Anti-Semitism in football. It’s on the rise, isn’t it? You’d be forgiven for believing so in the week that West Brom striker Nicolas Anelka was summoned to an FA disciplinary tribunal for an allegedly anti-Semitic gesture and three Spurs fans were charged by the police for using the word ‘yid’. In fact, the opposite is true. Football isn’t a hotbed of anti-Semitism - nor is British society as a whole. What is rife is the kind of thin-skinned, sanctimonious offence-seeking that we’ve witnessed in the past week.
Until recently, the word ‘quenelle’ was familiar in Britain only to foodies, who took it to mean an oval-shaped fish cutlet. But then Nicolas Anelka performed a mock salute – also called a quenelle - to celebrate scoring a goal and, overnight, we’ve become a nation of armchair semiologists, feverishly deconstructing the significance of the gesture. As Tim Black explained recently on spiked, the meaning of the quenelle, a gesture popularised by controversial black French comedian Dieudonné, is fiercely contested. For many disaffected young French people, it’s an anti-establishment ‘up yours’ gesture. Dieudonné claims it is anti-Zionist rather than anti-Semitic. Anelka himself insisted that ‘the meaning of quenelle is anti-system.’
However, French sports minister Valérie Fourneyron described Anelka’s gesture as ‘disgusting’ and a ‘shocking provocation’. French anti-racists maintain that the quenelle is an inverted Nazi salute which has been adopted by anti-Semites. The Football Association took three weeks to investigate the incident – a sure sign that the quenelle’s meaning is unclear – but has now charged the striker with making a racially aggravated offensive gesture. Property website Zoopla, whose CEO is Jewish, has also severed its shirt-sponsorship deal with West Brom after the club refused to omit Anelka from the squad.
We could, I guess, employ a crack team of linguists and cultural studies lecturers to decode the quenelle. We could wire Anelka up to a lie detector to test him for traces of anti-Semitism. But whatever we do, I suspect the verdict would be inconclusive. There is no consensus over the meaning of the controversial salute. Moreover, the debate over the quenelle’s meaning misses the bigger question: Why should words or gestures which cause offence be prohibited?
Think about it. Many liberals quite rightly supported the successful campaign to amend section 5 of the Public Order Act, which outlawed ‘threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour’. Comedian Rowan Atkinson, who spearheaded the campaign, argued that we should defend the right to insult each other. As he put it: ‘The clear problem of the outlawing of insult is that too many things can be interpreted as such. Criticism, ridicule, sarcasm, merely stating an alternative point of view to the orthodoxy, can be interpreted as insult.’ Quite right. But where are the same free-speech crusaders when it comes to Anelka’s quenelle? Their silence is deafening.