Could the Dreyfus Affair Happen in Israel?

Eva Illouz
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Eva Illouz

The Dreyfus affair was a crucial moment both for France and for Zionism. France divided itself in two and saw the forces of the Republic fight against those of anti-Semitism and nationalism for 12 long years. It was also the moment during which crowds chanting "Death to Jews" made Theodor Herzl realize that only a national homeland could solve the problem of anti-Semitism. (Even if the historical accuracy of this account is questionable, it belongs to the collective historical folklore of how Zionism came about, i.e., "we are here because there was a Dreyfus affair.") If "the affair" was the seed from which grew the lush field of Zionist nationalism, if it testified to the dark forces Zionism was intent on overcoming, then we can reexamine this historical episode from the standpoint of who we have become today. Surely, the Dreyfus affair can be our mirror: In looking at the actors in that drama, we can perhaps get a fresh understanding of who we are.

The year is 1894, the place is Paris. A piece of paper is found in a wastebasket in the German embassy by a cleaning woman who is actually a spy for the French intelligence services. The paper indicates that someone from the French army has revealed secret military plans to Germany. The Jew Alfred Dreyfus, an artillery captain, is immediately suspected by anti-Semitic officers who naturally associate Jews with disloyalty to the state. The accusation is all the more ironic because, like hundreds of other French Jews who had joined the French army, Dreyfus served the French nation with the fervent patriotism that characterized many "assimilated" Jews. Still, on the basis of very shaky "graphological" evidence, he is court-martialed, found guilty, publicly degraded, sent to a faroff prison and placed in solitary confinement on Devil's Island, a harsh penal colony. Most people at that time, with the exception of his immediate family and the socialist Bernard Lazare, were convinced of his guilt.

One year later, in 1895, Lt. Colonel Georges Picquart was appointed to the Intelligence service (as head of the statistics department) which had incriminated Dreyfus. Picquart was, like so many of his colleagues, an anti-Semite; some even say a ferocious one. He accidentally intercepted a suspicious letter, and after investigating it discovered that the handwriting bore a resemblance to that of the paper that had inculpated Dreyfus. An officer named Esterhazy was the author of the letter. Picquart looked further into the evidence against Dreyfus, and seeing how shabby it was, understood that he had been wrongly accused. 

Picquart communicated the information to his superiors, but they silenced him and tried to suppress the evidence. "What do you care if a Jew is on Devil's Island?" asked one of his fellow officers rhetorically. But Picquart apparently did care. And the fact that he cared entailed considerable risks: He was eventually exiled to a distant Tunisian outpost. (A bit later, he was even sent to prison on the pretext of treason). But the exile of Picquart did not solve the army's problem. Picquart's lawyer, Louis Leblois, was also a man of principle, and was troubled. He decided to inform the vice president of the French senate, Auguste Scheurer-Kestner of Picquart's findings and of the behavior of the French army.

Scheurer-Kestner, who came from a Protestant industrialist family, was a Republican, was held in great respect, and like many others (such as Georges Clemenceau), initially thought Dreyfus guilty. But when Leblois came to talk to him, Scheurer-Kestner wrote in his dairy that he felt "something vague and painful," as if the voice of conscience was stronger than his certainty about Dreyfus' guilt. Mathieu Dreyfus, brother of the accused captain, said of him that he was "passionnement epris de justice" (passionately in love with justice).

When Scheurer-Kestner became convinced of Dreyfus' innocence, he asked that the case be reopened publicly. This had the effect he might have anticipated: It unleashed the hatred of the anti-Semitic and nationalist camp, and resulted in his defeat in his bid for reelection as vice president of the senate. But despite the costs and risks to his career and public status, he ceaselessly met and spoke with the president, prime minister, and other prominent political figures. When the final proof of Esterhazy's guilt was shown to him, he did not act as a good politician (in the bad sense of the word), but rather as a morally outraged citizen, and expressed his opinions publicly in the newspaper Le Temps, thus sending ripples through the whole French political system. In 1898, the public exposure and political agitation compelled the army to court-martial Esterhazy in order to clear his name. Esterhazy was indeed acquitted.

Two days later, the affair took a new and decisive turn with what is probably the most famous newspaper article of all time, written by the French novelist Emile Zola: "J'accuse." The article electrified France. It was a sensation that would have a lasting impact, within and outside the boundaries of France, much beyond the "affair." The article was written as an open letter to French President Felix Faure; it was a direct accusation against the highest echelons of the French army, accusing them of obstruction of justice and anti-Semitism. Zola called on the president to stop what he called this "crime against humanity" and a "crime against justice." With passionate rhetoric, he wrote that he had no doubt he would win this struggle because "Truth is on the march and nothing can stop it." Zola was also taking a serious risk: his goal was to provoke the army to sue him for libel, so as to reopen the Dreyfus case and bring new evidence to court. The army did exactly that and brought him to court. He was condemned and subsequently had to flee to England. But the impact of his article was enormous, slowly swaying public opinion.

The months from January to August 1898 were filled with high political drama of a rare intensity, with the government of Prime Minister Felix Jules Meline resigning, Zola being suspended from the Legion d'Honneur, a new minister of war taking office, riots and protests shaking French society. The army took an aggressive step and accused Dreyfus of additional charges, based on documents that had been doctored by an officer, Major Hubert-Joseph Henry.

Godefroy Cavaignac was the new minister of war and a man of great integrity. Like many others, he had been convinced of Dreyfus' guilt and had used these documents to prove it. But when Captain Louis Cuignet another anti-Dreyfus (and probably anti-Semitic) officer realized that Henry had forged these documents, he informed Cavaignac, who realized his mistake. Henry was sent to prison, left a written confession and committed suicide, thus eliciting further agitation among the nationalist anti-Semites. Cavaignac himself resigned, taking responsibility for the misconduct of the army and for his failure to see the truth earlier.

Generals and ministers of war resigned one after another, unable to agree to the demand for a retrial. A cabinet resigned, accompanied by agitation and anti-Semitic riots. Political instability ensued, pitting the army against the Dreyfus camp.

Ultimately, Dreyfus was pardoned by the Radical Rene Waldeck-Rousseau in 1899.

Another perspective

Let me take this story out of our national folklore and examine it from a different angle. This does not mean that I deny or reject the common view of it that is, that the French army was infested with virulent anti-Semitism, which resonated with the widespreadanti-Semitism of ordinary French people. But historical events are like objects we hold in our hand: We can look at them from above or below, from the front or in profile, and each position will give us different information. While we cannot look at an object simultaneously from above and from below, one perspective does not contradict the existence of another.

First, what is remarkable in this story is the fact that it is a political drama of an intensity that we in Israel cannot grasp, let alone reproduce. For 12 years, a Catholic country was deeply divided over the question of the guilt or innocence of an obscure Jewish captain. To understand the moral power of this drama, let me ask my reader to do the following mental exercise and imagine this: An Arab who serves as an officer in the Israeli army is accused of spying for an Arab country. The army offers evidence, tries him, finds him guilty and condemns him to solitary confinement. Then, an officer who is also a right-wing settler and normally quick to view Arabs as disloyal citizens of the state, notices a document that seems to call into question the verdict of two years before. This settler officer proceeds to challenge the previous judgment, call into question the integrity of his colleagues and superiors, and all this in the name of truth and justice on behalf of a human being who happens to be an Arab. He sets aside his prejudices, alienates himself from his colleagues and superiors, becomes the object of their bullying -- and all this for an Arab. Our right-wing military officer takes all these blows and persists in challenging the IDF version, until the military authorities have had enough of him and send him away. And even then, he does not break, and continues to fight on behalf of the Arab, despite the exile, and despite the active contempt of his superiors and colleagues, despite his subsequent imprisonment and accusation of betrayal. This settler is not the only one to act this way; in fact, other settlers as well fight with considerable determination for the Arab who has been wronged by the Israeli army.

Then imagine that the speaker of the Knesset, who has been convinced all along of the guilt of the Arab, is told that there are some doubts about his guilt. This speaker changes his mind and uses all his political power on the Arab's behalf. He is repeatedly threatened and mocked by Beitar-like (right-wing and violent) crowds and nationalist writers; he loses his bid for reelection as speaker and his support and allies in the political system, but still he persists, ceaselessly trying to gather the support of the president, the prime minister, all those people who matter in the political system.

Imagine that in the meantime, Israel has become divided into two factions that hate each other intensely over the question of whether the Arab is guilty. Imagine that people cannot have dinner at the same table, depending on their position on this question. Imagine that a defense minister resigns because he realizes he believed in good faith that the Arab was guilty.

Imagine that entire governments resign because of the agitation over a simple Arab. Imagine that the man who had forged a letter in the army, shamed by his own actions, commits suicide.

Finally, while we might imagine an Israeli journalist with the verve and courage of a Zola, we cannot imagine that such an article would electrify citizens to the point of sending them into the streets, compel writers and intellectuals to feverishly organize themselves in new and unprecedented ways, and generate successive political crises. We cannot imagine Israeli society dividing itself over an unjustly accused Arab (Emmanuel Levinas, the French Jewish philosopher, famously recounted his father's explanation of why he decided to leave his native
Lithuania for France: "A country that tears itself apart to defend the honor of a small Jewish captain is somewhere worth going.")

You and I can probably not imagine any of this happening in Israel. Why? For one, the very premise of the story could not take place here. French Jews were protected by a universalist citizenship. Arabs inside Israel have citizenship, but such citizenship is an empty bureaucratic fact. The membership of Israeli Arabs in Israeli society resembles more an ethnic enclave in the Ottoman Empire than the inclusive universalism of French citizenship. Only a universal model of citizenship could produce a Dreyfus affair. But this is not the only reason. We probably could not even imagine the story happening to a Jew unjustly accused. In Israeli society, an unjustly accused Jew could not create a Dreyfus affair because Israeli politicians, and even military officers, lack the kinds of moral norms that would make them act against their own immediate political gain and self-interest.

This is because to most politicians and army officers, defending the cause of truth and justice sounds hopelessly naive rather than an obvious imperative. This is also because Israeli citizens very rarely act on the force of their moral conviction and outrage. Moral outrage can emerge only from the internalization of universal norms of justice.

The anti-Semitic Picquart and Cuignet must command our unreserved admiration precisely because they were anti-Semites who lost their careers and freedom for the Jewish Dreyfus. That is, not only did they risk their careers, self-interest and peace, but they also acted against their own (anti-Semitic) prejudice, in order to defend a moral principle. Scheurer-Kestner is no less a hero who endangered his status, his reelection, his comfortable public position, his health, his political connections, for the sake of an obscure Jewish captain. Is there a single Israeli politician who would risk his political career over an ordinary Jew, let alone a "little Arab?" Coalition building, survival and zigzagging are what our politicians know best.

When we look at the anti-Semitism that pervaded large segments of French society during the Dreyfus affair, we may learn something else. Who were the anti-Dreyfusards, those which history now views as the dark forces that brought France close to the abyss?

In the Franco Prussian War of 1870-71, France lost the Alsace-Lorraine region to Prussia. The result was very low morale and the election of a conservative government in France. In 1871, that government repressed a violent and bloody confrontation at the Paris Commune a revolt of Parisians against increasing inequality and high taxes combined with a sense of national defeat and humiliation and the desire to see France resume its war with Prussia. France was thus deeply divided. One part was anxious about its military status, humiliated by defeat and
eager to regain its power. Another felt the revolutionary ideals of equality and human rights had been crushed. The Anti-Dreyfusard camp was at once fearful and full of revenge; it was weakened but arrogantly wanted to prove its strength. It became "securitist," worried about nenemies outside and inside, suspicious of disloyal subjects, foreigners and Jews.

Because the cause of Jews and foreigners was supported by the intellectuals, the
anti-Dreyfusard camp also hated those who defended the "high principles" of justice, that is, the intellectuals. The notorious anti-Semite Maurice Barres warned the French against intellectuals, for, he said, "military virtues alone constitute the force of a nation."

The anti-Dreyfusard camp was thus an eclectic mix: some thought France belonged to the Catholics only, some were afraid of foreigners and the Jews, some wanted a strong army and revenge against the Prussians. These themes were circulated within the triumvirate of Church-nation-army.

It was that very unholy alliance of religion, nationalism and military securitism that paved the way for the darkest hours of France. I will let the reader decide if she knows of another country that displays the same mixture of religion, securitism, nationalism and fear of enemies within.

What saved France from disgrace was not only the presence of the Dreyfusard camp, but also the presence of moral norms, the force of which could make even anti-Semites change their minds and risk their professions and their freedom to see these norms upheld. These norms transcended religious and political affiliations. For Picquart, the honor of the French Army resided in its ability to defend the ideals of justice and truth. In fact, Dreyfus was saved not by the French left and the intellectuals, but by the overwhelming sense that honor means to "do the right thing."

When World War I started, Alfred Dreyfus volunteered to be sent to the front (he was by then retired.) After all he had suffered, after his brilliant future had been broken by the anti-Semitism of French officers, he felt a compulsion to serve the army that had betrayed him so pitilessly. This should give us pause. What could possibly have motivated him? I do not think it is very mysterious. Dreyfus volunteered because he still loved his country. Why did he still love his country? Because through him, France had defended justice for everyone, and had thus retained its moral authority. To Herzl we may thus say: Zionism will have accomplished its task when Israel can have its Dreyfus affair.

Alfred Dreyfus being stripped of rank. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

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