counter-cultural hero. This depressing spectacle can be represented as something new in which social media and the Internet have provided a forum for disgruntled people looking for a spokesman for their desire to use the Jews as a convenient scapegoat for their troubles. But Dieudonné is merely the latest outbreak of the same old European sickness that produced the very Holocaust that the comedian has tried to deny.
This episode demonstrates the problems that stem from the lack of American-style First Amendment free speech protections. Though France’s history of anti-Semitism in which both governments and the official church have played major roles is cited as a reason why hate speech an Holocaust denial are treated as criminal acts, Dieudonné illustrates the pitfalls of taking a marginal figure and elevating him to the status of a public menace. That had the perverse effect of justifying the anti-Semitic narrative in which Jews are falsely accused of manipulating society rather than defending it against hate.
But the real story here isn’t the failure of those who care about anti-Semitism to do something to derail Dieudonné’s popularity. It’s the fact that there is such a large audience in France and elsewhere in Europe for humor that is based on resentment of Jews. Though his appeal has been enhanced by the government’s decision to give him all this free publicity, the reason why his videos have gone viral on the Internet is that he has given a fresh voice to old prejudices.
Muslim immigrants brought their own brand of Jew-hatred to France where it found a home alongside the other variations on the same theme voiced by Jean-Marie and Marine Le Pen’s Front National Party. The result is a toxic brew of prejudice that seeks to channel the resentments of the poor and the working class against Jews. This is exacerbated by the same trends that prevail around Europe in which elite and academic attacks on Israel have merged with traditional anti-Semitism to create an even broader base for Jew-hatred.
But, as the Times points out, the most dangerous aspect of Dieudonné’s impact is the way he is seeking to mainstream hate. The troubling rise in anti-Semitic violence in France isn’t taking place in a vacuum or merely the result of one man’s weak attempts at satire. It is well understood that the post-Holocaust reticence about expressions of open anti-Semitism has faded in recent decades in Europe. The combination of intellectual Jew-hatred which masquerading as anti-Zionism with Dieudonné’s jokes about the Holocaust can “connect with the masses” in the same way that pervious waves of anti-Semitism swept France at the turn of the 20th century during the Dreyfus Affair as well as in the 1930s.
Rather than focus all their energy on one rogue entertainer, Europeans who care about stamping out hate need to ask whether his ability to tap into old hatreds says something about other aspects of their society. Anti-Semitism isn’t merely the product of the banlieues — working class suburbs — where immigrant families live but a factor that has played a role in politics and culture for centuries. What they need are not more laws restricting anti-Semitic speech but a nationwide soul-searching about the way Jew-hatred has been enabled by a broader group than those laughing at Dieudonné’s jokes.