PARIS – Give anti-Semitism and other forms of hatred an inch and they will try to take a mile. So football authorities in England are right to stamp out a salute being used to bait Jews in neighboring France, before it takes root in the English game.
With one straight arm pointing downward, and the other folded across the chest, those who perform it can rightly argue that the gesture isn't a Nazi salute. Yet the straight arm makes it impossible not to be reminded of the homage to Adolf Hitler. That ambiguity is part of what makes this gesture, dubbed the "quenelle," so insidious and dangerous. The grey zone can give a cloak of deniability to those who perform it with hatred in their hearts.
"Me, racist, anti-Semitic? Of course not!" they can claim, which they couldn't if they did a Nazi salute.
Which is what Nicolas Anelka said after the French striker became the first — and hopefully the last — player to perform a quenelle in a Premier League game, when he scored his first goals for West Bromwich Albion.
Like others who do it, Anelka said the gesture is simply "anti-system," a new form of Gallic "up yours!" to the establishment. But if it really is that innocuous, why are other people posting photos of themselves doing quenelles at Auschwitz, at Jewish sites, Holocaust memorials and such like?
In the town of Toulouse in southwest France, a prosecutor is investigating whether charges can be filed against a man who posed doing a quenelle in front of the Jewish school where a radical Muslim killed three children and a rabbi in 2012. In Bordeaux, also in the southwest, an anti-racism group filed a legal complaint about quenelles in front of a synagogue there.
Does Anelka not know about this taunting of Jews, their history and culture? If so, ignorance isn't much of a defense. Or, worse, does he not care?
Whether Anelka intended to or not, he associated himself with such people by making the same gesture on Dec. 28. He could seek to split hairs and argue that context is everything, that a quenelle in a stadium doesn't have the same undeniably anti-Semitic meaning as when the gesture is performed, say, in front of a wagon like those used by the Nazis to transport Jews to death camps. Yes, there's a photo of someone doing that, too.
If he wanted to puncture any ambiguity, make clear that he meant no offence to Jews, Anelka could have followed Tony Parker's lead. The San Antonio Spurs guard apologized after an old photo of him doing the quenelle surfaced. Parker said he only learned recently of "the very negative concerns" associated with the gesture.
"We need to be more aware that things that may seem innocuous can actually have a history of hate and hurt," Parker said.
There's been no such contrition from Anelka. He argues that England's Football Association has misinterpreted his gesture and he asked Wednesday that it drop charges which could see him banned for at least 5 games.
"I repeat, I am not anti-Semitic or racist," he wrote on his verified Facebook page
Despite acknowledging that Anelka's gesture "caused offence in some quarters," his club has continued to field him. Seemingly, the goals Anelka scores matter more to West Bromwich than what goes through his mind or his friendship with Dieudonne M'Bala M'Bala, the rabble-rousing so-called comedian who invented the quenelle and has been convicted multiple times for inciting racial hatred or anti-Semitism.
In France, some employers haven't been as forgiving as WBA. The French army says it disciplined two soldiers who were photographed performing the gesture in front of a Paris synagogue. After a photo circulated on Twitter of cartoon characters Asterix and Obelix performing the gesture at a theme park north of Paris, the owners issued a strong condemnation and say a temporary contractor also photographed doing a quenelle won't be hired again.
Knee-jerk critics accused the FA of dithering because it took three weeks before charging Anelka on Tuesday with making a racially or religiously aggravated abusive gesture. That impatience was unfair. Because even in France, this is a knotty issue. No French court of law has declared the quenelle illegal or prosecuted people for doing it. So the FA is out on a limb in seeking to throw the book at Anelka.
In dedicating his quenelle to "my comedian friend Dieudonne," Anelka showed atrocious taste in friends and humor. Anti-Semitism is never funny. And Dieudonne isn't even original, spouting tired rubbish about Jews being "crooks" and making light of the Holocaust.
As his "friend," does Anelka not know of the hateful things Dieudonne has said? Hard to believe. Or, worse, doesn't he care? The FA cannot find Anelka guilty simply by association. But all of us are judged in part by the company we keep.
A quenelle — by Anelka or anyone — should never pass unchallenged on a football field. The FA is right to draw this line. The inch must not become a mile.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester