The Foul Beast: After Pittsburgh, A Reminder From Brecht
To act, let's start by not looking away.
PARIS — "The belly is still fertile from which the foul beast sprang." We know these words, which close Bertolt Brecht's tragic farce The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. The play was written in 1941, but became famous much later, featuring Hitler as a mafioso, partly inspired by Al Capone. Though the last line is often cited, the words that precede it are typically forgotten: "Therefore, learn how to see and not to gape." Yes, indeed: seeing is something that must be learned. So let's try.
We should begin by noting that we're no longer in the post-War era in which these types of plays garnered attention, celebrating the crushing of anti-Semitism and warning for continued vigilance. They told of risks that the worst atrocities — assassinations, persecutions, insults, humiliations of Jews — could some day return. Today, we are now face-to-face with just such a return, forced to understand that the beast is never dead. It was only weakened, bridled. Now it's awake and virulent — and transformed.
For the "foul beast" now no longer simply embodies the anti-Jewish hatred of the Third Reich, which was a racial, biological-spouting version of it. Of course, this form of anti-Semitism is still very much alive, we even see it being reborn in Germany, just like we saw it parading last year in Charlottesville, in the United States. But now, other forms are being added and combined to it. In Pittsburgh, the man who last Saturday murdered Jews in a synagogue held them responsible for organizing the invasion of migrants. On another, separate but parallel category, the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban accuses Hungarian-born Jewish-American George Soros of wanting to "flood Hungary with Muslims." In the United Kingdom, Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party keeps accusing Jews of all that's wrong with the world.
What feeds it? Always simplification, even more than hate.
So what is it that we need to learn to see? That anti-Semitic attacks have increased by 57% in the United States since the beginning of 2018. That the Jewish population in France, less than 1% of the entire population, suffers alone more than half of the discriminatory attacks and insults recorded in the entire country. In the land of Emile Zola, today, Jewish children go to school under police protection. Graffiti insults are commonplace, not to mention assault and battery. Murders that not long ago would have made the entire nation take to the streets are now being committed amid almost general indifference. In short, the dams are broken. The beast is here.
What feeds it? Always simplification, even more than hate. It's so simple to imagine that all the problems of the world have only one root cause. It's reassuring to believe that all of the ills endured have identifiable responsible parties, that it would be enough to exterminate them for the misfortunes to stop. This scapegoating feeds all forms of anti-Semitism — its ancient form as well as its Christian form, its leftist form, its Muslim form, and its anti-Zionist form. The more complex our world becomes, the more simple a way out the foul beast offers.
"Act instead of talking all day long," says Brecht's epilogue. But how? Do we not, inevitably, wind up feeling helpless? To act, let's start by not looking away. Don't deny the facts. Don't pretend like everything's fine. Above all, don't believe that these ignominies should only concern Jews. They're everyone's business. Since when should each community be moved only by its own deaths? Without concern for others, without indignation regardless of origins, no humanity itself is gone.
The only weapon against the foul beast is solidarity — immediate, unfailing, unconditional, total. But it must be said, it is a rare commodity.