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The die-hard traditions of the Dreyfus Affair

Just a few months ago, in October 2016, a dedication took place in the Swiss city of Mulhouse, bordering on France, that brought out crowds. The city was celebrating the unveiling of a statue of Alfred Dreyfus, born in the city, in commemoration of the 110th anniversary of his pardon. It certainly took them a while.

Today, witnessing the scandalous trial of distinguished scholar George Bensoussan, it is hard to withstand the temptation to recall the Dreyfus Affair and rename the case the Dreyfus-Bensoussan Affair.

We are personally acquainted with George Bensoussan, and he hosted and was a key speaker at the French national premiere of our film, “The Lessons of Survival,” shown at the Memorial de la Shoah in Paris in the spring of 2015. We are familiar with his academic work and the many books on the Holocaust in which he is shown to be an outstanding historian, a scholar of integrity, and a thinker who has contributed much to the understanding of the Holocaust as a process.

George Bensoussan also is a highly reputed authority in the specialized area of Jewish communities in Arab countries. He is a hard-working, productive academic who has contributed significantly to humanitarian causes.

Observing the current macabre-trial-in-progress, one cannot help but think of just two possibilities regarding the incomprehensible, completely irrational behaviour of both French organizations and the juridical authorities: either the Dreyfus Affair mentality is still thriving in the country of the officer who was utterly loyal to his country but had ‘sinned by default’ - that is, by being born Jewish; or French society's way of life in the 21st century makes it prone to a recurrence of the one of the most shameful episodes of French history.

The resurrection of the Dreyfus Affair seems to be perceived by much of the French public and juridical institutions with shocking enthusiasm. In fact, since October 2015, France has been galvanized by what is known as the Bensoussan Trial.

The Stalin show-trials are alive and well

The chronicle of distinguished historian George Bensoussan is in the public domain. To recapitulate briefly, in October 2015, Bensoussan, head of of the Memorial de la Shoah editorial department, was invited by famous French philosopher and member of the French Academy Alain Finkielkraut to participate in a radio program and discussion. In the course of the discussion, Bensoussan, who was born in Morocco and knows the reality of life in the Arab world first-hand, referred to remarks made by Algerian-born Professor Smain Laacheron of Strasbourg University on the topic of anti-Semitism among the Arab families in France, in a film shown on French TV3.

In his portrayal of the anti-Semitic atmosphere which has become the norm in the Arab milieu of France, but is still regarded as an unspoken taboo in France, at least publically, Laacher described extensively the phenomenon of what he called ‘domestic anti-Semitism’ in Arab families, with such details as “one of the parents’ insults to their children when they want to reprimand them, is to call them ‘Jews.'“ Laacher also said on the record, in the movie broadcast on French TV3, that “anti-Semitism in Arab families is first of all domestic (...), it is in the air that one breathes” – all this according to the transcript of the film.

In the radio program discussion which caused the entire brouhaha, George Bensoussan praised professor Laacher for his bravery, and said, re-phrasing Laacher: “ as Laacher very bravely said ( ...), in France, in Arab families ( ...) anti-Semitism is imbibed with one's mother’s milk.”

It took only three days for a group of pro-Islamic activists to bring their claim against George Bensoussan to the French media watch-dog, CSA, accusing the historian of propagating "biological racism.” The absurd accusations snowballed with maddening energy and speed. The absurd does have the characteristic of multiplying in no time, as George Orwell could tell you.

The pro-Islamist organization Le Collectif Contre l'Islamophobie en France (Collective Against Islamophobia in France, CCIF) wasted no time in bringing the case against George Bensoussan to the Paris prefecture which, in a surprising move, decided to prosecute.

That, in our view, was and is the essential point of yet another shameful public trial in France, astonishingly similar to the Stalin show-trials.

There are many organizations involved by now in the Bensoussan Affair, and the French public is also able to observe the intensifying battle within French Jewry, itself divided on what its position should be regarding the senseless witch-hunt of a distinguished Jewish historian.

But in our opinion, these are not the essential things to concentrate on, because the story is hardly surprising.

The core of the matter goes back to November 2015 and the hurried decision of the Paris prefecture to prosecute the distinguished historian in criminal court for paraphrasing another academic. Not only France, but the rest of the world must become familiar with the name of the prosecutor and anyone else who contributed to the Kafka-like realities that occurred in Paris in late January 2017 when the trial took place. George Bensoussan himself, most perceptively, named it ‘intellectual terror.’

It is chilling to admit that George, his friends and people in similar positions in France are living in a literally Kafkian reality.

Remarkably, the film, in which sociologist Laacher gave a long tirade explaining the roots of the current anti-Semitism in Arab families in France, was publically aired in France back in 2015 two weeks after George Bensoussan talked about it, without any consequences for Laacher. Moreover, Laacher published several articles in the leading French media, including Le Monde, both before and after the radio program in which George Bensoussan mentioned him, with no reaction from any of those enthusiastic organizations and activists, and no prosecutor’s interest in him at all.

In the process of the public defense of Bensoussan, several well-known academics of Arab origins were named, men who analyze the phenomenon of anti-Semitism in Arab families in their works and who expressing the same opinion, facts, and analyses publically as did Bensoussan; none of them had ever become the subject of any punitive action or reprimand.

The court hearings in Paris at the end of January 2017 were surreal, with witnesses for the prosecution stating that ‘anti-Semitism, indeed, is rooted in many Arab families in France, but not in every family’; with experts issuing delusional opinions like ‘while Arab families indeed call their children Jews, it is not regarded as an insult, but rather a normal part language and life.’

It seems that in modern France, both Kafka and Orwell are grossly outdated. But not Emil Zola, at least not his trial. The Bensoussan trial, in fact, is a 120 year old re-run of the first Zola trial, that other shameful French saga.

George Bensoussan: Emil Zola 120 years later

When people compare renowned Jewish historian Bensoussan to Dreyfus, it is an immediate and understandable association. In fact, the essence of the criminal case and trial of Bensoussan and the way it proceeded is astonishingly similar to the first trial of Emil Zola in 1898 when that great French writer decided to come to the defense of Dreyfus.

The criminal case against Zola was filed a few days after the publication of his now famous J’Accuse article on the front page of the Aurora journal. Like the Bensoussan case, the accusations were brought against both Zola and the media (in the Bensoussan case, the French Culture program in which he spoke).

120 years ago, three passages from a long article by Zola were used to sue him for defamation and libel. Today, two phrases are the reason for the claims against Bensoussan.

Zola was convicted and sentenced to the maximum punishment for the "crime" of which he was accused, one year in prison and a fine of 3,000 francs, a huge sum in 1898.

We are 'relieved' to know that France has become more 'progressive': George Bensoussan was not sent into exile while awaiting the verdict, as Zola was; and during his trial, the prosecutor demanded a modest enough penalty of 1,500 Euro.

The supposed justification for prosecuting him, a distinguished historian with an impeccable record of academic research and many books to his credit, a man of high international reputation - boggles the mind. Charged in criminal court for a metaphor? Why should George Bensoussan now have a criminal record? What about his and his family's nerves, health, and emotions? What about the moral consequences of this ongoing witch-hunt, persecution and trial?

What about the very idea of prosecuting a person for alluding to another person’s statement?

Under the circumstances, it feels really farce-like to mention anything about freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of opinion, and any freedom of the individual in France today. These ‘freedoms’ are prisoners in the grotesque realities of the present-day French legal system and public atmosphere.

It is also far from farcical to learn that Bensoussan has been forced to collect money from his friends and supporters to be able to pay the legal expenses in the over 16-month continuing absurd litigation.

The death of human rights in France

The French media are full of articles describing the case, in the very same way they did with both the Dreyfus and Zola trials. From that coverage, one is astonished – or not – to see that there are several very visible French human rights organizations, including LICRA, the Jewish left-wing body, attacking Bensoussan along with the pro-Islamic Collective Against Islamophobia, as well as the French Human Rights League. There are also the Muslim SOS Racism organization, called a ‘human-rights body which developed into political movement’ by Le Monde, and Movements Against Racism and Friendship with People.

Public organizations can be affiliated in any way they choose, but it is ironic to see an originally Jewish human-rights body, LICRA, transformed into what it is today. In general, the tendency of organizations proclaiming their devotion to human-rights to act in screamingly biased ways is a worrisome growing phenomenon everywhere, not only in France. What is really serious here is the fact that in France such activities not only find their way to criminal court, but are heard there with alarming sympathy.

One cannot help but remember the phrase of Pascal Bruckner, well-known French philosopher and writer, from his classic work “The Tyranny of Guilt”: “Europe relieves itself of the crime of the Shoah by blaming Israel (...)”. In the same work, Bruckner also wrote of what he called ‘quiet re-legitimization of the hatred of the Jews” masked under the disguise of "the Palestinian question."

In the decade since the publishing of that modern classic, its author Pascal Bruckner has felt his verdict turned on himself, literally: like George Bensoussan, he was tried in the Paris courts in January 2017 for his words during a TV appearance at ARTE in 2015 where he called for naming the people and organizations who were "collaborators in the murders of twelve journalists at the Charlie Hebdo office." As in the Bensoussan case, many French intellectuals of the highest calibre went to the defense of Bruckner. In his case, the court rejected the claims. His supporters celebrated ‘the victory of the freedom of expression’ in today's France, as if this outcome was a pleasant surprise. We are not discussing North Korea here, are we?

The verdict on the George Bensoussan case is expected on March 7th, 2017.

Farce? No, Alarm.

The unbelievable facts of the George Bensoussan trial, the act by the Paris prefecture, the actions of the organizations claiming defense of human rights, the atmosphere in that large European country where today a distinguished academic is actually being tried for a paraphrase, could be called ‘a farce’ if it was a political fable, a mini-anti-utopia. But as it is really happening, it does indicate, along with the trial of Pascal Bruckner, an alarming breach of real human rights and freedom in one of the biggest Western countries.

Not surprisingly, many well-known figures in France were outraged at what French Academy member Alain Finkielkraut called ‘a trial of an opinion’. They are defending George Bensoussan actively and tirelessly.

We are joining their ranks and are calling to all our friends and colleagues, all those people who do not feel indifferent towards the reincarnation of the Zola and Dreyfus trials to protest the trial of George Bensoussan strongly and to support the renowned historian and man of integrity with all our strength and determination.

It would be worthwhile to recall some critically important historical facts that are direct consequences of the late 19th century Dreyfus trial: That is when the Antisemitic League of France was officially launched as a legitimate organization - in 1889 - thus paving way for legitimized racial hatred – and we know the price that French Jewry and thousands and thousands Jewish people who were in France paid for that during the Second World War.

Of the other consequences, the League for Defense of Human Rights, the first ever organization for defending human rights was established by several leading defenders of Dreyfus led by senator Ludovic Trarieux, former French Minister for Justice, in 1898, as their way of organizing Dreyfus' defense. All of them had been electrified by Emil Zola’s J’Accuse which directly prompted their action.

The Dreyfus Trial resulted in the awful public ceremony of the officer’s degradation. The general atmosphere of hysterical and violently anti-Semitic France at the time, made a profound, shocking impact on journalist Theodor Herzl who covered the trial for the Austrian Neue Freir Presse. Significantly, Herzl completed the first version of the book which has become the manifesto of modern Zionism, in the few months following the Dreyfus trial.

In the final version of Der Judeenstaat, Herzl wrote: “If France – bastion of emancipation, progress and universal socialism – [can] get caught up in a maelstrom of anti-Semitism and let the Parisian crowd chant 'Kill the Jews!', where can they be safe once again – if not in their own country? Assimilation does not solve the problem, because the Gentile world will not allow it - as the Dreyfus affair has demonstrated so clearly”.

People who act with such bias, such open hatred, and such bigotry towards historian George Bensoussan in France today seem to be genuinely unaware of the real strength of history, which always pays back those who ignore it.

Inna and Michael Rogatchi are co-founders of The Rogatchi Foundation –, and is internationally renowned artistic and philanthropic couple. Inna Rogatchi is writer, scholar and film-maker; Michael Rogatchi is renowned artist. Both are active international public figures.