Amid a public debate in France over the allegedly anti-Semitic “quenelle” gesture, French media have reproduced a photo of a man performing it outside the Toulouse school where four Jews were murdered last year.
The photo, which was published Monday on the website of the France 3 broadcaster, shows a man wearing a shirt featuring a portrait of Yasser Arafat in front of the Ohr Torah school.
The man is holding his left palm outstretched over his right shoulder – in the gesture, known as quenelle, which was invented by the anti-Semitic comedian Dieudonne M’balla M’balla.
Jewish groups say that Dieudonne, who has multiple convictions for inciting racial hatred against Jews, designed the quenelle to emulate the Nazi salute without violating France’s laws against displaying Nazi symbols to cause offense.
The picture taken outside Ohr Torah is not dated but was taken after a Muslim extremist, Mohammed Merah, in March 2012 killed three children and a rabbi there. The institution changed its name since from Otzar Hatorah.
The photo was published a day after photos surfaced of NBA star Tony Parker, who was born in Belgium and is French by nationality, performing the salute earlier this year standing next to Dieudonne backstage at a theater in France. Photos of the salute were published in the French media.
The Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center has called on Parker, who plays point guard for the San Antonio Spurs, to apologize for performing the salute
“As a leading sports figure on both sides of the Atlantic, Parker has a special moral obligation to disassociate himself from a gesture that the government of France has identified as anti-Semitic,” Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Wiesenthal Center, told the Algemeiner news website.
Reports of the Parker salute came a day after soccer player Nicolas Anelka, a French national playing for Britain’s West Bromwich Albion soccer team, was roundly condemned for performing the salute during a match on Saturday.
Anelka defended himself on Sunday, saying that he saw a photo of President Obama performing the quenelle with rapper Jay Z and singer Beyonce. They were, in fact, performing a hip hop move in which the hand brushes off the shoulder.
Britain’s Football Association has launched an investigation of the Anelka incident, and he faces a possible ban.
France’s former sports minister Chantal Jouanno demanded sanctions against the soccer star. “The quenelle is a Nazi gesture that is clearly anti-Semitic and known to be such,” she said. “There’s no point in arguing about the interpretation.”
French Interior Minister Manuel Valls said he would seek a ban on Dieudonné’s shows “on the grounds that they were a threat to public order,” the Guardian reported Sunday.
According to the report, citing an interview in Le Parisien, the last straw for Valls was the comedian’s remarks about Jewish journalists. “In a recent show, Dieudonné said of the journalist Patrick Cohen, who asked him last week whether journalists were giving him too much attention, that ‘when I hear Patrick Cohen speaking, I say to myself, you see, the gas chambers … too bad [they no longer exist],’” the Guardian reported.
At least three French cities withdrew from the comedian’s initial 27-venue show, including Caen, Montbéliard and Nice, while tickets in Marseille were no longer available as of Sunday, according to the report. Authorities in other cities were also preparing for the legal move by the interior minister.
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.
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.
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.
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.”