Ghosts of the Dreyfus Affair Haunt Europe

More than a century after the Dreyfus trial, the cry of “Death to the Jews!” has echoed in the streets of Paris.

The fear that France, home to Europe’s largest Jewish population, is becoming a dangerous place for Jews, drew 20,000 people to the streets of Paris last week, joined by an array of government leaders.

Prime Minister Philippe and President Macron denounced the escalation of anti-Semitism in France and promised a severe crackdown against perpetrators. “Anti-Semitism is at its worst level since World War II,” Macron asserted.

For decades after the Holocaust, anti-Semitism was taboo in Europe, with Jew-hatred restricted to bigots on the fringes of civilized discourse. But like a virus that seems to disappear but in fact survives by mutating into a different strain, anti-Semitism had been incubating, waiting for an opportune moment in history to stage a comeback.

Various political developments in contemporary times have merged to enable such a resurgence.

A survey carried out last year by the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency found that anti-Semitic hate speech, harassment and an increasing fear of being recognized as Jewish were becoming the “new normal” in Europe.

Anti-Semitic attacks rose by more than 60 per cent in Germany last year. And in Britain, close to a dozen MPs have abandoned the Labor party because of blatant anti-Semitism in its ranks that have targeted elected Jewish officials.

A NY Times article reported that the British radio station LBC claimed there were 45 cases of anti-Semitic postings on social media by Labor members. Of those, four crossed the line into “incitement, warranting a criminal investigation as hate crimes.

One message warned, “We shall rid the Jews who are cancer on us all,” and another threatened a “Zionist extremist” lawmaker with “a good kicking.”

British politician Luciana Berger, who is Jewish and has been in the British parliament since 2010, told a NY Times journalist she has “watched, with dismay, as Jeremy Corbyn has allowed a demonological view of Israel to foster Jew hatred in the Labor Party since taking over its leadership in 2015.”

The article quoted Berger declaring she has “come to the sickening conclusion that one of the country’s two main political parties, Labor, is now institutionally anti-Semitic.”

“You name it, they’ve done it.”

Nine months pregnant, the mother of a small child, Berger said she’s faced death threats and has been forced to take an increasing amount of security measures. She finally decided to leave Labor, and together with a core of political allies, all former Labor or Conservative members of parliament, has launched a new Independent party.

‘In Honor of Captain Dreyfus’

In a quiet ceremony in 1999, then Paris Mayor Jean Tiberi unveiled a plaque renaming a Paris intersection, “Place du Capitaine-Dreyfus,” in honor of Alfred Dreyfus.

A Paris daily quoted the mayor’s few words, which had the ring more of a warning than a tribute: “The Dreyfus Affair was a symptom … of the deep forces eating away at a whole society. Over a period of 10 years, it expressed the upheaval of an era marked by the emergence of the extreme-right which was deeply hostile to democracy, and which led to the Vichy collaboration with the Nazis during World War II.’’

Historians classify the Dreyfus Affair as the worst case of institutionalized anti-Semitism Europe had ever seen prior to the rise of Hitler. Beginning in 1894, it unleashed a torrent of Jew-hatred in French society whose reach extended well into the 20th century.

“Anti-Semitism is profoundly rooted in French society,” admitted Prime Minister Edouard Philippe in recent weeks, as he stood before the French parliament.

Historians link the toxic fallout of the Dreyfus Affair to the ingrained anti-Semitism of segments of the French population that not only brought the Vichy regime to power, but were instrumental in the deportation of 78,000 French Jews to the death factories.

Today, Jew-hatred in France is fueled not only by Islamic radicalism, but by both ends of the political spectrum, the far right National Front and the intellectual progressives of the far left.

It is the same across large parts of Europe. From vilification of Israel for its “oppression of the Palestinians,” to hatred of Jews for supposedly comprising the “1 percent” basking in wealth and privilege, to retooled conspiracy theories of a global Jewish syndicate plotting to rule the world, anti-Semitism has fully re-entered the European mainstream.

From where did these delusional mindsets spring?

Revisiting the infamous Dreyfus Affair, that shook French society to its foundations and jump-started the spread of modern anti-Semitism, may shed some light.

The Railroading of Alfred Dreyfus

In December 1894, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a patriotic French-Jewish artillery officer, was falsely convicted of selling secrets to the German military attaché in Paris, based on perjured testimony and trumped up evidence.

After his court marital, Dreyfus was publicly stripped of his military insignias and paraded around so that a frenzied crowd could jeer anti-Semitic slurs at him, as he piteously cried out his innocence and love for France.

Dreyfus was deported in 1895 to Devil’s Island, a penal colony off the coast of French Guyana, to serve a life sentence in solitary confinement. Shackled to a cot for much of the time, and existing on scraps of food, his teeth rotted and he almost lost the power of speech.

Dreyfus seemed destined to die in disgrace, torn from home, family and civilization. Except for his brother, Mathieu and his wife, Luciana, who poured superhuman effort into recruiting support for his cause, he had few defenders.

Then, two years after he was convicted, the unexpected happened. Lieutenant Colonel Georges Picquart was appointed chief of army intelligence. After examining the evidence and investigating the Dreyfus affair in greater detail, Picquart concluded to his astonishment that the guilty officer was not Dreyfus but the fashionable, well-connected Major Ferdinand Esterhazy.

Attempting to reopen the case, Picquart soon discovered that the army was more concerned with preserving its image than rectifying its error. As a Jew, Dreyfus was a preferred suspect unlike the real traitor, Esterhazy, whose marriage into French aristocracy protected him.

Troubled that the real culprit was in a position to do further damage, Piquart refused to drop the case and insisted on a court martial. The army top brass retaliated by transferring Piquart to Tunisia. A military court then closed ranks around Esterhazy, acquitting him despite compelling evidence of his guilt.

A grassroots furor began to build, fueled by media allegations of an army cover up. In July 1898, to counter mounting calls for a Dryfus retrial, a man named Cavaignac, then minister of war, produced evidence from the secret dossier against Dreyfus that until now had remained classified. This material, along with Cavaignac’s closed door speech in the Chamber of Deputies establishing Dreyfus’s guilt, was published by proclamation throughout France.

The fury of rightwing French newspapers now exceeded all previous records. The vitriolic anti-Semitic Catholic paper, La Libre Parole, railed against Jewish treachery. Another paper of the same ilk wrote, “I don’t need anyone to tell me why Dreyfus was a traitor, or that he was capable of treachery. I know that from his race.”

Letters were published suggesting that the “Jews ought to be whipped,” “skinned alive,” and subjected to other tortures for their “treachery.”

The Case Against Dreyfus Begins to Collapse

A few weeks later, a shocking event occurred which began to turn the tide in Dreyfus’ favor. Colonel Hubert Henry of army intelligence went to see Cavaignac and confessed to him that the evidence taken from the secret dossier was in fact a forgery, and that he, Henry, was the forger.

Colonel Henry, whose confession was prompted by his knowledge that he was already under suspicion, was arrested, and that same evening committed suicide in his jail cell. Following Henry’s suicide, Esterhazy fled in a panic to England.

This stunning development galvanized Emile Zola, a renowned French author, to publish an open letter titled “J’Accuse!” on the front page of a leading newspaper. His letter accused the judges of being under the thumb of the military and of being complicit in the conspiracy to frame an innocent Jew.

J’Accuse…!’ was a brilliant point-by-point recapitulation of the entire “Affaire Dreyfus,” drawing on the quasi-secret disclosures about Esterhazy and Henry. Zola concluded the expose by denouncing the civic and military authorities—by name—for conspiring in a cover-up that acquitted a guilty man, and knowingly convicted an innocent one.

The publication ignited an uproar throughout France, prompting a run on newsstands: 300,000 copies sold out in hours, as opposed to the normal 25,000 print run. Zola became the target of public fury as the political right and the leadership of the Catholic Church declared the Dreyfus case to be a conspiracy of Jews and criminal elements, designed to damage the prestige of the army and thereby destroy France.

But as Zola had written, “the truth is striding forth, and it is unstoppable.”

The army could no longer stonewall and a new court-martial was ordered. Dreyfus was brought back to France from Devil’s Island, but the military court, unable to admit they had grievously erred, again found him guilty in a sham trial. This time, the verdict recognized “extenuating circumstances” that called for a reduction of his life sentence to 10 years at hard labor.

The sentence was never carried out. A new French administration headed by President Émile Loubet hastily issued a pardon, hoping to quell the passions that had torn the country apart. After 12 years, Alfred Dreyfus was finally set free.

It was not until 1906, however that the French supreme court of appeals annulled the original verdict and exonerated him. The French army would not do so until a hundred years later.

Dreyfus, who carried the physical and emotional scars of his ordeal for the rest of his life, allowed himself to return to the military that had so abused him. There he was reinstated and decorated with the Legion of Honor on the same parade ground in Paris, where, eleven years before, he had been publicly degraded before a mob shouting “Death to the Jew!”

In the immediate political aftermath of the affair, the French political left united and was brought to power in a sweeping backlash against militarist and clericalist forces. So great were the tensions between the Catholic church and government forces then that in 1905, a law was passed in France, mandating the permanent separation of church and state.

Shortly after Dreyfus’ pardon, Zola stood trial himself on charges of libel. He was sentenced to jail and heavily fined but managed to escape to England.

Battling For the Nation’s Soul

The Dreyfus affair unfolded against the aftermath of the French Revolution and the Age of Emancipation which had freed the masses from oppression by wealthy noblemen and the Catholic clergy.

The case divided the nation into two warring camps, in which anti-Semitic elements, “monarchists” and members of the Catholic Church supported the military, while supporters of the secular French Republic and advocates of religious freedom joined forces to defend Dreyfus.

As the two camps battled for the nation’s soul, anti-Semitic riots broke out all over the country.

The surfacing of Jew-hatred in France on such a massive scale shocked French Jews to the core. From the time of the French revolution a century earlier, followed by the Age of Emancipation that granted citizenship and civil rights to Jews, French Jews had become fully integrated into French society.

Jews became financially successful with many occupying important positions even in the military, where not a few attained the rank of general.

Rightwing Catholics who sought to overthrow the Republic and reinstate the Catholic church’s authority, seized the opportunity to lash out at the Jews whom they blamed for the clergy’s vastly weakened position in the wake of the French Revolution.

For these counterrevolutionaries, Alfred Dreyfus, who had attained the rank of captain, was an abhorrent symbol of “Jewish infiltration” into French society and even worse, the army. The rise of Jews to highest echelons of the military would have been unthinkable under the Church’s dominion.

On the other side, liberals and anti-clerics championed the falsely convicted Dreyfus and sought to expose the culprits in the military and the government who had conspired to frame him. This faction was outraged that the real culprit who had sold military secrets to the Germans was allowed to remain at large, possibly still committing treason against France.

Anti-Semitic Protests Sweep Through Paris

As the battle raged on, Dreyfus was the object of hundreds of caricatures in newspapers, posters and postcards. The numerous representations of the time show the shift from religious Jew-hatred (based on the doctrine that Jews had rejected/killed the Christian‘messiah’) to politically and racially-motivated anti-Semitism (based on the doctrine that Jews were inherently traitorous and disloyal).

“Vigorous protests swept through Paris early in 1898,” French historian and sociologist Pierre Birnbaum writes, “with cries of “Out with Zola! Death to the Jews! Death to the Yids! Long live the army!” These protests spread quickly to every corner of France.

In provincial villages throughout the country, angry crowds paraded through the streets, threatening to attack Jews and destroy Jewish-owned businesses. Anger about the imagined power of Jewish capital, as well as fears of treason made anti-Semitism a convenient banner behind which social and political factions could align.

Anti-Semitic feelings that had been simmering in France for decades came boiling to the surface.

Even in rural villages, newspapers circulated malicious announcements such as, “Beware, all Jews of Feverney and Jussey! Beware, if you do not want to be scalded alive like the animals whose flesh you refuse to eat.”

In time, writes Birnbaum, “this vicious outpouring ebbed—thanks in at least some measure to the behavior of the national police, who, while no friend of the Jews, took its responsibility to uphold the law seriously. Anti-Semitic sentiment remained, however, to find new and deadly expression with the arrival of fascism three decades later.”

The Dreyfus Affair became the symbol of modern anti-Semitism. A secular Jew who was so integrated as to reach the rank of Captain in the French army, Alfred Dreyfus was nevertheless scape-goated and egregiously abused. How did he respond to the cruel, inhuman treatment he was accorded?

This sad figure who insisted on his love for France even as the government stabbed him in the back, who went back to the army that had railroaded him and left him to rot on Devil’s Island, is perhaps the most eloquent object lesson for French Jews today who wonder if they have a future in France.

Mutation of a Very Old Disease

Today we are living through a new mutation of a very old disease, former Chief Rabbi of Britain Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote. “Unlike its predecessors, the new anti-Semitism focuses not on Judaism as a religion, nor on Jews as a race, but on Jews as a nation.”

The new anti-Semitism is an attack on Jews as a nation seeking to exist as all other nations, with rights of self-governance and self-defense. Fueling this attack is the doctrine that Jews or the State of Israel (often used interchangeably) are responsible for the evils of the world, including any kind of global conflict, and don’t deserve kindness or mercy.

All the old anti-Semitic myths have been recycled today, from the blood libel to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion –written about the same time as the Dreyfus Affair and still a best-seller in many parts of the world.

In a sense, Israel is a modern-day reincarnation of the Dreyfus Affair, but a seemingly never-ending one. The Emile Zolas of the world are in very short supply and “historic moments in the conscience of man” sadly lacking.

 

The Anti-Semitic Yardstick  

“Where anti-Zionism crosses into anti-Semitism should be obvious,” noted the Times op-ed, citing the most common slurs and offenses.

“Demonizing Jews; denying the Jewish people’s right to self-determination; blaming all Jews for the policies of the Israeli government; and turning Zionism into a synonym of racism,” the article enumerated, citing the definition of anti-Semitism as set out by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

The IHRA’s definition has been adopted by Israel, the United States, Germany, France and other countries. In theory, at least, it has become the yardstick in these countries for assessing when criticism crosses the line into anti-Semitic hate speech and incitement to violence.

Britain’s Labor party initially voted against adopting IHRA’s definition of the term. The party objected to two clauses: classifying as anti-Semitic the act of describing Israel as a “racist” entity and accusing Jewish people of “dual loyalty” or disloyalty to their home country. Labor’s executive committee had trouble grasping why these acts are anti-Semitic.

In the face of a growing furor over its position, however, Labor was forced to reverse itself. That concession has proven to be an empty gesture, having little impact on the party’s inflammatory rhetoric against Israel and Jews.

 

An Epic ‘Moment In The Conscience Of Man’  

It seems clear that Emile Zola knew he was going to be sued for libel after attacking French heads of state and army top brass in print. He did so anyway, he later said, in the hope that the publicity of his own trial would force the reopening of the Dreyfus case.

What he did not fully anticipate was the abuse against himself his open letter would trigger. Throughout the trial’s duration, Zola was viciously denounced by the media. Violence erupted as the mob waited for his daily arrivals at the courthouse to throw spit, rocks and rotten tomatoes at him. An employment office was opened where thugs were hired for five francs a day to shout “Down with the Jews! Long live the army! Spit on Zola!” from the public gallery.

The writer’s effigy was burnt in public as outside the courtroom, a crowd of thousands roared its approval on hearing the guilty verdict.

Zola appealed his sentence, but lost again with a stiff penalty: one year in jail and more than 15,000 Francs in fines and damages. To avoid prison and continue his fight, now championed by an increasing number of supporters, Zola fled to London. His wife was forced to auction off their estate in order to pay the court-ordered cash compensation to the plaintiffs.

During his self-imposed exile in England, Zola’s trial and the ideas he had expressed roiled France, further polarizing French society. The “Dreyfusards,” as Dreyfus supporters were called, relentlessly demanded a retrial while “anti-Dreyfusards” castigated all critics of the French military as unpatriotic, and spoke darkly of a “syndicat Juif,” a Jewish world conspiracy.

On September 29, 1902, Zola died in his apartment of carbon monoxide poisoning, following what some speculate was a criminal tampering of his chimney. At his funeral, fellow writer Anatole France, referring to the novelist’s courageous involvement in the Dreyfus Case, proclaimed that Zola had been “an historic moment in the conscience of Man.”