Several athletes have recently been condemned for employing “the quenelle,” a one-armed salute critics say is a neo-Nazi gesture. Originated by a notorious French antisemitic comedian, the gesture, named for a French fish croquette, sees the perpetrators folding an arm across their chest with the other arm extended downward. Defenders say it is does not have racist connotations but is merely, depending on the telling, an “anti-establishment” gesture or an offensive move roughly equivalent to the middle finger. It has apparently been popular for years among French young people, but has risen to prominence after numerous incidents on the playing fields of Europe. American basketball star Tony Parker, who is from France, may have brought the quenelle to North American attention. He apologized, claiming he did not understand the gesture’s political or racial implications. What the quenelle means, according to a French Jewish communal leader, is clear and threatening.
“The gesture has gained popularity amongst young people, and reunites extremists from the Islamist camp, the extreme right and left, as well as revolutionaries with one common objective: the fight against the ‘Tel Aviv-Washington axis’ as well as Jewish power and Zionism,” Simone Rodan-Benzaquen, director of the Paris office of the American Jewish Committee, told JNS.org.
The act of folding an arm across the chest is an oblique move that, to the untrained eye, seems innocuous enough. This has allowed many, if not most, of the public figures caught performing the gesture to claim they did not know what they were doing. On the other hand, those who post to social media pictures of themselves doing the quenelle in front of synagogues, Holocaust memorials and the Jewish school in Toulouse, France, where a rabbi and three children were murdered in 2012, know precisely the significance of the salute.
French government officials are flummoxed about what to do. The country has extensive legal proscriptions against the promotion of racial hatred and the expression of hate speech, but the silent simplicity of the quenelle may, in some ways, endow it with its power while making it especially challenging to outlaw. The French government is pursuing means to ban the comedian who created the quenelle, Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, from performing or speaking in public. Of course, “outlawing” racism is rarely effective, and the apparent spread of the quenelle is a reminder that France and other European countries have a lot of work to do in confronting hatred.
If those who perform the quenelle gesture are sometimes able to hide behind ignorance and ambiguity over its meaning, another troubling sports-related incident is unambiguous.
A Dutch football (i.e., soccer) team jetted off to Abu Dhabi for a match, leaving one of its players behind in the Netherlands. Dan Mori, a defender for the Arnhem-based team Vitesse, is an Israeli Jew – and Emirates officials told the team Mori would not be permitted to enter the country. The team went anyway, asking Mori to stay behind.
In the team’s defence, the communications director claims the team “stays away from politics and religion. We have always done this. We are a soccer club.”
There may well be a damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don’t aspect to situations where external forces demand that people take a stand, or don’t. In sending the team to the game without its Israeli player, the team in no way stayed away from politics; they implicitly endorsed the racist policies of the United Arab Emirates.
Just as some quenelle perpetrators say they didn’t understand the meaning behind their actions, the Dutch soccer team may view the Emirati diktat as a position based on regional geopolitics of which Arnhem footballers know little. In fact, the exclusion of Israelis from Arab countries has always had the distinctive aroma of something more invidious than mere politics. It smells of the same effluence that has seen almost every Jewish community chased out of the Arab world in the past several decades.
People can say they do not understand the implications of their actions, plead innocence and insist they do not get involved in political disputes. But actions have consequences, and we each have an obligation to educate ourselves about the bad company we may join with our own seemingly innocent actions.