Anti-Semitism Gets the Boot

The fight against and the rejection of the virus of anti-Semitism and racism is gathering steam in unexpected quarters. The latest groups to reveal this are prominent football associations, the English Football Association, and UEFA (Union of European Football Associations). The latter is the European governing administrative body of soccer, founded in 1954 to represent national football associations of Europe but which now has 54 member associates. From its headquarters in Nyon, Switzerland, it runs national team matches or club competitions. 

The English Football Association (FA) was the first to act. The action concerned the French football player, the 34-year-old Nicolas Anelka, whose parents came from Martinique and who converted to Islam. As a leading football striker he had been well paid in his highly successful career, playing for different clubs and for the national team of France for which he has been a regular starter. In the English Premier League match between his team, West Bromwich Albion, and West Ham in London on December 28, 2013, Anelka after scoring a goal made the insulting ‘quenelle’ gesture.

The quenelle gesture, one in which the individual points one straightened arm down while touching the chest or the shoulder with the other arm, has been made familiar since it was invented by the French performer, Dieudonne L’Mbala L’Mbala, an individual who has been convicted multiple times for hate crimes, largely involving inciting hatred against Jews. In December 2013, after making anti-Semitic remarks, he was criticized by French Minister of the Interior Manuel Valls, who said that France could not tolerate anti-Semitism, historical revisionism, and racism. Dieudonne was no longer artistic or funny but a person engaged in the “mechanics of hate.” He had gone too far, had crossed a threshold, in his slanders and insults against Jews, and limits should exist.  As a result, the shows that Dieudonne had planned were cancelled by the theaters, first in Bordeaux, and then in a number of other French cities.

Valls in France made clear that the quenelle gesture was one of hate, a deliberate reminder of the Nazi salute. The Football Association (FA) in Britain similarly held that the action was an aggravated breach of its rules by its defamatory reference to ethnic origin, or race, or religion.  A football independent regulatory commission of FA imposed a penalty that may be considered rather mild for what it termed an “aggravated offence.” It suspended Anelka for five games, imposed a £80,000 fine, and ordered him to complete an educational course.  Surprisingly, the three-person commission accepted Anelka’s excuse that he was not and had no intent to be anti-Semitic. After being told to stay away from his team, West Bromwich, Anelka has left, either resigned or dismissed.

Anelka attempted to justify his action by saying that the gesture was not meant to be anti-Semitic but rather was a special dedication to his comedian friend Dieudonne.  Ironically, his comedian friend hoped to travel to Britain to visit him, but has been banned from entering the UK, where he is persona non grata.

The gesture is usually regarded as a variant of the Nazi salute and associated with anti-Semitism. Not coincidentally, individuals, some associated with Dieudonne, have made deliberate provocative actions against Jews by performing the gesture at meaningful places: Auschwitz, the Berlin Holocaust memorial, the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam, and the site in Toulouse where 4 people, 3 children and a rabbi, were massacred at a Jewish school by a Muslim in March 2012.

Shortly after the Anelka issue, a second incident occurred on January 28, 2014. A Belgian football player, Omar Rahou, made the quenelle gesture several times at a European Championship game of futsal, a variant of soccer played on smaller, indoor pitches, after he had scored a goal for his country Belgium against Romania at the game in Antwerp, during the Futsal Euro 2014 tournament.   On March 3, 2014 the UEFA banned him for 10 games, a minimum penalty but a symbolic one in the struggle against racism.

In recent years UEFA has been concerned with demonstrations of or allegations of anti-Semitism among players and fans at football games. Among other things, players are supposed to be role models for young people. What is significant is that this important sports organization has taken an increasingly strong stand against discrimination and provocation towards Jews.

UEFA in March 2014 has made this stand clear. It declared that it regards the fight against racism and other discriminatory behavior as a high priority.  UEFA will have a zero-tolerance policy towards instances of such behavior, considers them serious offences, and states it will punish them with the most severe sanctions. It has put its principles into practice in a number of cases on the basis of the disciplinary regulations introduced on June 1, 2013. In future, racist abuse, including anti-Semitism, will be punished by a minimum suspension of 10 matches, a fine, and a partial stadium closing.

This indeed was carried out on March 24, 2014 when UEFA opened disciplinary proceedings against the team Bayern Munich, regarded as one of the best soccer clubs in the world. This issue concerned a homophobic banner targeting a player, ironically a German national, on the opposing team, Arsenal, a London club, that was displayed at the Championship League game at the Munich stadium. The UEFA imposed, not only a fine of 10,000 euros, but also the penalty of a partial closure of the stadium for the next Munich team game, on April 9 against Manchester United.  This would affect the section of the stadium where the offensive banner was displayed.

Once again it needs saying. Respect for freedom of expression does not prevent putting limits on activities, such as anti-Semitism, that are held to be crimes against humanity. What the French politician Manuel Valls called the “mechanics of hatred” must be broken. It is encouraging that the prominent football associations have followed political advice and recognized this. It is particularly gratifying that UEFA has declared that its fight against racist behavior has been stepped up a level. Others, especially boycotters, should take note.

Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.