Questions & Answers: A Conversation With Louis Begley

In his latest non-fiction book, the lawyer-novelist draws a parallel between the Dreyfus affair and U.S. treatment of terror suspects.

When he retired five years ago from one of New York's most high-powered Wall Street firms, Louis Begley was able to turn full time to the second career he had begun in his 50s, as a writer. His first novel, "Wartime Lies" (1991 ), is about a young boy who survives the Holocaust, and the prices he must pay throughout his life; it was based loosely on the author's own experience. Born in Poland in 1933, Begley and his mother assumed the identities of Catholics and lived in Warsaw for most of the war. Afterward, his father (who had spent the war in the Soviet Union ), rejoined the family, and they moved to the United States, where Louis attended high school in New York, and then Harvard College and Law School. He is perhaps best known for his 1996 novel "About Schmidt."

In his new book, "Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters" (Yale University Press; 251 pages, $24 ), Begley applies his legal expertise and novelist's imagination to unraveling the 12-year ordeal of the French Jewish army officer Alfred Dreyfus (1859-1935 ), who was accused of spying for Germany while serving on the French army's general staff. Evidence had reached the army that a French officer was passing on secrets, and suspicion fell on Dreyfus, whose handwriting was supposedly similar to that of the actual spy on a document that became known as the bordereau. The connection to Dreyfus was flimsy and unconvincing, and the Jewish officer, who had no motive for treason, denied any guilt.

At the end of a closed trial, in which forged evidence was presented against him in secret, Dreyfus was convicted of treason in 1894, stripped of his rank in a humiliating "degradation" ceremony, and sentenced to life imprisonment in solitary confinement on Devil's Island in the South Atlantic. The conspiracy against Dreyfus went as high as the French minister of defense and chief of staff, and even though the case was retried in 1899 and some formidable public figures worked to prove his innocence, it was not until 1906 that Dreyfus was declared innocent. In the meantime, anti-Semitism raged in the country that only a century earlier had been the first to offer equal and full citizenship to its Jews. Dreyfus became the focus of venomous and violent Jew hatred.

Begley sees parallels between the way prejudice caused responsible and supposedly patriotic men to trample on the legal and human rights of a fellow officer and Frenchman, and the willingness of the United States to compromise on the human rights of prisoners suspected of involvement in terror activities in the years since 9/11, including, most notably, the imprisonment without charges of hundreds of "enemy combatants" at Guantanamo Bay. He writes that "the crimes and abuses of the Bush administration committed in the course of its pursuit of the war on terror ... dwarf those of which the French army's General Staff became guilty in its implacable persecution of Captain Alfred Dreyfus." Haaretz interviewed Louis Begley via e-mail from the author's home in New York.

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Q: How did this project come about? Was your primary impulse to recount the truly shocking narrative of the Dreyfus affair, or the need to speak out about matters of justice in the United States today?

A: The answer will seem prosaic. Yale University Press approached me in 2007 with the proposal that I write a book about the Dreyfus affair, as part of a series they have called "Why X Matters." For instance, a couple of weeks after "Dreyfus" appeared, Yale published "Why Architecture Matters," by my friend Paul Goldberger. As you know, I am a novelist, and I really want to write novels. But I knew enough about the Dreyfus case to understand immediately why what happened to Dreyfus was not merely a cause celebre from the end of the 19th century, but an event that could be shown to teach us lessons of the greatest importance for our own time. That is what made me willing, indeed eager, to write the book.

Q: You don't minimize the role of anti-Semitism in the Dreyfus affair, but you do avoid making some of the more obvious and predictable parallels to contemporary Jewish affairs, and instead choose to apply the lessons of Dreyfus to the plight of Muslims. How have readers responded, and do you feel tension or conflict between your own (very open ) identity as a Jew who came through the Holocaust and your political liberalism?

A: In fact the response to my book from readers -- including those whom I was able to identify as Jews -- has been without exception singularly warm and supportive. Readers of all sorts: those who have attended literary functions at which I spoke, friends and acquaintances, strangers who have sent me e-mails, and even occasional readers who recognized me in the street or in a restaurant, have approached me to express appreciation for my book.

The only truly negative comments I have seen came in a very short review in The Washington Post that was the work of a nitwit, and in a blog brought to my attention that appeared in something called "Comments," but the blogger wrote by way of introduction that he had not read my book!

The analogy with "the plight of Muslims" is obvious and compelling. The top brass of the French army pressed the charge of treason against Dreyfus, although he had no motive to commit the crime and the sole evidence incriminating him -- possible similarities between the handwriting on the bordereau and his handwriting -- was unconvincing in the absence of a motive, principally because it was part of the anti-Semitic creed that Jews were by nature traitors. It is an undisputed fact that a large majority of the Guantanamo detainees were incarcerated there essentially for no reason other than that they were in the wrong place at the wrong time and, being Muslims, they fit the stereotype of terrorists.

Do you think that members of the American military and CIA and other interrogators would have brutalized so mercilessly detainees who were not, like these Muslims, the epitome of the other? Wouldn't the outrage that revelations of the mistreatment and torture of detainees ignited in the American public have been much greater if the victims had been people with whom Americans felt a kinship? Don't forget that Germans' purposeful and invidious dehumanization of Jews, their reinforcement of the stereotypes and Jews' identity as the hated others, was an indispensable prelude to and accompaniment of the Shoah.

Q: Some reviewers have noted the role the Dreyfus affair is supposed to have played in the development of Theodor Herzl's conversion to political Zionism. I don't think you mention Herzl in the book. Interviewing you for a newspaper in Israel, I wonder how your work on this book affected your view of the position and safety of Jews in the world. Is this the best of times or the worst of times for the Jews? Is anti-Semitism ineradicable?

A: It's true that I don't mention Herzl. The Dreyfus affair may have been the straw that broke the camel's back, but the surge of virulent anti-Semitism in France and his native Austria, the ritual murder trials in Hungary and Bohemia, and the ensuing pogroms surely sufficed to bring him to the conclusion that Jews would be safe only in their own homeland.

My views about the safety of Jews in the world have not been changed by the work on the Dreyfus affair or, for that matter, by the work I did on Franz Kafka for the book on him I published a year before the Dreyfus book appeared. I think that Jews -- because they are a distinct, gifted and successful group that differentiates itself from societies in which it lives -- are vulnerable wherever the rule of law is not paramount. That is why the cause of justice, respect of human rights, and compassion with all who are targets of discrimination and persecution is of such cardinal importance for Jews, and if the Dreyfus affair has a specific lesson to teach Jews it is that one. That is also why -- I might just as well come out and say it -- the violations of human rights and international law, and undemocratic practices by the Israeli government and Israelis, put Jews worldwide in peril. Harshness and contempt directed by Israelis as individuals at Arabs living within Israel, on the West Bank and in Gaza are not only suicidal for them; they are also blows struck at Jews living in the Diaspora.

Q: Isn't this a case of blaming the victim − if Jews in Paris are persecuted, it's the fault of those oppressive Israelis? Is that different from blaming Islamic extremists for American abuses in Guantanamo?

A: First, a correction. Jews are not persecuted in Paris − if you understand persecution, as I do, to be deprivation of full civic rights or harassment and discrimination instigated or sanctioned by the government. Nothing of the sort is happening to Jews in France. Jews have been victims there of uncoordinated individual violence, most of which appears to have been committed by youths from the worst French slums. Many of them have been Muslims, some were neo-Nazis. I don't think for a moment that it's the fault of "those oppressive Israelis." On the other hand, unless one sticks one's head in the sand, one has to admit, however sorrowfully, that the actions of "those oppressive Israelis" are turning, and perhaps have turned, against Israel large segments of the public in countries like France, the United Kingdom and Germany, to mention those that are most important, and that resentment of Israel's actions has the potential of turning into anti-Semitism directed at Jews living in the Diaspora.

Q: Have you returned to novel-writing following this book? Did it whet your appetite to write more nonfiction of political interest? What do you still want to do as a writer?

A: I am in the midst of working on a novel, which is a continuation of my novels "About Schmidt" and "Schmidt Delivered." I thought that the protagonist, Albert Schmidt, deserved being brought back to his fans. For the first time in my life, I am writing very slowly. It's not an unpleasant experience. I may well do some more polemical writing, if a subject that fires me up comes along. Apart from that possibility, I would like to continue to tell stories so long as I have stories to tell.

Haaretz Books, January 2010,