Many of us recently learned a new word from various media sources: “Quenelle.”
The word’s true meaning in French is “fish dumpling.”
Now, though, it has come to mean a gesture – one hand pointed downward, the other touching the shoulder. Move the arm out and in front of the head – images of Nazi rallies come to mind. In fact, French Interior Minister Manuel Valls is quoted as calling it an “inverted Nazi salute.”
The gesture has been popularized by DieudonnÃ© M’Bala M’Bala, a French stand-up comic, who says that the quenelle isn’t meant to be anti-Semitic – it’s really more of a “shove it” gesture, aimed at the French government.
Undoubtedly there were some in 1930s Germany who said that the “Heil Hitler” gesture was nothing to worry about.
But now people are taking photos of themselves doing the quenelle in front of synagogues or Jewish businesses. There’s even one photo of a man doing the quenelle in front of the Toulouse synagogue where Al-Quaeda operatives murdered four Jews in 2012.
We note, with some measure of relief, that France’s top security official wants to ban the comedian and his unfunny gesture from any stage.
What is also scary is that groups that otherwise hate one another, such as Muslims and France’s far right, are finding, through the quenelle, that they have anti-Semitism in common.
Indeed, even such sports stars as the Belgian-born Tony Parker of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs and his teammate Boris Diaw, who is French, have been photographed doing the quenelle. Parker later apologized, saying that he had no idea that the gesture might be anti-Semitic.
While we are all for freedom of speech and the press, there is way too much history in this part of Europe demonstrating the ways in which words and gestures can lead to violence and marginalization. The French Jewish community already is embattled; often Jews in Paris – both natives and visitors – find it prudent to remove their kippot, for safety’s sake.
DieudonnÃ© has been convicted in French courts on several occasions for inciting racial hatred or anti-Semitism. He’s been quoted as calling 2014 “the year of the quenelle.”
This comedian isn’t funny.
He should be booed offstage. And we should not ignore the fact that gestures such as the quenelle represent the lava-hot ooze of French anti-Semitism, just looking for a place to erupt.