Kenneth Jacobson
Kenneth Jacobson

How the Dreyfus affair spurred the fight against hate

Looking historically, the Dreyfus affair in France, the trial and imprisonment of a French Jewish officer, Alfred Dreyfus, on false charges, the anniversary of which we recently noted, was a turning point in the history of the Jewish people in two ways.

First, it had a dramatic impact on what became the Zionist movement. Second, it signaled that hopes for the diminution of historic antisemitism in Western Europe turned out to be ephemeral.

The affair had a parallel element to the founding of the Anti-Defamation League. According to mythology, the Zionist idea grew out of Theodore Herzl’s reaction to covering the Dreyfus trial as a journalist for an Austrian newspaper. He was appalled by the antisemitism associated with the trial and allegedly decided there was a need for a different approach to the challenge of Jewish existence in Europe by opting for the idea of a Jewish state in the land of Israel.

In fact, Herzl had begun to think about the need for Jews to have a state of their own several years earlier. So rather than being the catalyst for new thinking, the Dreyfus trial convinced Herzl that his earlier thoughts about Zionism were appropriate and more needed than he had even conceived before. In other words, the affair spurred him to action.

A similar mythology grew up surrounding the founding of ADL. Because the arrest and the trial of Leo Frank – the Jewish individual accused of murdering a Christian girl in his father-in-law’s factory in Georgia – took place in 1913, the same year that ADL was founded, and because it was one of the most significant antisemitic events in American history, the story emerged that the organization’s founding was a result of the Leo Frank affair.

In fact, ADL’s founder, Sigmund Livingston, came up with the idea for an ADL several years earlier. Like the connection of Zionism and the Dreyfus affair, the antisemitism surrounding Leo Frank dramatically reinforced the belief in the wisdom of creating an ADL. If ever proof were needed for the necessity of an organization devoted to countering antisemitism, Leo Frank provided that proof.

As for Herzl, the rest is familiar history. He organized the first Zionist Congress in 1897 in Basel, Switzerland and a year later made his famous prediction that the Jewish people would have a state of their own in 50 years.

Dreyfus led Herzl to his thinking that antisemitism would always exist and that the only solution for the Jewish people was to return to their historic home. Zionism as the solution to the problem of antisemitism has a very mixed history — Jews can defend themselves in the land of Israel, Jews around the world know they can escape persecution now with Israel as a haven, but Israel itself has become a focal point for the antisemitic narrative.

And sometimes, the connection between the need for a Jewish state and the history of antisemitism is stressed too much at the expense of the deeper theme, the unbroken attachment of the Jewish people to the land of Israel for thousands of years. Indeed, it is that attachment which kept the Jewish people alive for two thousand years in the diaspora, which is the best response to those who throw around terms like colonialism and imperialism about the Zionist enterprise.

Aside from its impact on the history of Zionism, the Dreyfus affair marked a turning point in the history of antisemitism in Europe, though it was only partially recognized as such at that time.

The amount and character of the antisemitism that emerged during this event was both classic and modern in its expression.

It spoke to historic views of the Jew as the other, as disloyal, as not to be trusted. The Jew as the spy. Dreyfus was accused of selling state secrets to the German enemy, and, as the affair became politicized, he was seen as representing the corrupt and disloyal Jew.

And in more modern terms, it saw the Jew as wielding secret power in society and representing the anti-traditional values that were seen as a threat by reactionary forces.

These manifestations were particularly shocking because of where they appeared: in France. This was the nation which seemed to represent values of democracy and equality and offered in the minds of many the best hope for new lives for Jews in the modern world.

When the affair broke out, it affected not only the Jewish community of France that felt under siege from the accusations against it, but also divided the broader society (were you for or against Dreyfus, were you for or against France?). It signaled that modern Europe might not get beyond its antisemitic past and that antisemitism could take on even more virulent forms within the framework of a democratic society. Stirring up the masses and scapegoating Jews was now part of the democratic landscape.

In sum, the Dreyfus affair was the harbinger of two completely contrasting tracks that reached their culminations in the decades to come, modern antisemitism and Zionism, one the most devastating event of the 20th century for the Jewish people and the other the most blessed event for the same people.

About the Author
Kenneth Jacobson is Deputy National Director of the Anti-Defamation League.
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