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Anti-Semitic salute not all in fun [Commentary]

First it was the Greek neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party that gave us a Bizarro swastika with its derivative logo. Now comes the inverted, spastic "quenelle" salute, a sort of reverse Heil Hitler, performed by pointing one arm toward the ground, palm down and touching that arm's shoulder with the opposite hand. The gesture was made popular by Dieudonné M'bala M'bala, a French comedian known for his anti-Semitic stand up routines.

The quenelle is spreading over the Internet like an underground Twerk, with fans of the comedian who developed it posting images online of themselves doing the move in front of synagogues and Holocaust memorial sites.

Dieudonné presents his brand of sicko, anti-Semitism in a humorous wrapper, making it easier to swallow while lacing it with the new and improved label of anti-Israel/anti-Zionism that masks the poisonous Jew hatred in the center of his tainted treat.

But of course the recipe is as old as the one that's plagued and murdered Jews for centuries. By infusing a dose of drollery into the oldest hatred, it provides a comedic mask — a way of softening the harsh message (you know, "a spoon full of sugar"...)

By mocking the Holocaust in the modern guise of a Jon Stewart style send-up, Dieudonné is leveraging the way young people (and more and more of us) get their news. Yet he's taking a page out of the old propaganda playbook and making it pop. Propaganda simplifies complicated issues or ideology for popular consumption, and according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, "is always biased, and is geared to achieving a particular end."

Interestingly, the same college students who are Mr. Stewart's prime demographic target and have been weaned to consume news as if it's a joke are also fed a steady diet of anti-Israel bias and BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) malarkey. (Members of the American Studies Association last month voted to endorse a misguided boycott of Israeli academic institutions to protest the Jewish state's treatment of Palestinians.) For Dieudonné and his ilk it only makes sense, when appealing to post adolescent minds, that the way into their supposed scholarly heads is through their funny bone. They can then post, share and make the evil viral.

But it's just a joke … right? No, the problem here is that there's a relation between the "out" that socio-political humorists, particularly on the political left, like Mr. Stewart and Bill Maher on his show, "Real Time" often use, and the antics of a Dieudonné.

Leaving their politics aside for a moment, just focus on the social phenomenon. Messrs. Stewart and Maher frequently claim they're only comedians. We're told by them not to take what they're saying as "serious" or "real news," because they're only making fun. Their shows are filled with opinion and their own political perspective, but when cornered on a substantive issue they're skewering, well, they're just kidding.

Now focus back on the politics. Because for most of contemporary comedy's run, it's been the domain of the left. Jews and blacks — from Lenny Bruce to Richard Pryor — were the pathfinders of modern stand-up and gave rise to an edgy, rebellious style of satire aimed at the status quo. I'm sure Dennis Miller would agree. Comics with the conservative political leanings of Mr. Miller are a rare breed.

Which leads me to the oddest thing about Dieudonné. While Dieudonné' is clearly racist, he's dark skinned and from Cameroon. The Nazis he so casually invokes would not have been so kind to him either.

While Dieudonné's style is comedic, his intent is nothing to take lightly. A French court found him guilty of defamation, libel and incitement to hatred and racial discrimination. Earlier this month, several French cities began banning his shows.

Yet some followers of Dieudonné claim it's all just a joke and with this newest gesture, "quenelle," those doing it, can also wriggle out, Houdini-like with a wink and a "Lighten up."

Sickeningly, it's now been "selfied" by followers in front of Auschwitz, the Anne Frank House and other sites where the worst actions toward Jews occurred.

Sorry selfies, but I'm not laughing.

Abe Novick is a writer and communications consultant and can be reached at abenovick.com.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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