Britain's Jewish Press Baroness

Editor Rachel Beer Got the Dreyfus Scoop But Was Forgotten

By Gabrielle Birkner

Published May 03, 2012, issue of May 11, 2012.
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It was during her tenure there that The Observer broke the story that Major Charles-Marie-Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy had admitted to forging the memorandum that was used to convict the Jewish army officer Alfred Dreyfus of treason. Esterhazy recounted the story to Rachel and to the newspaper’s Paris correspondent. He agreed to write his confession in The Observer in exchange for 500 pounds for his “journalistic efforts.” But when Esterhazy reneged, the ever-fearless Rachel published his account, based on his verbal confession. It would take years before Dreyfus was retried (and again convicted), and years more before he was pardoned and readmitted into the French army, but The Observer scoop surely helped build momentum toward that end.

For Rachel, the Dreyfus Affair “underscored her view that an activist press was not only desirable, but necessary,” Negev and Koren write.

The anti-Semitic fervor exposed by the Dreyfus Affair strengthened the argument for a Jewish homeland. The Observer was early to note the significance of the movement to create “a Jewish autonomous state in Syria.” Rachel was skeptical of the idea. She not only feared it would “disrupt integration” and whip up allegations of dual loyalty, but also objected because it would require the Jews to strike a deal with the Ottoman Turks. “It is to be hoped, at any case, that the Jews in England are not so anti-Christian as to be bribed by any offers of land in Palestine for their convenience with the extermination that is taking place of the Christian Armenians,” she wrote in an 1896 Sunday Times editorial.

The new biography of Rachel Beer
The new biography of Rachel Beer

Staunchly progressive, she took up the cause of the poor, the weak and the disenfranchised, and proposed creative solutions to Britain’s challenges. In her leaders, accompanied in The Sunday Times by the header “The World’s Work,” she called for the creation of unemployment insurance and pensions for the aged. She proposed balloon rides for tuberculosis patients in need of fresh air and, in a satirical outburst, called on easily spookedcarriage horses to “overcome their neurotic tendencies,” so that they might share the road with automobiles, of which she was a big proponent.

More centrally, she returned, again and again, to the status of women. She backed universal suffrage but argued that women could not afford to limit their advocacy work to the expansion of voting rights. “It was Victor Hugo who said that the nineteenth century is the woman’s century,” she told a group gathered at the Women’s International Congress in 1899. “At the root of the whole question lies the demand for the right — no, not to vote — but to labour and to receive adequate pay for work done.”

And she understood that women’s entrance into the workforce needed to be accompa nied by a shift in domestic expectations. “Few among women can be lover, mother, gourmet, saint, brilliant conversationalist, a good housekeeper, mistress, companion and nurse all at the same time,” she opined. “Men expect too much.”

“The First Lady of Fleet Street” doesn’t divulge the inner workings of Rachel’s own marriage. But Frederick’s death, from tuberculosis in 1901, would plunge Rachel into a state of chronic grief. Her behavior grew more erratic and her now infrequent editorials less coherent. “The hectic world of journalism, which demands curiosity and empathy for other people’s miseries, became unsuitable for a woman who had lost all interest in life,” Negev and Koren write.

Rachel’s final editorial was published less than nine months after Frederick’s death.

In her sadness, others saw madness. Since the Beers had no children, Rachel’s estranged brother Joseph invoked the state’s Lunacy Act. He had Rachel examined by the family’s doctors, who in 1903 declared that “Rachel Beer is a person of unsound mind, and that she is not sufficient for the government of herself, her manors, messuages [sic], lands, goods and chattels.” Even as Rachel remained banished from her family, for the decades-old crime of marrying outside the faith, the court appointed Joseph to manage Rachel’s financial affairs — selling off the Beers’ newspapers and artwork to support his sister in her convalescence.

It’s hard to know if Rachel suffered from psychosis or just a broken heart. She was never reevaluated, and she didn’t challenge her diagnosis. Rachel spent the remainder of her days — some 25 years — living in the countryside, accompanied by her devoted nurse. She played the piano and gave generously to local charities. Her life, however, bore little resemblance to that of the productive editor, who employed powerful invective in an effort to change the lives of women, Jews and the working poor.

Gabrielle Birkner is the Forward’s director of digital media, and the editor of The Sisterhood blog.

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