After much foot-dragging, the English Football Association (FA) last week finally acted over Nicolas Anelka’s infamous “quenelle” gesture. Sadly, its ruling was somewhat confusing, concluding that the gesture is anti-Semitic, but that Anelka did not intend to express or promote anti-Semitism. And yet, as Anelka admitted, his quenelle was a message of support and solidarity for his friend Dieudonne M’bala M’bala, a man convicted of anti-Semitic hate speech on seven occasions, infamous in Anelka’s native France precisely for his bigotry.
The idea, as the FA would have us believe, that Anelka was unaware of the quenelle’s true meaning is disingenuous at best. Although the FA laudably ordered that Anelka attend an education programme, it is perhaps the FA which also needs some schooling. The quenelle stands for something very sinister. It is part of a dangerous new face of anti-Semitism which cannot be left unchecked. Sadly, the FA is not doing all it might to kick it out of football.
The damning evidence that Anelka’s quenelle celebration of a rare goal was nothing more than an endorsement of anti-Semitism, should have been clear-cut for the FA. It is the trademark of the French comedian Dieudonne, who makes Holocaust denial a key attraction of his repertoire. The French authorities have sought to ban his performances and France’s sports minister called Anelka’s gesture a “sickening” incitement to racial hatred. If any doubt remained over the anti-Semitic nature of the quenelle, a cursory glance online at where Dieudonne’s fans have replicated his salute speak for themselves – Anne Frank’s house, Jewish museums, synagogues, Auschwitz.
And yet despite this, the FA remains unsure of Anelka’s intentions.
In some respects, the FA’s hesitancy makes sense. For the vast majority of football fans and the public in general, anti-Semitism is most likely considered the preserve of white supremacists. And herein lies the problem. They have yet to comprehend that anti-Semitism doesn’t wear jackboots and black shirts anymore.
The symbols and language of anti-Semitism alter over time, but its target remains the same. And so the cross of the Crusades became the stiff right arm of fascism which has now morphed into the quenelle.
Where the cross was once a rallying call against the “infidels” and the Nazi salute a battle cry against “world finance,” the quenelle is explained by both Anelka and Dieudonne as a mere protest against “the establishment.” The euphemism needs no translation for those who propagate it or those it is aimed at.
When Dieudonne lambasts “the establishment” he means Jews. His routine depiction of Jews as malevolent puppet-masters manipulating society is nothing less than a classic anti-Semitic canard.
We should be in no doubt over the impact of this latest brand of anti-Semitism. The French innercity banlieues in which Dieudonne is hero-worshiped by many are simply no-go areas to openly identifiable Jews. And they have good reason to fear. These are the neighborhoods which produced the gang that repeatedly tortured and eventually killed the young Jewish man Ilan Halimi in 2006 in a calculated and brutal attack. The French courts and the country’s attorney-general sited anti-Semitism as a principle motive for the attack. These are the same sprawling housing projects which spawned the gunman who shot and killed a teacher and three children at a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012.
The Dieudonne sympathizer who proudly photographed himself flashing a quenelle outside the very same school underlines how pernicious the new face of anti-Semitism really is. And it is this odious and deeply disturbing sub-culture to which Anelka’s salute pays homage.
Dieudonne’s brand of anti-Semitism is so dangerous precisely because it aims to deceive. The quenelle cleverly skirts the boundaries of the law while retaining the unmistakable whiff of prejudice. Rabble-rousing against the “establishment” is hardly illicit and yet it is also a nod and a wink toward bigotry.
But the obfuscation doesn’t end there. Another unmistakable target of Dieudonne’s bile is Zionism and Israel. He headed an avowed anti-Zionist party in the 2007 French election, which pledged to “Stop Zionist interference in the Nation’s public affairs.” In a 2010 interview, Dieudonne said, “France is being led by Zionists, who, frankly, try to put things in an order that serves their interests,” and pledged to “celebrate” Israel’s imminent destruction. This is not the anti-Zionism of a protester opposing current Israeli government policy. This is the anti-Zionism of frenzied “Jewish power” conspiracy theories.
Let’s be clear, criticism of Israeli government policy is more than legitimate – it is a daily pastime for swathes of the Israeli public and media. But it must be clearly distinguished from the demonization of the State of Israel in its entirety, the treatment of all Israelis as a uniform mass, somehow to blame for the decisions of their government. When the citizens of the world’s only Jewish state are held collectively responsible in this way, treated differently from the rest of the family of nations, such behavior is discrimination, pure and simple.
Dieudonne has mastered the art of blurring the lines between pseudo- political statement and outright prejudice. It is a boundary which those who oversee English football continue to view with a worrying lack of clarity. Last season, Israeli striker Itay Shechter was forced to stay at home while his Swansea City team-mates traveled to Dubai for warm-weather winter training.
Shechter was denied entry simply because he holds an Israeli passport, purely because of where he happened to be born. There is a very simple word to describe discrimination based on nationality – it’s called racism. And yet, there was not a word of objection or protest against this unsavory bigotry, not from the FA, nor the Premier League.
Sadly, Shechter’s case is far from isolated. Yossi Benayoun and Yaniv Katan were both left behind when West Ham trained in Dubai in 2006 and midfielder Tamir Cohen was forced to sit out Bolton Wanderers’ trip to Dubai in 2009. It is true that Israel and Dubai do not enjoy diplomatic relations. Yet, Israeli tennis star Shahar Pe’er was eventually permitted to compete in the Dubai Tennis Championships in 2010 after Andy Roddick admirably withdrew from the men’s tournament in solidarity and the Women’s Tennis Association forcefully protested. It is hard to believe that the Premier League, one of the world’s most lucrative sporting brands, could not have prevented the exclusion of Shechter, Benayoun, Katan and Cohen by flexing its significant corporate muscle.
If the punishment meted out by the FA to Anelka reflects a genuine comprehension of the quenelle’s significance and the brand of anti-Semitism it represents, then English football’s governing body will also right the wrong of naked prejudice toward Israelis. Anelka has abused one of the globe’s highest-profile sporting stages to give oxygen to the toxic views of Dieudonne. Now the FA can use the very same platform to truly turn the tables on the quenelle and make an important moral statement. By clarifying that Israeli players cannot and must not be excluded on grounds of nationality, the FA would send an important message to the football world and beyond. They would show a true understanding that combating anti-Semitism isn’t only about tackling clichéd 1930s fascism, but also the 2014 version of the longest hatred.
The author is a seasoned PR and communications professional based in Tel Aviv. www.koskycommunications.com.