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125 Years Later, The Dreyfus Affair Remains Unfortunately Relevant

One hundred and twenty-five years ago, on the morning of October 15, 1894, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a staff member of the French military high command, kissed his wife and children good-bye at their Paris apartment. Neither he nor his family suspected they would not again see one another for four years. Ordered to report to the Ministry of War, a stunned Dreyfus discovered he stood accused of handing military secrets to Germany. Found guilty of treason by a military tribunal and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island, Dreyfus was marched before the public at the Ecole militaire, where an officer broke the disgraced officer’s sword and ripped off his insignias.

Not incidentally, repeatedly erupting from the dense and rapt crowd gathered for Dreyfus’s degradation were calls of “Judas” and “Jewish traitor!”

The 125th anniversary of the Dreyfus Affair arrives at an odd, yet apt time. Apt because the tide of anti-Semitism that surged across republican and democratic France in the late 19th century again seems to be rising in early 21st century in, well, republican and democratic France. Odd because the events of the intervening century, from Soviet Russia’s purges of Jewish Communists through Nazi Germany’s solution to the “Jewish problem” to Vichy France’s complicity with the solution, were thought to have ended European anti-Semitism once and for all.

Or perhaps not so odd. Like the plague bacillus that, Albert Camus reminded us, never dies but instead lies dormant, so too with anti-Semitism. Do recent events in France mean anti-Semitism is reaching the end of a long slumber? Interior Minister Christophe Castaner recently revealed that the number of anti-Semitic acts in France had skyrocketed more than 70 percent, from 311 incidents in 2017 to 514 in 2018. (Excluded from these statistics is the deepening hum of anti-Semitism on the social media.)

Since then, matters have hardly improved. In February of this year, a group of yellow vest protestors threatened the French-Jewish writer Alain Finkielkraut, denouncing him as a “dirty Zionist” and reminding him that France belonged to the French. By way of underscoring that point, after that incident, a Jewish cemetery in Alsace was desecrated, portraits of Simone Weil in Paris were defaced with swastikas and a the window of a bagel store was covered by the word “Juden.”

The number and nature of these acts, of course, pale in comparison to what was said and done against Jews during the Affair. From the popular journalist Edouard Drumont through the patrician politician Maurice Barrès to the influential intellectual Charles Maurras, the very notion of French Jewry was oxymoronic. Irredeemably foreign and irremediably selfish, the Jew never were and could never become French. It was for this reason that Barrès famously deduced Dreyfus’s guilt not from the facts— there were none, after all, against the officer— but instead from his “race.” The duels staged and street battles waged over this one man were, in effect, over the identity of France. For the Dreyfusards, France was the revolutionary nation based on the ideals of justice and truth, while for the anti-Dreyfusards, France was the immemorial product of its soil and dead.

One hundred and twenty-five years later, everything and nothing has changed. Delphine Horvilleur, the well-known rabbi, feminist and author of “Réflexions sur la question antisémite,” believes that France confronts what she calls “the good old anti-Semitism.” However, she points to a new wrinkle: elements on the extreme left, along with the usual suspects on the extreme right, betray an anti-Semitic worldview. Both camps, Horvilleur argues, share the same preoccupation with purity. In his recently published “La France sans les juifs,” the sociologist Danny Trom goes even further, insisting that extreme rightwing anti-Semitism has been “marginalized” by its variant at the other ideological extreme. He notes that Holocaust denialism has its roots on the far left, while anti-Semites and anti-Zionists share the same conviction in global Jewish conspiracies.

Though we tend to associate French anti-Semitism with the extreme rightwing, in particular Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder of the Front National, France’s most prominent anti-Semites have a pronounced leftist swerve. Alain Soral, a prominent Holocaust denier, began his political career with the Communists. (In January, he was sentenced to a year in prison for declaring on his website Égalité et reconciliation that the Jews are “manipulators, controlling and hate-filled.”) Soral’s partner in crime, the anti-Semitic comedian Dieudonné — best known for inventing the quenelle, a gesture modeled after the Nazi salute — initially espoused leftwing sympathies as well.

Yet the Dreyfus Affair reminds us that the roots of leftwing anti-Semitism run deep. The child of a wealthy bourgeois family, Dreyfus found, at first, few defenders from the ranks of the socialists. To be sure, Jean Jaurès, the Socialist hero whose remains now reside in the Panthéon, condemned Dreyfus’s trial as a miscarriage of justice. But it was not, at first, for the reasons that later immortalized his name. Initially, Jaurès condemned the sentence because it was not severe enough. Had Dreyfus been a worker, the towering tribune declared, he would not have been spared the firing squad. At moments, Jaurès seemed to share the belief in a powerful Jewish plutocracy, insisting that Algerian Jews controlled the local media and banks which allowed them to influence local politicians and voters.

Seeking lessons from history is not a simple, or even wise undertaking. Yet it does remind us that while little is new under the sun, we are nevertheless capable of insight and innovation. When progressive politicians on both sides of the Atlantic now cite, wittingly or not, anti-Semitic tropes to denounce social and economic iniquities, they should consider Jaurès’s role in the Affair. His greatness is not marred by this early anti-Semitism, but instead measured by his ability to overcome it. By 1898, Jaurès grasped what was truly at stake in Dreyfus’s case. As he told a vast gathering of workers in Paris, France “is the force of human progress, because with the Revolution, she has proclaimed liberty, humanity and justice.” This mission applied to all, “whatever the race or religion, whatever the form of iniquity that victims were suffering.”

By century’s end, Jaurès had become the most eloquent voice on behalf of Dreyfus and his ultimately successful quest for justice. At our century’s start, those who remain attached to the ideals embodied by Jaurès, whatever their race or religion, should remember his observation that when “a society, when an institution, lives only be lies, truth is revolutionary.” Today, few insights are more pertinent, or powerful.

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