Israel, the never-ending Dreyfus Affair, Part I
Israel, the never-ending Dreyfus Affair, Part I

Part One (of two)

In 1894 Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish French artillery officer, was arrested, charged and convicted of selling French military secrets to Germany. He was sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island in French Guiana. In 1896 evidence came to light that the real culprit was a French major called Ferdinand Esterhazy, but high-ranking military officials suppressed the evidence and acquitted Esterhazy after a two-day trial. The French Army then accused Dreyfus of further crimes based on falsified documents. Word of the cover-up began to spread, especially after Emile Zola penned his famous letter, J’accuse, in a Paris newspaper in 1898. The entire country was split between those in favor of Dreyfus’ innocence and those who held he was guilty.

A new trial in 1899 led to another conviction and a ten-year sentence, but Dreyfus was given a pardon and set free. Eventually the charges against Dreyfus were shown to be fabricated and in 1906 Dreyfus was exonerated and reinstated as a major in the French Army.

But the Affair, as it came to be known, had torn the country apart and his reinstatement did little to persuade those who considered him guilty to change their opinions.

Marcel Proust, in his celebrated novel Remembrance Of Things Past, documented the anti-Semitism that inflamed the right-thinking salons of Paris throughout this period. It bears rereading, or reading if one has not done so, especially by those who today consider themselves members of the now democratized cultural elites of western society. For their anti-Semitism is hardly different from that of those French cultural elites who never acknowledged Dreyfus’ innocence, except that the object of their condemnation today is not the long dead Jewish French Army captain but the Jewish state of Israel.

Dreyfus was never formally acquitted. His pardon was used to close the affair and put an end to the passions that tore apart France at the time. In that sense too, Dreyfus’ personal history more than resembles that of the State of Israel. Vilified and denounced by the United Nations in its infamous resolution labeling Zionism as racism, Israel has never truly received a formal apology, even though the resolution was eventually rescinded. The perpetrators of that resolution never recanted; they merely shifted their anti-Israel rhetoric onto other paths, with the growing complicity of so-called progressive elites in the western world.

The Dreyfus Affair unleashed a torrent of anti-Semitism in French society at the time, an anti-Semitism which proved to be European when it culminated in the Nazi pan-European program to incinerate its Jewish population. Today, Israel’s very existence has unleashed a torrent of anti-Jewish vitriol whose ultimate denouement remains to be seen.

It is in that sense that one can simply state that Israel is a reincarnation of the Dreyfus Affair, but one which goes on and on, and which will only end when Israel, and the Jews themselves, decide to put an end to it. Unfortunately, there are today too many Jews who place themselves on the side that vilifies Israel, without even the decency of the French Jews of Dreyfus’ time who simply kept a low profile. Their excuse was most likely they felt vulnerable as a minority in a country that was not their own. Today they have no such excuse. Israel exists as a Jewish state. In working to destroy it, however, these latter-day Jews will reproduce the helplessness of their French co-religionists of a hundred years ago, and thus bequeath to history the ironic footnote of Jewish complicity in their own demise.

Herzl saw all this in 1894. Attending the degradation of Captain Dreyfus, he knew Dreyfus was incapable of betraying France. But he also heard the cries of “Death to the Jews!” in the Paris streets and was shook to the core. His consternation led to the publication of his essay, The Jewish State, in which he called for the establishment of a Jewish state recognized in public law, to which the European Jews could freely emigrate.

He was mocked and vilified for his ideas, especially by the Viennese intellectual milieu in which he was known. The Jewish editors of the Neue Freie Presse for which he wrote even changed his dispatch, replacing the call “Death to the Jews!” with “Death to the traitors!”. Already the western European Jews from whose ranks Herzl came were opting for the crumbs of Gentile tolerance and placing their faith in the European modernity which would prove to be their ruin.

The East-European Jews, on the other hand, flocked to Herzl’s banner and joined his fledgling Zionist movement en masse, whether they had read his pamphlet or not. Herzl was bowled over by their enthusiasm and pride in being Jewish, so different from the vacillation of their West-European brethren. It infected him to the point that he ditched the Christmas tree that had been in his home every December and started to celebrate Hannukah.

Herzl envisaged a Jewish state in whant was then known as Palestine that would have been recognized by all the leading European powers. The exodus from Europe would have been methodical and organized, unlike the exodus from Egypt; this time, he said, the Jews would not leave the fleshpots behind, but take them with. The country he envisaged would be modern, scientific, cosmopolitan and multicultural, as we like to say today. Indeed, after the first Zionist Congress at Basle in 1897 came to a close, Herzl wrote that in fifty years the Jewish state would come into being. Fifty years later it did, but its existence has not solved the Jewish question for all that.

The plight of the Palestinians became a cottage industry among western diplomats and their governments.
Having issued the Balfour Declaration in 1917, the British government then did everything it could to negate it in the subsequent thirty years, including aiding and abetting the Arab states and leaders of the Arab community in Palestine when they declared war on the nascent Jewish state. To the western world’s diplomats’ great surprise, and to the surprise of the Arab League whose director had predicted a massacre of Jews that would make the murder wreaked on them by the Crusades pale in comparison, Israel emerged from its War of Independence victorious.

The Arabs did not give up, sending marauders over the Israeli border to cause as much havoc as they could, and ending in 1956 with the nationalization of the Suez Canal which led Israel, Britain and France to strike back. The three of them reached the Suez Canal in no time, but the Eisenhower Administration forced them to retreat. The next round came in June 1967, when Nasser of Egypt rallied Syria and Jordan to his cause, threatening Israel with annihilation. Again the Israelis struck back, winning an overwhelming victory when most observers feared for the country’s destruction. Once the dust had settled Israel found itself in possession of Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, Judea and Samaria, and Gaza.

But now that Israel’s integrity was assured, the Arab world became even more anti-Semitic. Its intellectual classes, small as they were, led the fight in instilling the most rabid anti-Jewish and anti-Israel hatred among its masses. In Europe sentiment no longer sided with beleaguered Israel, but with the new underdogs, now transformed into Palestinians.

France under de Gaulle was the first to turn on the Jews, and slowly the rest of Europe followed suit. The Palestinian Liberation Organization, founded in 1964 with a declaration by its leader that Israel was nothing but southern Syria, led the battle cry of no negotiation and no recognition of Israel. Instead they turned to hijacking airplanes and ships, murdering Israeli athletes at the Olympics, and ongoing terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians.

None of that bothered western cultural elites. Nor did the United Nations’ declaration equating Zionism with racism. The plight of the Palestinians became a cottage industry among western diplomats and their governments, who funded the UN agencies that stoked Arab resentment and kept it alive and well.

In 1993 the Israeli government signed the Oslo accords, bringing the PLO, which had been driven from one Arab country after another for their nefarious activities which imperilled their hosts’ governments, back to Judea, Samaria and Gaza, granting them autonomy in exchange for the promise of a final settlement of the long-standing dispute between the Jews and Arabs of the British Mandate. This, alas, was not to happen.

No sooner had the PLO been ensconced in the heartland of ancient Israel than they started their terrorist attacks against Israel with renewed vigor. Arafat, the PLO leader, explained that he had no use for Jews and unleashed his goons on Israeli cities and villages after he turned down President Clinton’s mediation attempts at Camp David in 2000. Israel was forced to respond to protect its citizens from being massacred. Its response was met with denunciation from all and sundry, especially among western intellectual elites, who set about lecturing Israel on its need to show restraint in the face of the genocidal hostility unleashed against it. Since 2000 little has changed in this dynamic.

The PLO installed a totalitarian regime of gangsters and religious fanatics in the areas where it had autonomy, eventually splitting into rival factions of Fatah and Hamas, the former retaining control over Judea and Samaria, the latter over Gaza. Everyone still talks about the two-state solution as the inevitable and sole path to peace, but the Palestinian Authority, the so-called government responsible for the territory granted the PLO, has been nothing but implacable in its aims to liquidate the Jewish state.

(Part two tomorrow)

Stephen Schecter is a poet, writer and sociologist who tells Bible stories and writes about Israel. His work can be seen at