Even with Hamas rockets still targeting Israeli homes, Israel’s defense priorities are rapidly shifting from preventing tunnel and rocket attacks to preparing for lengthy legal battles in distant courtrooms. Palestinian leaders are threatening to sue Israel in the International Criminal Court and the UN Human Rights Council is moving ahead in its investigations into possible war crimes in Gaza.
While Israel’s hard-earned military superiority over its many adversaries is unquestioned, Israel is concerned that its upcoming legal battles may be hopeless and that a guilty verdict has already been determined in the world’s eyes. However, the Jewish struggle for justice is not new. Israel’s current legal predicament is reminiscent of the events and lessons of the “Dreyfus Affair.”
As you may recall from history, in 1895, a French military court relied upon falsified evidence to convict Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer, for selling military secrets to the Germans. Even as Dreyfus proclaimed his innocence at his public degradation, a huge mob of onlookers spat at him and screamed, “Death to Dreyfus! Death to the Jews.” Dreyfus was condemned to solitary confinement on Devil’s Island.
Dreyfus’s brother quit his job and worked tirelessly to find powerful supporters who might help reopen the case. But the French public and political leadership was in no mood to listen to a Jew fighting for his brother. Dreyfus would have to wait until two non-Jews and the followers they inspired stood up for French democracy and justice, including individual rights, due process, and equality for all citizens under the law.
The first to help was Lt. Colonel Picquart, the new chief of French military intelligence–and an admitted anti-Semite. During the course of his work he discovered that Dreyfus was innocent and that another man was the true criminal. Picquart appealed to his superiors, but his demands to prosecute the real traitor backfired. Military leaders, determined to shield the army from public ridicule, lied during a secret court-martial to ensure that the guilty party would be acquitted and that the Dreyfus case would remain closed.
Émile Zola, one of the leading writers in France at the time, was outraged by this second act of injustice and joined the fight for Dreyfus. Zola wrote “J’accuse!”, an impassioned essay accusing the military and the government of injustice and anti-Semitism. His piece, published on the front page of a major French newspaper in 1898, sparked violent protests and riots in France – and turned Dreyfus into an international symbol of the failure of law and justice.
Zola’s piece attracted large numbers of new supporters to the Dreyfus cause. Because of worldwide pressure, Dreyfus was brought back from Devil’s Island and was given a new military trial. To the shock the world, he was found guilty again, despite the overwhelming evidence of his innocence. Anti-French sentiment overtook Europe and the United States, convincing France’s President to offer Dreyfus a quick pardon.
Years later, thanks the efforts of men like Picquart and Zola, Dreyfus would eventually be exonerated of all charges, in full. However, the Dreyfus Affair remains a powerful reminder to the dangers of anti-Semitism, injustice and corruption in the legal system. Unbelievably, 120 years after the original Dreyfus conviction in France, mobs are once again attacking French synagogues chanting “death to Jews” and “slit Jews’ throats.” Even in Germany today, protestors hurl Molotov cocktails at synagogues while shouting, “Jew, coward pig, come out and fight alone” and “Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas”.
Are we destined to relive the injustices of Dreyfus Affair? Are Jews – and Israel –forever condemned when we claim or exercise the right to do things that all others are accorded an unchallengeable right to do? For example, to protect the security of our borders, homes and places of worship–or merely to exist at all? Are we heading back to the darkest days of our past, when violent mobs were allowed to pressure weak legal institutions into serving as kangaroo courts of injustice? Doesn’t Israel deserve the same protections as all other nations under international law when fighting enemies who illegally shield their soldiers and weapons behind civilians? Doesn’t the responsibility for civilian casualties or damage rest on the party, in this case Hamas, who uses protected persons or areas? (Article 28 of the Geneva Convention of 1948 says “the presence of a protected person may not be used to render certain points or areas immune from military operations.”)
Like Dreyfus, Israel may face years or even decades of trials and retrials over the same imbalanced accusations. Like the French mob during the Dreyfus Affair, many people today are already convinced of Israel’s guilt. As Dreyfus’s brother found out, the world may not listen to Jews alone when it comes to fighting for an honest appraisal of our case. After 66 years, Israel’s right to exist as a democratic state within secure, recognized borders is still being challenged.
Perhaps it is time to try something new? If the world will not hear our calls for justice, then, shouldn’t we, like Dreyfus’s brother, engage more non-Jewish leaders (like Picquart and Zola) to help us get the fair hearing we deserve? It may be about Israel now, as it was about a Jew then, but who may be next?
To make future Picquarts and Zolas, we must transform understanding and appreciation of Israel’s case, highlight toxic and unjust bias, and help prepare the best and brightest to become impassioned supporters of justice! Future leaders must be committed to Israel’s case for the good of civilization. Picquart and Zola suffered mightily for their defense of Dreyfus. Only their passion for reforming France kept them moving forward to continue their efforts.
The best and brightest among us need ample opportunities to ask challenging questions, debate the issues, reflect together, and devise the best way to advance Israel’s case for the good of the world. Potential Israel supporters, like Dreyfus supporters, will appreciate that Israel is confident enough in its case to enable them to use the full extent of their critical thinking skills. Through their efforts, they are likely to gain a deep insight into the ways in which Israel’s legal system already addresses potential issues, especially in the areas of human rights and security.
Israel is likely to face charges that it wages wanton and indiscriminate campaigns against defenseless civilians. However, it is unrealistic to set the bar so high that Israel can never make any errors in the heat of battle. Like Dreyfus, Israel, too, should not need to be perfect to get a fair trial.
Israel may emerge from its trials with a large, new following of passionate supporters from outside the Jewish community. After a fair hearing of all the evidence, it finally may be fully exonerated from all the charges levied against it since its creation. On the other hand, Hamas is the one who should be worried. It is willfully and deliberately committing double war crimes by targeting Israeli civilians and by using Palestinian civilians as human shields. When is their trial?