by Matei Clej

The Zionist Organisation of America is keeping up the pressure on Nike over what it claims is an anti-Semitic commercial (it can be viewed here) for the sports brand, which ran during last summer’s football World Cup. ‘The Last Game’ is a short CGI cartoon in which football stars including Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo, take on ‘The Clones’, footballing robots designed by ‘The Scientist’, who according to the blurb aims to ‘remove all risk-taking and focus only on efficiency, decision-making and results’.

the Clones

The Clones, likened to the ‘Nazi stereotype of the Jew’

The Clones’ kit is drab and grey, bearing a football-shaped logo suggestive in some shots of a Star of David. Complaints ensued and commentators dissected the video, looking for implied messages. The head of the Israeli Knesset anti-Semitism comittee, Shimon Ohayon, denounced the cartoon as ‘sly propaganda’.

Nike rejected this, arguing the resemblance to be ‘entirely coincidental and unintentional’ – prompting the ZOA to accuse Nike of ‘dismissing’ the community’s concerns. Although ZOA identified itself as a ‘pro-Israel organisation’, and the Anti-Defamation League itself saw nothing untoward in the ad, the ZOA informed Nike that the Jewish community was deeply offended and appalled by it.

Watching the video, it’s hard not to grasp the general thrust of ‘risk nothing’. Although no football fan, I am struck by the gamesmanship of football. With ever-increasing cash swilling around the game, strategies like diving and timewasting seem to take priority over playing watchable football.

On the other hand, it’s not inconceivable that these bad guys were intentionally drawn up to nudge viewer to associate the Clones with Jews, Israelis, even IDF soldiers. Maariv reporter Zivka Klein had no doubt, saying the Clones “look like the Nazi stereotype of the Jew: with black, Samson-like hair and a big, ugly nose.”

While the ZOA saw no Nazi racial stereotypes, they found dark undertones to the slogan ‘Risk Everything’. It’s ‘hard to believe’, they said, ‘that… everything should be risked simply to win a game of soccer’. Taken as a whole, they said, the piece could ‘easily’ be understood as a call to ‘risk everything… to get rid of the evil Jews’.

The “Fly Emirates” and “Qatar Airways”, logos on the players’ shirts also caused the ZOA grave concern. “It is no secret that the United Arab Emirates and Qatar have a deeply troubling history of anti-Semitism and hostility to Israel”, they rightly stated

Google would have revealed these airlines as shirt sponsors of Barcelona and PSG, where Iniesta and Ibrahimovic play club football. They appear in the video wearing club kit, while the rest of the Stars are in national strips.  Nike would not have wanted to put them in Spanish and Swedish kit, as they presumably are not in the habit of paying good money to promote Umbro and Adidas, its competition.

It’s a little harsh to call Nike ‘reckless’ in allowing such material into the public domain. Compiling an exhaustive list of potentially offensive things and ensuring that none of them ever end up in the material you put out is probably beyond the resources of even a global corporation like Nike.

Also, in taking the ad off the air, Nike has shown sensitivity to the concerns of the Jewish community, even given the lack of consensus within it that the material in question is anti-Semitic.

I am also not suggesting a lax attitude to covert attempts to spread hate and prejudice. The FA Regulatory Commission, which handed Nicolas Anelka a five match ban for giving a ‘quenelle’ gesture on the pitch, didn’t apply a hermetic formula to answer the question ‘is the quenelle anti-Semitic?’

It’s more likely they considered the context of the ‘quenelle’. Its creator, comedian Dieudonne, is a vanguard for anti-Semitism in France, having numerous convictions for hate speech and enjoying the support of the Front National. In this light, the conclusion that a gesture, associated with such a character should not to be allowed to spread to English football stadiums looks more than reasonable, leaving aside the semantics of the gesture.

Quenelle

Nicolas Anelka performs a ‘quenelle’ in solidarity with anti-Semitic comedian Dieudonné

Sociologist Keith Kahn-Harris, research fellow at Birkbeck College, has described the need for greater civility and dialog in contemporary debates about anti-Semitism. The Holocaust looms large over discussions of anti-Semitism, and participants are emotionally invested in the debate. However, amid the anxiety, Kahn-Harris still suggests that accusations of anti-Semitism should be made ‘civilly and carefully’.

As well-intentioned as it may be, the endless quest to find offensive material, and where there isn’t any, to infer, impute, or invent it,  risks debasing the dialog on anti-Semitism, racism and discrimination. It provides ammunition to those who would trash the very notion of a right not to be subjected to hate as PC gone mad.