It is a well-known accident of history that the trial of a Jewish captain in the French army accused of espionage in 1894 is traditionally linked to the founding of the Zionist Movement and by extension to the creation of the State of Israel. And now that captain, Alfred Dreyfus, is honored by a statue that stands near the site of the founding of the city of Tel Aviv, on Ahad Ha’am Street, near Shalom Tower.
It was a complicated story that had repercussions in French political history that reverberate to this day. In 1894 Captain Alfred Dreyfus was exiled to the notorious Devil’s Island on charges of spying for Germany. There was practically no evidence. The trial was not about the facts but about the place of Jews in French society, and many, many other things. Dreyfus was originally from Alsace, a former German region, which raised further suspicions. The affair became part of the debate between monarchists, reactionaries, and republicans, as well as a sticking point in France’s relations with Italy. A movement of French intellectuals seeking to exonerate Dreyfus led to a national debate, epitomized by the iconic letter “J’Accuse” written by the great French novelist Emile Zola in Dreyfus’ defense. The country was divided into Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards, and to this day, when French historians refer to “L’Affaire” they mean only one thing: Dreyfus.
Theodore Herzl, the visionary founder of Zionism, was a young Viennese journalist in Paris reporting on the trial, and while initially unsympathetic, the resulting anti-Semitic riots led Herzl to the conclusion that if this could happen in Paris to a patriotic and assimilated Jew, there was no hope for Jews in the Diaspora.
In his book “The Jewish State” 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?”
In 1897 Herzl convened the First Zionist Congress in Basel, and famously wrote in his diary “In Basel I founded the Jewish State.” At the time, Dreyfus, struggling to survive on Devil’s Island, certainly didn’t know about Herzl or Basel, and was only vaguely aware of the movement to exonerate him. In 1899 Dreyfus was brought back to France for a re-trial and after only an hour of deliberation he was convicted again and sentenced to 10 years of hard labor. French President Emile Loubet pardoned Dreyfus and he was essentially confined to house arrest until 1906, when he was finally cleared of all crimes by the Supreme Court. But Dreyfus was still reviled by many who were convinced of his guilt. When Emile Zola was interred in the Pantheon with the national luminaries Dreyfus attended as a special guest of Zola’s widow and was wounded in an assassination attempt. He was ultimately reinstated as a major in the French Army and fought in World War I. Alfred Dreyfus died in 1935, little imagining that his family would have to join the resistance against the Nazis during WWII while his beloved wife Lucie spent the war in hiding in a convent, and one of his granddaughters perished in Auschwitz.
By the time Dreyfus died in 1935, of course, the Zionist movement was flourishing. Tel Aviv, “the first Hebrew city” had grown to 150,000 people and where there were once sand dunes there was now a vibrant culture of Hebrew poetry, literature, and journalism centered on a boulevard where someday a statue of Dreyfus would stand. I sometimes wonder if Dreyfus had any idea of the role that his unfortunate life story would play. Did he even know that there was a Zionist movement and a Jewish presence in Palestine? He was a well-read intellectual, so some news must have reached him of the goings-on in the Holy Land. Or perhaps he didn’t think about it at all.
But Zola did. He wrote to Lucie Dreyfus during her husband’s incarceration, “Though reviled today, someday they will build a statue of you, the heroes.”
Through the efforts of Yael Luiz-Perl, the great-granddaughter of Alfred Dreyfus, a statue of the captain in full French military uniform was erected last year in Tel Aviv. Luiz-Perl visits Israel frequently, but for the dedication, she brought a visitor who had never been to Israel before. It was her good friend, Martine Le Blond Zola, the great-granddaughter of Emile Zola, the man who taught us all the meaning of “J’accuse.”