The New Yorker finds a comedian to hate
Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala
Accusations of anti-semitism are now thrown around so carelessly that I confess my antennae quivered when The New Yorker arrived this week, the cover flap declaring a new anti-semitic phenomenon: “Hate comedy.”
The target of the piece by Tom Reiss, styled as a “letter from Paris,” is the French comedian Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala. Dieudonné is, without doubt, notorious as a comedian who has consistently ignored boundaries and been careless in his associations. But Reiss seems pretty careless, too.
Reiss declares Dieudonné to be a “committed and vocal anti-semite” and guilty of “sheer malevolence.” But the piece is itself pretty demagogic and the evidence presented is tendentious and malevolent.
The first question must be: just what does Reiss mean by anti-semitism? Racial anti-semitism? It is doubtful this charge can be made to stick. Anti-zionism? A refusal to excuse Israel’s behaviour by reference to past Jewish victimhood? This seems closer to what appears to concern Reiss.
Reiss considers the beginning of the Dieudonné affair the appearance by the comedian in December 2003 on the TV program On ne peut pas plaire à tout le monde which Reiss describes as a popular political chat show “in which celebrities discussed issues in a civil round-table atmosphere” (suggesting to me that Reiss has never watched it, as the show was typically a riotous affair).
Even by the standards of this often wild programme, the episode in question was a classic. Dieudonné performed a sketch in which he denounced the American-Zionist axis before raising his arm and proclaiming, “Isra-heil.” This is transgressive. Insulting. But anti-semitic? Dieudonné was in character, for heaven’s sake. You can watch this clip here on YouTube.
There is no doubt that Dieudonné loathes Zionism and that he does so on republican principles. He opposes what the French call communautarisme which elevates the rights and claims of minorites above the republican notion of equality. And he loathes the professional witch-hunters who equate any mockery of Zionism or Israel with anti-semitism.
Reiss does not consider this, nor the consequences. Instead, he implies that Dieudonné is either personally responsible for or has inspired “a wave of attacks” against Jews and their property.
Reiss approvingly quotes Sammy Ghozlan, head of the Bureau national de vigilance contre l’antisemitisme, who says Dieudonné “influenced” the killers of Ilan Halimi, a Jewish mobile phone salesman notoriously murdered in Paris last year. But there is not a shred of evidence adduced to support this. Dieudonné is unknown to have attacked anyone, or to have advocated violence – although he has himself been physically attacked by Jewish militants.
Reiss goes on to lengthily quote two more of the least convincing witnesses imaginable: Alan Finkielkraut, a notorious reactionary not averse to hurling racially-tinged insults himself, and the ridiculous Bernard-Henri Lévy, who seems to have entertained Reiss in his lavish apartment on the left bank.
Dieudonné unsettles. He is a confrontational comedian. One of his targets – among very many – is the siren of Jewish victimhood being used to suppress criticism of injustice perpetrated by Jews on others. Dieudonné is not an intellectual nor does he claim to be a profound thinker. He’s a brilliant comic who consistently and bravely attacks the powerful and pompous.
Reiss quotes him highly selectively. “Judaism is a scam. It’s one of the worst because it’s the first,’” Reiss quotes Dieudonné. This is what Dieudonné actually said:
« Le racisme a été inventé par Abraham. Le “peuple élu”, c’est le début du racisme. Les musulmans aujourd’hui renvoient la réponse du berger à la bergère. Juifs et musulmans pour moi, ça n’existe pas. Donc antisémite n’existe pas, parce que juif n’existe pas. Ce sont deux notions aussi stupides l’une que l’autre. Personne n’est juif ou alors tout le monde. Je ne comprends rien à cette histoire. Pour moi, les juifs, c’est une secte, une escroquerie. C’est une des plus graves parce que c’est la première. Certains musulmans prennent la même voie en ranimant des concepts comme la guerre sainte… ».
Maybe this isn’t deeply insightful, but it is rather more sophisticated than the scrap Reiss has fed us, isn’t it? Dieudonné is criticising not just Jewish exceptionalism, but also Muslim exceptionalism. It seems less specifically anti-semitic than anti-clerical (a fine French tradition).
Dieudonné disturbs because he refuses to exempt anyone from his contempt. Malevolent? Certainly. So was Lenny Bruce. Angry? A lot of people are angry with Israel, which continues to confound its critics by behaving ever more dreadfully than can be imagined. There are dozens of videos by Dieudonné on YouTube. It’s pretty clear watching half a dozen at random that he has contempt for more or less everything sacred. Branding him an anti-semite, on the evidence presented by Tom Reiss, is not just pretty vacuous. It aligns The New Yorker with the camp of Zionist zealots who are trying to shut down anyone who dares criticise them.