Dieudonné Affair Refuses to Melt Away

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What started out as a joke is now being treated as deadly serious by French and Israeli governments alike

Dieudonné M’bala M’bala (posing on left with pal Nicolas Anelka) – well known to the French public as simply “Dieudonné” is a 47-year-old comedian and actor who has appeared in blockbuster productions such as “Asterix & Oblix: Mission Cleopatra”.

He is credited with inventing a gesture known as the quenelle – a kind of mildly obscene extension of the arm towards the ground with the other arm coming across to the shoulder. He first used it in a sketch back in 2005, since when it has taken on a life of its own, becoming, as one philosophical commentator put it, “an anti-establishment badge of honour for many youths, although it’s difficult to define its meaning.”

For many, however, the meaning is crystal clear and is interpreted as an anti-Semitic salute. Dieudonné himself rubbishes such claims, saying that he defines himself as anti-zionist (i.e. against the notion of an Israeli state, but not opposed to Jews per se) but that the quenelle was only ever intended as an anti-establishment gesture.

Whatever his intentions, there’s no doubting that the quenelle is now a firmly-established piece of French cultural expression that ranks alongside all the other hand gestures that the country is famous for. Yet it seems to straddle the sometimes hysterical fence between anti-Semitism and… well, Semitism.

Many people expressing anti-Jewish sentiments have adopted and used the quenelle as their own. The more that this happens, the more that gesture becomes branded as anti-Semitic. And, the more it becomes established as an anti-Semitic gesture, the more widespread is its use by anti-Semites.

The seemingly endless spiral continued last weekend when stroppy footballer Nicolas Anelka (currently plying his trade with West Bromwich Albion) performed the quenelle after scoring in an English league game. He said afterwards that the gesture was in support of his friend Dieudonné, who is coming under increasing pressure in what many see as something of a witch hunt.

There was no-one laughing at a special meeting of the Commission of Immigration and the Diaspora of the Knesset (Israeli parliament) last Monday in Israel. They met to discuss the Anelka incident and Knesset President Yuli Edelstein denounced “a new wave of anti-Semitism”

“It’s only a gesture, but if we don’t act with determination, it will transform into acts of violence,” added the commission president Yoel Razbozov.

Israeli Foreign Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman also expressed his concern at the quenelle, elevating it to the status of “the condensed version of the problematic situation of Europe in its relations with Jews and with Israel.”

The First Secretary of the French Embassy in Israel attended Monday’s meeting and assured the Israeli deputies of “the full engagement of the French government towards the security of Jews in France.” The Jewish community in France is somewhere between 350,000 and 500,000, making it the largest in Europe. French Interior Minister (and France’s most popular minister) Manuel Valls continued the condemnations of this “gesture of hatred” and promised to look for legal means to ban Dieudonné’s shows.

So is it all just a funny joke that went wrong? A quenelle in a tea-cup, feeding off the heightening hysteria of those who shout “anti-Semite” at the mildest of provocations against Jewish nationalism?

Maybe so, but it seems that Europe’s largest Jewish community is feeling less and less at home in the land of Liberté, Égalité and Fraternité. According to official statistics, 2013 saw the largest annual increase in immigration to Israel from France, with a jump of 63% over the previous year. More than 3,000 French Jews moved to Israel in 2013 compared to 1,916 in 2012.

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