Nicolas Anelka had every reason to celebrate. In late December, on the downside of a long and winding career, the talented footballer had just scored his first English Premier League goal in over two years.
He could have raced around the pitch mobbed by teammates, taken in the adulation of tens of thousands of fans, or shown any other natural expression of excitement. He didn’t.
Instead, he stood stone-faced and sober, and performed the “quenelle” gesture, the Nazi-like salute invented and popularized by Anelka’s rabidly anti-Semitic friend, French “comedian” and provocateur Dieudonne M’bala M’bala.
What is the appropriate response of civilized sports world?
Politicians got off to a good start by condemning the act. French Sports Minister Valerie Fourneyron properly characterized Anelka’s gesture a “shocking, disgusting provocation.” The press also reported widely on the controversy, demonstrating a keen sense of its importance.
But the Football Association’s Independent Regulatory Commission assigned to mete out appropriate punishment has blown it. After over two months of investigation, the commission made the spineless decision that there was “no proof” the gesture was necessarily anti-Semitic, and slapped Anelka on the wrist with its minimum possible punishment: a five-match suspension.
The FA has announced they may appeal for a harsher sentence. They should. Anelka should be banned from the game, and the quenelle should be banned from the sport.
That may at first sound like an over-reaction, but it is not. This is a defining moment in sport; how this incident is handled will have long-term societal consequences.
A quenelle, as we all now know, is essentially a Nazi salute rotated 90 degrees downward. While Dieudonne disingenuously claims his salute is merely “anti-establishment,” his history indicates just who he considers that establishment to be.
He has been serially convicted (seven times so far) and fined tens of thousands of Euros for anti-Semitic hate speech, defamation of Jews, mockery of the Holocaust and publicly insulting and defaming the Jewish people.
Known as France’s most notorious anti-Semite, he has run for European Parliament as head of the Euro-Palestine Party and the Anti-Zionist Party. He has performed a televised comedy sketch dressed as an ultra-orthodox Jew, ending the piece with a Nazi salute and shouting “Isra-Heil.” Haha.
He calls the Jews “a fraud” and Holocaust remembrance “memorial pornography.” In his 2012 film, “The Anti-Semite,” his character declares that “the Jews control everything…We must exterminate them.” What a comedian.
Just weeks ago, Dieudonne was recorded onstage saying about prominent French Jewish radio journalist Patrick Cohen: “Me, you see, when I hear Patrick Cohen speak, I think to myself: ‘Gas chambers…too bad [they no longer exist]’.” Hilarious.
The Independent has called him a “French Louis Farrakhan…obsessed with Jews.” That may well be unfair to Farrakhan.
His supporters have taken to posting photos on the internet of themselves in quenelle salute in Jewishly sensitive places, including Nazi death camps and other Holocaust sites, the Wailing Wall, synagogues, and even in front of the Toulouse Jewish school where a Muslim terrorist murdered four Jews–three of them children–last March.
Everyone–including Anelka–knows what Dieudonne stands for. To accept Anelka’s claim that he was shocked that his quenelle caused offence, as it was meant merely as a salute to his good friend, requires the suspension of disbelief.
Today, everyone knows what the quenelle suggests. It is the barely covert Nazi salute used where the overt salute would be illegal or unacceptable. It is a subversive symbol of Jew-hatred created by a man consumed by Jew-hatred.
The rising popularity of the quenelle is a worrisome trend. It reflects a widening anti-Semitic streak in a culture already too accepting of anti-Jewish behaviour and expression.
And football culture is already too susceptible to racial and ethnic tensions which often boil over to physical violence. The last thing the sport needs is the popularization of the quenelle.
While Anelka at first promised not to quenelle again, he refused to apologize for his act. The legitimization of anti-Semitic acts by players who, like it or not, serve as role models for youth is particularly dangerous. It does not take long for outrageous behaviour on the field to make its way into schools and onto playgrounds.
Anelka’s West Bromwich Albion team initially stated that, “The Club will continue to make its own enquiries – a process which will remain confidential between the Club and Nicolas.” That is as woefully inadequate as it is wrongheaded. The quenelle was a public act with public implications; this is no private matter. How long will it be before some of Anelka’s West Brom fans add the gesture to their repertoire of cheers?
Barely a month ago, the world observed International Holocaust Remembrance Day. As with every year’s observance, the air was filled with sincere, moving speeches vowing to never again allow genocidal hatred to take root, especially in European soil. The FA has an opportunity to give such words real effect. The FA should ban the quenelle. And ban Anelka.