(JTA) — It kills me to say this, but I may owe a Yom Kippur apology to Dieudonne M’bala M’bala.
My extensive reporting about this French comedian of Cameroonian descent consistently portrayed him as a fanatical, vulgar and racist provocateur whose acts serve as a thinly veiled pretext for venting a hatred for Jews so intense that it’s led him to partnerships with neo-Nazis who despise him for his race, too.
To be sure, I fully stand by this description of Dieudonne, who in May received his umpteenth sentence for incitement to hatred against Jews — a two-month suspended jail term and a $11,000 fine. A friend and partner of the gay-hating skinhead Alain Soral, Dieudonne has been convicted approximately a dozen times in at least three countries of either incitement or of minimizing the Holocaust, which is illegal in France.
Yet as France engages in an acrimonious debate over the attempts by 30 municipalities to ban the full-body swimwear for Muslim women known as the burkini — illegal bans, a French high court ruled Friday — I was reminded that there’s another way of looking at Dieudonne.
And with the Jewish Day of Atonement approaching, I began questioning my own reporting and preconceptions about Dieudonne. The discriminatory burkini ban shook my confidence in the choices being made by French authorities in the fight against radical Islam.
Was I too close to the subject to see that the crusade against Dieudonne was another draconian measure that undermines not only the fight against extremism, but also erodes sacred freedoms in one of the world’s most important democracies?
The disproportionality of the burkini ban, and the French authorities’ overreach, reminded me that Dieudonne can be seen as a humorist who is persecuted for a taboo-breaking act that has triggered remarkably restrictive reactions from the government of one of the world’s most powerful countries.
At 50, Dieudonne is penniless — he remains intentionally insolvent to dodge paying hate-speech fines — and has been declared a public enemy by some of the republic’s strongest people. His wife and son are under constant surveillance and receive several death threats a week. Once a mildly successful comic with a Jewish partner and a clique of friends, he’s now a pariah who can barely travel as he’s banned from entering dozens of countries.
Shunned by just about every self-respecting venue, Dieudonne was evicted on trumped-up fire safety violations from the Paris theater he had rented for a decade, leaving him largely incapable of performing before audiences.
Before the burkini ban, I never even stopped to question the legitimacy or efficacy of what can objectively be described as the campaign of persecution against Dieudonne over his expression of his political beliefs. Nor did I consider how this turned him into a martyr in the eyes of millions, whose receptiveness to his bile only grew with every new measure introduced against him by a government they feel does not represent them.
I never even properly examined the possible political calculus undertaken by France’s Socialist government in going after Dieudonne. By nailing the darling of French Muslims and blacks, they scored points with an electorate that is veering rightward amid a major escalation of Islamist terrorist attacks, most recently in Nice, where 85 people were murdered last month. And by throwing the book at a collaborator with one of France’s most famous skinheads, the government was also pleasing anti-fascist left-wingers.
Of course, Dieudonne, the poster child of the new anti-Semitism, cannot be compared to the innocent Muslim sunbathers who were harassed in Nice for wearing a burkini. He is a dangerous enemy of France’s democracy and minorities. In a country where jihadists have killed at least eight people since 2012 in attacks on Jewish targets, his jokes nourish the hate that facilitates such murders.
In one of his most revolting attempts at humor, he invited an audience in 2014 to imagine him sodomizing a Jewish man, Ilan Halimi, who was murdered by anti-Semites in 2006. An inventor of popular anti-Semitic dog whistles, Dieudonne’s statement “Je suis Coulibali” was a show of admiration or solidarity, or both, with the murderer of four Jews at a kosher supermarket in Paris in 2014.
Keenly aware of the effects of the Dieudonne phenomenon, I consulted Gideon Behar, Israel’s envoy on the fight against anti-Semitism, before writing this column. He advised me not to publish it because he found it an inappropriate defense of Dieudonne.
I can relate to Behar’s position.
Dieudonne is an enemy to me and most of my readers. Even as a journalist, feigning neutrality on him is inappropriate.
But the measures applied against him are a different matter that in light of the burkini bans must be properly examined.
Dieudonne’s professional classification in France as a performer should not be a carte blanche for spewing his brand of vile poison. But the extent of the efforts to silence him should trigger a warning signal, a reminder that France’s traumatic encounter with radical Islam is blurring the border between its desire to be a self-defending democracy and signs that it is becoming a self-oppressing one.
Western governments are not expected to intimidate bathers, but neither are they expected to send to prison comedians whose sense of humor is deemed offensive.
The persecution of funnymen is characteristic of tyrannies like the one that sent into exile the Czech writer Milan Kundera, whose first novel, “The Joke,” dealt with the humorlessness of communist totalitarianism. It’s not what one expects of France, the country where Kundera settled in 1975 and had always celebrated as an oasis of creative freedom.
Similarly, state guardians of appropriate garb and behavior are common in theocracies like Iran and Saudi Arabia, not France, where they are likely to affect not only Muslims but also haredi Orthodox Jewish women who dress according to their understanding of modesty.
I am a European who has already had to move out of one neighborhood due to Islamist anti-Semitism and sexist intimidation of my wife, so I understand both the desire to muzzle Dieudonne and to get rid of the burkini.
But precisely because of our collective commitment to and stake in the war on radical Islam and anti-Semitism, it is incumbent on us this coming Jewish year to think more critically about how to achieve these goals.