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The Dreyfus Affair and its long shadow

Publication Date : 04-08-2014


As the bodies pile up in Gaza, an anti-Semitic backlash is on the rise across Europe.

A coalition of Arab immigrants, neo-Nazis and extreme leftists have targeted Jewish synagogues and businesses with demonstrations that have often turned violent. Individual Jews have been assaulted in streets from Paris to Prague.

This spike in anti-Semitic attacks is most marked in France, home to the third biggest Jewish community in the world after Israel and the United States.

An increasing number of Jews is now migrating to Israel as they fear the current hate campaign will only grow. But anti-Semitism is hardly new in France.

Although political correctness and laws do not permit open verbal attacks on the country’s Jewry, there has always been an undercurrent of anti-Jewish sentiments among the French bourgeoisie.

These feelings most infamously surfaced during the Dreyfus Affair. Even though the court martial of Alfred Dreyfus, a captain in the French army, took place way back in 1894, the episode is still a vivid reminder of how prejudice can lead to gross injustice.

Briefly, the Statistical Wing, the French army’s intelligence agency, had an agent in the German embassy, and she passed on the information that a French army officer was selling military secrets to the Germans.

This was against the backdrop of the humiliating French defeat at the hands of the Prussian army in 1870. At the time, many blamed French Jews of collaborating with German forces. Ironically, after their defeat in the First World War, many Germans also blamed Jews for their defeat, and this contributed to the rise of Hitler.

Since Dreyfus was from Alsace, a German-speaking border province taken by the Prussians in 1870, he often visited his family there. This, and the fact that he was Jewish, was enough to bring him to the attention of the Statistical Wing.

On the basis of half-baked evidence, he was convicted, publicly humiliated, and sentenced to life imprisonment in Devil’s Island, a hellhole that had no other prisoners.

But his family continued to believe in his innocence and mounted a campaign for a retrial. It was at this point that Emile Zola, the famous novelist, wrote his famous article J’accuse! in which he detailed all the inconsistencies and flaws in the army’s case against Dreyfus. Finally, the cashiered officer was allowed to appeal, and was ultimately cleared and reinstated. The real spy turned out to be another officer who was known for his debts and dalliances.

The case revealed how deep anti-Semitism ran in French society. But it also showed that the justice system could correct a monstrous error. Given this background, it is not surprising that many French intellectuals and politicians are expressing grave concern at this spike in anti-Jewish sentiments.

In a column in the Canadian daily Globe and Mail, Dominique Moisi, a professor at the Paris Institute of Political Studies, writes:

“But the strategy of terror used by the Israeli authorities to deter further attacks or to restore a temporary ‘quiet’ has been costly not only in terms of Palestinian lives lost and Israeli soldiers killed; it has also contributed to the deterioration of the security of Jews around the world.

In France, too, many of them (Jews) express — often quietly — both their deep love for what Israel is and their deep concern for what Israel is now doing.”

Moisi goes on to write: “The encounter between the images of today’s Middle East and the discontent of Muslim minorities … should not be allowed to obscure traditional French anti-Semitism, white and bourgeois, which still lingers and is never far from the surface…”

To France’s shame, thousands of Jews were handed over for incarceration and death in concentration camps during the German occupation in the Second World War. This is a recurring nightmare for European Jews, and one they vow will never happen again.

These sentiments now echo across the internet: on Twitter, a hashtag #HitlerWasRight has drawn vicious anti-Semitic comments. Several Facebook pages have been taken down for their hateful content.

While none of this is surprising, the reality is that European Jews can hardly be held responsible for Israel’s murderous military operation in Gaza.

Just as Christians living in Muslim lands have been targeted for American policies in Afghanistan and Iraq, so too are Jews outside Israel being blamed for Tel Aviv’s oppression of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

In Israel’s case, this ongoing backlash simply reinforces the case its leaders often make for the necessity of maintaining a high level of military preparedness at all times.

This will ensure that Jews around the world have a home to come to in case there is ever a repeat of the Jew-hating madness that overtook Germany during the Third Reich.

Indeed, Hitler’s rise to power was only possible because he tapped into the latent anti-Semitism that had been stoked by the defeat in the First World War.

Blaming the ‘other’ for defeat is not unusual; what is unusual is the attempt to wipe out an entire race that resulted in the Holocaust.

So there are two narratives here that deserve to be closely studied if there is ever to be a solution. If we close our minds to one side of the argument, the killing will never stop.


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