Once again, France is having an affair with the affair — the Dreyfus Affair. On November 4, Le Monde published a controversial essay by Israeli sociologist Eva Illouz, titled “Israel: Justice or Tribalism,” in which she views contemporary Israel through the prism of this 19th-century event. Israel, she concludes, lacks the political and legal ingredients that would allow it to repeat one of France’s proudest hours.
Illouz’s essay is a healthy provocation, one that reveals both the uses and abuses of the past when called on to understand the present.
Read Eva Illouz’s essay in the Forward, ‘Scarlet ‘A’ Is for Anti-Semitism.’
First, the facts. In 1894, a French military tribunal convicted Captain Alfred Dreyfus of providing military secrets to Germany. Apart from the notorious “bordereau” — a paper found by a cleaning woman in the trash basket of the German military attaché in Paris whose handwriting was said to resemble Dreyfus’s own — the principal incriminating factor was Dreyfus’s Jewish background. The army was hardly exempt from anti-Semitism, which, either as a clearly defined ideology or diffuse sentiment, threaded through much of fin-de-siècle France. Dreyfus was stripped of his rank in a public ceremony and bundled off to Devil’s Island to spend the rest of his life in solitary confinement.
At first, the sentence raised few protests. Apart from Dreyfus’s family, particularly his brother Mathieu, most of France, including its Jewish citizens, breathed a sigh of relief that the traitor was caught. Over the next several months, however, signs appeared that the wrong man was given a one-way ticket to Devil’s Island. Courageous journalists like Bernard Lazare began to tick off the holes in the case against Dreyfus, ranging from the contortions to prove that his handwriting matched the bordereau’s, to the military’s refusal to reveal its other incriminating “evidence” (which was busily being fabricated by a certain Colonel Henry).
No less disturbingly, military secrets continued to find their way into German hands. An officer in counterintelligence, Georges Picquart, made this discovery. Suspecting that it was the work of a Hungarian adventurer, Ferdinand Esterhazy, he reported it to his superiors. Picquart, who happened to be anti-Semitic, was rewarded for his service with a transfer to the Tunisian desert.