Top French soccer player Nicolas Anelka made what is regarded as a neo-Nazi-style, anti-Semitic salute to celebrate scoring a goal in the English Premier League on Saturday.

The “quenelle” signal is rapidly spreading among anti-Semites in Europe and is being used by individuals to fly under the radar of strict anti-hate speech laws in parts of the continent. The signal, extending one’s right hand toward the ground while the left hand grasps the shoulder, was devised by Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, a controversial French comedian who has been condemned in court several times for anti-Semitic remarks.

Israel’s Sport 2 TV Channel, which broadcast the game and whose commentator condemned Anelka for the signal, said the soccer player had previously been photographed with Dieudonné making the salute.

Anelka made the gesture Saturday after scoring in his team West Bromwich Albion’s game against West Ham United in the English Premier League. The player could be penalized if the act is deemed to be offensive by soccer authorities.

England’s Football Association opened an investigation into the incident.

Over the past two months, the “quenelle” trend has gained popularity, prompting hundreds of Europeans to post pictures of themselves online performing the heil-like salute. Many of the images were taken at sensitive sites such as in the Auschwitz concentration camp, the Anne Frank House and even the Western Wall.

Anelka, a former French national team star who has played for top clubs including Arsenal and Real Madrid, converted to Islam in 2004.

Anelka’s club coach, Keith Downing, said after the game that the player had not intended offense by making the gesture. “It is dedicated to a French comedian he knows very, very well. [The comedian] uses it in his act and I think speculation can be stopped now; it is absolute rubbish really. [Anelka] is totally unaware of what the problems were or the speculation that has been thrown around; he is totally surprised by it.”

Use of the “quenelle” is “gaining more and more momentum, is very pervasive on the internet and social networks, and is increasingly becoming a symbol of the Nazi regime, and does not look like a passing phenomenon,” Yaakov Hagouel, the Head of the World Zionist Organization’s Department for Combating Antisemitism, told Hebrew website Ynet earlier this month.

In France, displaying Nazi symbols is illegal if done to cause offense. But the quenelle may not be prosecutable. It is just similar enough to the Nazi salute to make its meaning clear, but not so similar that the gesture could be subject to criminal charges.

“The quenelle is too vague to be treated like a Nazi salute,” Anne-Sophie Laguens, a former secretary of the conference of lawyers of the Paris bar association, wrote in a legal analysis published in September in the Le Nouvel Observateur weekly.

Until recently, most Frenchmen knew the word quenelle to mean a sort of dumpling or cookie. But after Dieudonne appropriated the word to refer to a salute of his own invention, the gesture has taken on anti-Semitic overtones.

French comedian Dieudonne M'bala M'bala performing the quenelle in 2008 (photo credit: YouTube screenshot)

French comedian Dieudonne M’bala M’bala performing the quenelle in 2008 (photo credit: YouTube screenshot)

Dieudonne, a professed anti-Semite, Hamas supporter and Holocaust denier, was convicted last month for a seventh time of incitement against Jews and slapped with a $36,000 fine. Like the Nazi salute, the quenelle is seen as a variant of the Roman salute and, considering its inventor’s penchant for defiance of France’s anti-Nazi laws, is understood to challenge the prohibition on performing the Nazi salute.

“It’s an inverted Nazi salute,” Roger Cukierman, president of the CRIF Jewish umbrella group, told the French media recently.

The quenelle is of a piece with Dieudonne’s coining of the term “shoananas,” a mashup of the Hebrew word for Holocaust and the French word for pineapple that is seen as a safe way to suggest the Holocaust is a myth while not running afoul of French laws prohibiting Holocaust denial. Dieudonne fans have taken to performing the quenelle next to pineapples.

Laguens’ analysis of the legal implications of the quenelle came days after a young man sitting in the audience of a prime-time television show performed it while smiling for the camera. A Facebook user identified as Leo Romano planned a “quenelle party” for Dec. 22 in eastern France, but on Tuesday he said he had been summoned to the office of France’s domestic intelligence agency.

A young man displays the quenelle in front of the main gate of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp (photo credit: YouTube screenshot)

A young man displays the quenelle in front of the main gate of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp (photo credit: YouTube screenshot)

“It’s an anti-establishment gesture, not a racist or anti-Semitic one, as the media would have you believe to discredit us,” he wrote on his Facebook page.

Outside France, the quenelle is virtually unknown. This has allowed the users of anti-Semitic Internet forums to relish the irony of photographs of French tourists performing the quenelle while posing with an oblivious Israeli soldier and at the Western Wall.

But in France, the gesture is being treated with increasing seriousness by government officials. In a statement recently, President Francois Hollande suggested his government would move to undermine the sense of legal impunity now enjoyed by those who perform the quenelle.

“We will act, with the government led by [Prime Minister] Jean-Marc Ayrault, to shake the tranquility which, under the cover of anonymity, facilitates shameful actions online,” Hollande said. “But also we will fight against the sarcasm of those who purport to be humorists but are actually professional anti-Semites.”

JTA contributed to this report.