The gesture described as an upside-down Heil Hitler sign is causing trouble for everyone from Tony Parker to Barack Obama.
It’s a word that most of us had never heard until this week. Quenelle: a word that sounds like it could be a sophisticated French pastry or obscure breed of exotic bird, or perhaps the latest bizarre celebrity name for a child.
On Monday, it was the third-most-searched-for term on Google.
As those who did not spend their winter holidays unplugged and are up on the latest online scandals know by now, a quenelle is a gesture that is getting a whole lot of famous people into a lot of trouble. At first glance, it looked innocent enough, and it was hard to see what all the fuss was about. To American eyes, it looks like someone with bad aim is trying to strike the pose of the pledge of allegiance with one hand, while the other arm is somehow paralyzed.
Unfortunately, that’s far from the true meaning.
The word began its journey to becoming infamous last Saturday when a French soccer star Nicolas Anelka who plays for the British team West Bromwich Albion made the gesture in celebration of a goal at a game – and an outcry ensued. He claims that it is merely an ‘anti-establishment’ gesture popularized by his comedian friend. Others disagreed sharply. On the same day Valerie Fourneyron, France’s sports minister tweeted: “Anelka’s gesture is a shocking, disgusting provocation. No place for anti-Semitism and incitement to hatred on the football field.” A host of other leaders and Jewish groups also protested strongly against the gesture, even asking that Anelka be banned from the field for making a salute “created by a well-known extreme anti-Semite who has displayed his hatred of Jews, mocked the Holocaust and Jewish suffering.”
And so thousands of us turned to Google in an attempt to figure out exactly what was going on. How bad was this bizarre gesture? Is it merely a rebellious version of the international sign for F— Y–? Or indeed a subtle way to give a “Heil Hitler” without getting in trouble? This explanation just seemed so illogical. Why would celebrities of African origin embrace a Nazi salute? Do they not understand that Hitler was no fan of dark-skinned folks?
The BBC went with this definition:
“It is the trademark of the hugely controversial French comedian Dieudonne M’Bala M’Bala, who once said he would like to put a quenelle – a rugby-ball-shaped serving of fish or meat paste – up the backside of Zionists.”
(I read this and thought – Aha – fish or meat paste! I knew it sounded like some kind of food group!)
The BBC continued: “Dieudonne made the gesture when he headed his own anti-Zionist campaign in the European elections in 2009. French media trace it further back, to one of his performances in 2005. It came to greater prominence in September when two soldiers were photographed appearing to make the gesture outside a Paris synagogue. There are thousands of examples posted online, some at sensitive sites such as the Auschwitz death camp, and Dieudonne fans can be seen repeating it outside his theatre.”
Not satisfied with one source, I went to the ultimate authority of our time – Wikipedia. There were two listings for “quenelle.” Their description of the dish known as “quenelle” was slightly more appetizing than that of the BBC – “a mixture of creamed fish, chicken, or meat, sometimes combined with breadcrumbs, with a light egg binding…The word quenelle is derived from the German Knödel (noodle or dumpling).Quenelle may also refer to a food item made into an oval or egg shape, such as ice cream, sorbet, ormashed potato quenelles.”
The Wikipedia description of the quenelle gesture was harder to stomach: “a gesture which is performed by pointing one arm diagonally downwards, while touching that arm’s shoulder with the opposite hand. French political activist and comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala is credited with creating and popularizing the gesture, which he first used publicly in 2009 while campaigning as a candidate for the 2009 European Parliament elections at the head of an “anti-Zionist” list.
While Dieudonné says the quenelle is “an anti-establishment gesture,” it takes the appearance of a Nazi salute in reverse, and critics describe it as an expression of anti semitism. In France, displaying Nazi symbols is illegal if done to cause offense, and the quenelle is viewed by some as an underhanded manner of expressing hatred for Jews without inviting legal prosecution.The negative intent of the gesture, they say, is further underlined by Dieudonné’s history of anti-Semitic remarks and racial hatred convictions.The location of a number of photographed quenelle salutes in front of prominent Holocaust landmarks and Jewish institutions further suggests the prejudicial nature of the gesture.”
According to an expert interviewed in the French newspaper Liberation and cited widely, Jean-Yves Camus, the quenelle salute has become the focus of a “broad movement that is anti-system and prone to conspiracy theories, but which has anti-Semitism as its backbone”with a “conviction is that there is a world order dominated by Washington and Tel Aviv,” he said. “Behind speeches that are critical of NATO and global finance, and supportive of [Syrian President] Bashar Assad and [late Venezuelan president] Hugo Chavez, there is the underlying conviction that it is the Jews who are pulling all the strings.
Presumably, the sense that they are rebelling against some grand conspiracy against the evil Zionist world order – that they are ‘sticking it to the man’ is what puts that mischievous little twinkle in the eyes of those making the “upside-down” Nazi salute in selfies online.
After turning Europe upside down, the quenelle controversy rapidly spread to the U.S., when basketball star Tony Parker, who has been accused of making the gesture and thus “mainstreaming anti-Semitic hate.” He has since apologized.
Even the President of the United States has gotten dragged into the mess. In an effort to minimize the gesture, Anelka also tweeted a picture of President Obama making a similar gesture (which turned out to be baseless with proof that Obama’s action was instead a move associated with a hip-hop song by Jay-Z.)
The more we learn about Dieudonne, the comedian who started it all increasingly sounds like a really fun guy. Even as the quenelle-on-the-soccer-field swirled across the globe, he was getting into yet more hot water, with news breaking that he may be tried for racial incitement for the eighth time with the opening of a criminal investigation regarding possible suspicion of incitement to racial hatred after he made a remark hinting it was a shame that a Jewish journalist doing a story on him didn’t end up in a gas chamber.
If that’s not bad enough, it looks like Dieudonne is hoping to make a profit off all this publicity. The TV station France 24 tells us that he has “been working on launching a range of quenelle-related merchandise and in October 2013 his wife registered the quenelle as a trademark with the French National Industrial Property Institute.”
T-shirts? Coffee mugs? Whether or not racism turns a profit, it seems that in the near future, nobody will have to Google the word anymore.