Imagine an Israeli Arab Alfred Dreyfus

Debating the Parallel Between Israel and Fin-de-Siecle France

Moral Strength: French Jew Alfred Dreyfus was convicted of treason, but later exonerated. Would Israel find a way of resisting the rush to judgment if an Israeli Arab were accused in the same way?
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Moral Strength: French Jew Alfred Dreyfus was convicted of treason, but later exonerated. Would Israel find a way of resisting the rush to judgment if an Israeli Arab were accused in the same way?

By Robert Zaretsky

Published November 15, 2012, issue of November 23, 2012.
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By 1898, the affair had become the affair, dividing the nation along ideological and political lines. The Dreyfusards, who insisted on a retrial, claimed that France was not France when justice is flouted. This was the gist of Emile Zola’s “J’Accuse,” perhaps the most stirring and savage op-ed ever written. The anti-Dreyfusards, on the other hand, embraced a France whose essence was based not on reason or objectivity, but on tradition and subjectivity. One of its most eloquent leaders, Maurice Barrès, held that rather than the abstractions spawned by the revolution, it was “the soil and the dead” that defined France’s identity. French Jews, most of whom had recently emigrated from elsewhere and who were liberated by the revolution, had only to draw the obvious conclusion.

Dreyfus was eventually freed in 1899 — though he was not declared innocent of the charges until in 1906 — and ever since, journalists, determined to speak truth to power, have seen his freedom as a beacon. Or, to use Illouz’s metaphor, a mirror — one that, according to the Moroccan-born and French-educated scholar, offers a grim reflection. The Dreyfus Affair, she affirms, “is a political drama of an intensity scarcely imaginable in Israel.” Indeed, “it is hard to see how its equivalent could occur there.”

Illouz engages in a fascinating thought experiment. Imagine, she suggests, an Israeli Arab officer accused of sending military secrets to an Arab country. In a secret session, the military court finds the officer guilty and tosses him in the slammer. Yet an Israeli counterintelligence officer, one who happens to be a right-wing settler, uncovers evidence undermining the case against the Arab officer. Despite his anti-Arab prejudices, he brings his findings to his superiors, who banish him to a distant posting.

This, however, fails to stem a growing tide of outrage. The president of the Knesset insists on a new trial for the officer, as did the vice-president of the French senate. Soon after, a courageous Israeli journalist, channeling the spirit of Emile Zola, publishes a searing condemnation of the military and political class responsible for this miscarriage of justice. By now, Israel, like fin-de-siècle France, has fissured into two camps: justice versus blood.

Dream on, Illouz concludes. The very conditions that made the affair possible in France, where citizenship was universal, are utterly absent in Israel, where there exists the crucial distinction between formal citizenship (enjoyed by Israeli Arabs) and nationality (limited to Jews). Israeli Arabs, Illouz avers, bear a greater resemblance to ethnic enclaves under the Ottomans than to French Jews under the Third Republic.

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