Log into Twitter in Israel and you’ll see “Dreyfus” trending. The reason is Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s choice of words in his response to France’s effort to host an international conference on Middle East peace in January.
“This is a modern version of the Dreyfus trial,” Lieberman said, referring to the infamous case of Alfred Dreyfus, the French artillery officer who was both Jewish and Alsatian, and who was convicted of treason and later exonerated. The case ripped apart French society and inspired Emile Zola to write J’Accuse.
“There is only one difference between what they are planning in Paris [and the Dreyfus affair], last time there was only one Jew on the stand and now all of the people of Israel and the entire state of Israel” are on the stand, the defense minister said.
“It is not a peace conference but a tribunal against Israel that is intended to harm Israel and its good name,” Lieberman said. Israel has refused to attend, and officials say that bilateral negotiations are the only path to peace.
Meanwhile, from a language perspective, it looks like there is a new trend of right-wing politicians invoking the saddest chapters in Jewish history to describe current political developments, and creating dramatic soundbites as they do so.
Lieberman’s statements come not long after Donald Trump’s nominee for Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, called left-leaning American Jews “worse than kapos.” While Friedman turned to the 20th century, Lieberman, is going a little farther back; Dreyfus was exonerated 110 years ago.
The Dreyfus affair has long been cited as an example of anti-Semitism and evidence of the need for Zionism and a Jewish state. Theodor Herzl, who was covering the trial as a newspaper reporter, is said to have been inspired to write his treatise “The Jewish State” after hearing crowds in the courtroom yell “Death to the Jews!” The Dreyfus case, and the fabricated evidence it employed, led to reforms in the French legal system that still stand today.
Recently, however, Dreyfus’s profile in Israel has declined.
“Dreyfus has almost completely disappeared from the public space in Israel, and no one would think of marking the anniversary of his release,” Dov Alfon wrote in Ha’aretz on the occasion of the 110th anniversary of Dreyfus’s exoneration.
“The more religious Israel becomes, the more the official Zionist narrative neglects Theodor Herzl in favor of the Bible and the Holocaust, and Dreyfus is slowly being pushed aside,” Alfon wrote.
In France, however, Dreyfus maintains a high profile. Mulhouse, the Alsatian city where Dreyfus was born, has a plaque on his house, a trail marked with “In Dreyfus’s footsteps” and a new commemorative statue unveiled in October.
Statues of Dreyfus are not always treated well in France. In Paris, there is a Dreyfus statue on Boulevard Raspail — but it is often defaced with anti-Israel graffiti.
Aviya Kushner is The Forward’s language columnist and the author of The Grammar of God. Follow her on Twitter at @AviyaKushner