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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Turning to ethics from ethnicity, Illouz doubles down, declaring that even a case in which a Jew was falsely accused would not lend itself to such an affair. Israeli politicians, she insists, are allergic to moral norms that would lead them to act against their own personal interest. Justice in Israel is parsed according to tribal, not universal, standards — a reflex, Illouz asserts, shared not just by politicians, but also by most Israeli citizens. Ultimately, Dreyfus and France were rescued not by individuals, but by moral norms that “transcended political and religious ties.”

While Israelis will debate Illouz’s essay, historians might point to certain limits in her comparison. First, Illouz ignores crucial geopolitical differences: Germany simply did not represent the same existential threat to France’s survival as a number of Arab states do for Israel. Second, Illouz dwells on France’s “Catholic culture,” yet overlooks the fact that many Dreyfusards were Protestants, themselves long suspected of being less than fully French. Did this religious diversity, and not simply adherence to a conception of universal justice, play a crucial role in the Dreyfus Affair?

Finally, while it is inspiring to think that ideals drove French political leaders to join the Dreyfusard cause, it is sobering to recall that powerful political — indeed, tribal — motivations also existed. The affair was not a morality play, but instead a complex battle between rival ideological factions, one attempting to solidify the foundations of a young republic, the other doing its best to undermine it. Illouz scorns Israeli politicians skilled in “parliamentary negotiations and survival strategies” — but republican France’s own political leaders were no less committed to such activities. Were they not, the republic might not have survived.

In the end, it might take an Ehud Olmert, a politician whose realism leads him to the right moral decision, as well as a David Grossman, whose moral vision helps define a country’s political decisions, to turn an affair into the Affair.

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at The Honors College at the University of Houston and is the author of the forthcoming “A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Pursuit of Meaning” (Harvard University Press, 2013).


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