by the Forward

Imagine an Israeli Arab Alfred Dreyfus

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.

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.

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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