Exploring the implications of the Dreyfus trial on the Genocide case against Israel
When the news broke out about South Africa’s move to bring Israel to trial for the crime of genocide I initially dismissed it as yet another case of clear anti-Israel bias. Noise in a sea of noise, made irrelevant by the ridiculousness of the claim. “Don’t worry,” I found myself telling friends and family who asked about the case. “The UN Charter specifically guarantees the right of any state to defend itself, and the military operation.”
After reading the way the international press has covered the case, I now believe I was wrong. I believe the closest analogy to Israel’s taking the bench next week to defend itself against accusations of Genocide at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) is the trial of Captain Alfred Dreyfus in France, which started 130 years ago in 1894. Then, as now, a defendant is accused of crimes others are committing. Then, as now, some of the judges adjudicating the case hold deep biases that prejudice their decisions. Some in this case even come from countries who are committing the crime themselves. Most importantly, then, as now, the very existence of the trial should be seen as a warning about the place of the Jew in society and the historical processes we should prepare for.
Alfred Dreyfus was in many ways the paradigmatic assimilated Jew. As a military officer in a country with a national self-image as the shining light of liberalism, Dreyfus would have expected to have a fair hearing by a legal system dedicated to liberty, equality, and fraternity. He was, of course, found guilty by the same system which covered for those really guilty of the crimes, a system for which it was much more convenient to blame the Jew than to wrestle with the entrenched interests and their convenient biases.
Despite condemnations by intellectual luminaries including Emile Zola and Theodore Herzl (at the time one of Europe’s top intellectual influencers, before he catalyzed the Zionist movement), Dreyfus was punished by the state. In response to the shock of this colossal failure of justice, Zola led an intellectual movement seeking to rid France of antisemitism; Herzl led a popular movement for Jews to take control of their own fate by establishing a state of their own. In this particular case Zola’s initiative failed, and Herzl’s succeeded. The trends they identified resulted only half a century later in the near destruction of Europe’s Jewish community and establishment of the State of Israel by Jews determined to fight back when our haters captured positions of power and used those positions against us.
As Dreyfus was to France, so is Israel to the international community. The response to the current case against Israel by international institutions founded to prevent genocide and support the peaceful relations between peoples – such as the UN, WHO, and Red Cross – is no different than the response of French intellectuals who advocated high minded ideals but supported, either implicitly or explicitly, the most base of hatreds when it came to the Jews. Then, as now, Israel expects that its contributions to general society will have earned it a fair trial, when the very fact of the trial existing shows how deeply dependent Israel is on the good will of the world. Then, as now, there will be Zolas accusing the international community, and yet the international community will pay them no heed. Then, as now, the trends that made the trial possible will run their course.
Just as the Dreyfus trial was a pivotal point for rethinking the place of the Jews in Europe, this genocide trial should cause us to rethink the place of Israel in the world. While the political Zionism that built the State of Israel succeeded in giving the Jews the opportunity to defend ourselves, it ironically provided an assimilationist vision for Israel as a nation-state into the global economy. Just as Zola and Jewish intellectuals who followed him believed the best way forward was for Jews to more fully integrate into European society, so too the heirs of Herzl believed that once the state would exist Jews would be normalized among the nations and know antisemitism no more.
The genocide trial should awaken us to the fact that having a state is not enough. Being in good standing with the international community is not enough. Having the most moral military in the world is not enough. Providing the most comprehensive individual rights and protections for Muslim individuals in the Middle East is not enough. In the eyes of most of the world, we are not a peer nation, we’re just Jews. So long as we aspire to be no more than to be like the other nations, that is how we will remain, and this genocide trial will be followed by other attempts to exterminate us by other means.
The genocide trial demands we rethink our role in the world. It requires us to build resilience within our local economy to prepare for the possibility of international boycotts, to build sustainability through a regenerative economy that will not rise and fall according to the whims of international trading partners. It requires us to build power in the international community. To reformat and empower the ministry of foreign affairs, the ministry of diaspora affairs, and our international institutions to build and gather that power. To recruit global elites to our side through new institutions. It requires us to recognize that Israel’s conduct in Gaza isn’t the only thing on trial. That our very existence as a people is once more in question and we cannot sit by and hope it all works out.