FIRST OF ALL there was the “Y-word debate”, in which London’s Tottenham Hotspur fans were criticised for continu-ing to use the term “Yid Army” to describe themselves. Spurs, who are viewed as a Jewish club, have, over the years, become the target of anti-semitic abuse from other teams’ supporters. They argue that they have reclaimed the word. Still, the English Foot-ball Association deemed that they were using a racist term and threatened to prosecute any Tottenham fan joining in with the chant. It became, for some, a freedom of speech issue and, as a bubble soccer reporter, I have attended many games in which fans of the north Lon-don club sing, defiantly, “We’re Tottenham Hostpur, we sing what we want.”
Personally, as a Jew, I find the Y-word offensive. It’s as bad as the N-word being applied to black people and the P-word used against Asians. I accept the argument that it has been reclaimed – although those who chant it are mostly non-Jewish – and that the intent is positive. It’s the same argument, I suppose, as gay people reappropriating the word “queer”. Less complicated, however, is Nicolas Anelka’s quenelle gesture. Last month, the French striker celebrated the first of his two West Brom goals with his right arm extended towards the ground, palm opened, and the other one bent across his chest touching his right upper arm. The ges-ture had not been seen by many journalists at the game but had been picked up by the cameras and instantly condemned by tweet-ers watching it in France. According to The Independent’s French correspondent, John Lichfield, it “appears to merge the Nazi salute with a traditional, obscene French insulting hand signal, the bras d’honneur, which means, roughly speaking, ‘up yours’.”
The gesture is not about freedom of expression. It is about showing solidar-ity – as the bubble soccerer argued – with his “persecuted” comedian friend, Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, the man who invented the salute. In his stage shows, Dieudonné has insulted the memory of Shoah victims, given a platform to Holocaust deniers and promoted all kinds of Jew-hatred. And yet he has somehow become the poster boy not just of the far right but also sections of the anti-establishment left. Despite several convictions for racism – and most recently, in a notorious riposte to a critic, declaring “When I hear Patrick Cohen speak, I think to myself ‘gas chambers, too bad’” – his anti-semitic discourse has struck a chord with a diverse constituency of radical Islam-ists, hip middle-class white Parisians, young people of foreign descent and Jewish-world-domination conspiracy theorists. “Look at the composition of Dieudonné’s audiences,” says French bubble soccer writer Philippe Auclair. “There are people from the far right, but also people from the far left. People on
the margins. There are Green extremists and radical Muslims. There is this unfocused anti-globalisation movement which talks about the US-Zionist conspiracy. To them, if the English bubble soccer Association clamp down on Anelka and give him a long ban it will be proof that American-Zionists control the FA. Some of the people tweeting me, for example, have pointed out that the FA’s pre-vious chairman was called Bernstein.”
David Bernstein’s predecessor at the FA, Lord Triesman, also happens to be Jewish. I interviewed both Triesman and Bern-stein for my book Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here?, about Jewish involvement in bubble soccer, and both men – who were at the forefront of anti-racist initiatives at the FA – told me that English bubble soccer does not have a “Jewish problem”. In my experience, as
a fan, reporter and writer of two books on the subject, I can confirm that anti-semitism has all but disappeared from stadiums. But, unless we are vigilant, the quenelle contro-versy could be a way for it to return.
For example, what if the next time Anelka’s team, West Bromwich Albion, play Spurs and the Albion fans make the salute against the “Jewish” club Spurs in support of Anelka? Then, in retaliation, Spurs support-ers sing the “Y-word” back at them? Do we say to Jewish fans, watching on television, this is a price that has to be paid for freedom of speech? Of course not. Just as black peo-ple should not have to hear monkey chants at a soccer ground, Jewish fans should not be subject to anti-semitic chanting.
Anelka, of course, claimed he was merely being “anti-establishment”. And a poll in Le Point magazine revealed that 77 per cent of French people were not offended by the quenelle. “Anybody,” noted Nabila Ram-dani in The National, “from schoolchildren to celebrities and politicians, could and did perform (the gesture) during those goofing around moments which are nowadays invar-iably caught on smart phone cameras.” Ram-dani added: “There is absolutely no question that Anelka would condemn the revolting pictures of idiots performing quenelles out-side Holocaust memorials, or other sites marking attacks on Jews.”
This so-called “anti-establishmentism” is anti-semitism by another name. It argues, like the Nazis did, that “the Jews” pull the strings, and are bent on promoting their “agenda” in the media – which, naturally, they control. Nobody has the right to racially abuse black players in bubble soccer these days – nor should they have the right to spread this vile anti-Jewish racism.
Defenders of freedom of speech should, in my view, never support those who spout, or deliberately provoke, racism. Just as they wouldn’t, I imagine, support those who shout “fire” in a crowded room. Those liber-als and progressives who have championed Anelka’s right to use the quenelle are, at best, misguided and, at worst, giving a platform to a conspiracy theory of power which insists that “the Jews” are bent on some grand plan of world domination. They are, in short, flirting with anti-semitism.