Judaism, Pop Culture, and the Confusion of an Anti-Semite

In the political ironic drama of life, hold as it were the mirror up to nature to show virtue her feature. Admirable though this may be as advice for the public arena, it is alas not universally esteemed.  Robert Bowers, the man who slaughtered 11 Jews and injured a number of other people in the Tree of Light Synagogue on October 27, 2018 in Pittsburgh, was himself wounded in the event, incurring multiple gunshot wounds, and was taken to the Allegheny General Hospital for treatment.  The man whose stated ambition and objective is "to kill all the Jews," accusing them of being fixed on killing "my people," was taken care of by a Jewish nurse and Jewish doctors.  The Jewish doctors said their job was to care for him, not judge him.  On November 1, 2018, the unappreciative Bowers in U.S. Federal Court pleaded not guilty on 44 charges related to his murder of the Jews.

It is probable, and eminently desirable, that Bowers as punishment will be removed from any future form of social relationship.  He may have time to ponder at least two problems he would encounter in achieving his overall objective of eliminating all the Jews: the nature of anti-Semitism and reactions to it and the question of Jewish identity.

Anti-Semitism, hatred of Jews, a form of racism, may not be universally considered a criminal offense, though it was Joseph Stalin, who, in his last activity in 1953, ordered the unmasking of the conspiracy of Jewish doctors to murder Soviet officials, surprisingly remarked in a statement on January 12, 1931 that under Soviet law, active anti-Semitism carried the death penalty.  However, in modern democratic countries, the consensus is that the cancer of anti-Semitism must be eradicated.

In recent years, the memories of the fate of Jews are evident physically and historically.  Most recently, in 2017, the winners were announced of the competition to create a U.K. National Holocaust Memorial with a subterranean learning center in a location in London.  The memorial, a £50-million structure, will consist of 23 structures in bronze with 22 spaces in between representing countries where Jewish communities were destroyed by Nazi Germany.

The architects, Sir David Adjaye, born to Ghanaian parents, come to the U.K. when he was nine, and Israeli Ron Arad, are concerned that Holocaust denial has festered in the U.K. and hope a memorial will ensure that the horrors of the Holocaust are not forgotten.  For them, it will be architecture as emotion.  This aspiration is all the more welcome in November 2018, when Scotland Yard and the British Crown Prosecution Service are investigating reports of 45 incidents of hate crimes by members of the Labor Party.

The second problem for Bowers and would-be followers is to find the Jews to kill.  Would he have known that the quintessentially English actor, Leslie Howard, the epitome of the upper-class, public school-educated aristocrat Scarlet Pimpernel, was really Leslie Howard Steiner, whose father was a Hungarian Jew and his mother of Jewish origin?  He might have been puzzled by a host of iconic figures such as Fred Astaire and Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. and their links to Jewish heritage.  What to do about Madeleine Albright, who confessed in her 70s that she did not know that her family was Jewish and had converted to Catholicism to escape Nazi persecution and who lived as a non-Jew.  Bowers might have known that George Gershwin was initially Jacob Gershowitz, but would he have known that composer of "Over the Rainbow," Harold Arlen, was Hyman Arluk, or that Stan Getz was Stanley Gayetski, or that Harrison Ford had a mother of Russian Jewish ancestry?

Bowers would have troubled about a Frenchman, René Goscinny, not much to look at, not much to see, but whose writing was punny to a fault.  Far from plotting the destruction of Christian civilization, his writings exemplified a heroic and uplifting struggle to defend it against forces anxious to overcome it.

In summer 2018, the Jewish Museum in London opened an exhibition of the life and work of Goscinny, who died at the age of 51 in Nice and was best known as the author of the series of comic books Astérix, which has sold over 500 million copies.  Born in Paris in 1926, Goscinny wrote and illustrated children's books and was a cartoonist for a time.  He was internationally famous for his creaton of the "ultimate," the quintessential Frenchman, Astérix the Gaul. 

He and his partner, the illustrator Albert Uderzo, of Italian origin, founded a comic magazine, Pilote, in 1959, which, from the start, featured Astérix, the brave hero of a small coastal village of Gauls in Brittany resisting occupation by Julius Caesar and the Romans in 50 B.C., the only unconquered tribe, the "invincible Gauls."  The adventures in the stories are replete with political and historical references parallel with French resistance to the Nazi occupation and coincide with Charles de Gaulle's rise to political power.

Astérix and his friend Obélix use their wits to resist the Roman force anxious to occupy their village.  Astérix is short, a warrior using intelligence, helped by Obélix with his supernatural strength.

The point is that Goscinny, the author of Astérix, the emblem of France, was Jewish, born in 1926 in Paris of Polish and Ukrainian Jewish immigrants, spending a childhood in Argentina, a brief career in New York, and then the return to Paris.  He was the outsider, the underdog, who succeeded in his career and was both a patriotic and dedicated Frenchman and a proud secular Jew.

Goscinny, some of whose relatives were murdered at Auschwitz, died on November 5, 1977 and is buried in the Jewish Cemetery in Nice.  He left a major part of his legacy to the chief rabbinate of France.  He was not a devout Jew, but he was an admirer of the State of Israel and did visit Jerusalem the year he died and prayed at the Western Wall.  His colleague Udezo drew a post, a cartoon of him as Saul Ben Epishul, later published as Astérix and Jerusalem of Gold.

By coincidence, the brilliant literary translator Anthea Bell died in Cambridge, England on October 18, 2018 at age of 82.  Bell translated into English over 250 works in French, German, and Danish, and many important authors – Kafka, Freud, Zweig.  She had the Gaul to translate Astérix into English with extraordinary wordplay and good humor, perhaps at times even improving on the original French.  Who else would name a Roman centurion Crismus Bonus or a druid Getafix, who brews potions, or the dog Dogmatix or a mercenary Selectemployment tax, or a Gaul always mad at her husband Impedimenta?

Astérix is honored in France, including in an amusement park, Parc Astérix, 30 miles north of Paris.  Goscinny should remain remembered and honored for his singular contribution as a Jew to French literature and patriotic affirmation.