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Sign of the times?
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Sign of the times?

Just what is going on in France?

Dozens of French athletes and average citizens alike have been photographed performing the “quenelle,” a sort of reverse Nazi salute popularized by the rabidly anti-Semitic French comedian Dieudonne M’bala M’bala. Dieudonne is the charmer who puts anti-Israel provocation at the center of his act and has been convicted seven times for inciting racial hatred against Jews. He is also facing charges for suggesting during a show that a French-Jewish journalist belonged in a gas chamber. But seriously, folks….

A number of players caught performing the quenelle deny it is meant as a salute to the Nazis or an insult to the Jews. And who knows — just as gangsta rap has sometimes mainstreamed hateful prison and misogynist slang, the meaning of the gesture may be lost on those who find it fashionable. But no one should rest easy — across Europe, “casual” shows of bigotry aimed at Jews, Muslims, and immigrants have found their way into the mainstream. Nationalist parties, who gained strength by targeting immigrants, have also found it convenient to swipe at the Jews. As a result, French Jews are contemplating emigration in increasing numbers, and in many countries Jewish travelers are reluctant to be identified as such.

Many French politicians are joining Jewish groups in denouncing this bigotry; French Interior Minister Manuel Valls termed the quenelle “an anti-Semitic gesture of hate.” Several French cities banned performances by Dieudonne following Valls’s recommendation. “I am calling on all representatives of the state, particularly its prefects, to be on alert and inflexible,” President Francois Hollande told senior government officials in Paris on Tuesday. “No one should be able to use this show for provocation and to promote openly anti-Semitic ideas.”

On display are two sides of Europe’s tragic relationship with the Jews — atavistic prejudice that bubbles up in politics and pop culture, and repentant policy-makers and politicians who attempt to model the best of Western liberalism and atone for the horrors of the Second World War. In this clash of impulses, we can only hope that gestures of peace and tolerance prevail.

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