Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters

Barry Ungar, a member of the JSPAN Church-State Policy Center, has reviewed for our readers "Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters" by Louis Begley. The book was published in 2009 by the Yale University Press. Most of us are familiar with the essential outline of the Dreyfus Affair – a French Jewish army officer is falsely accused and convicted of treason at the end of the nineteenth century because of a pervasively anti-Semitic atmosphere and a corrupted military and judicial system which enforced it. We also know that one of the heroes was Emile Zola, who famously wrote “J’Accuse,” and that one of the villains was the real traitor Ferdinand Esterhazy. Louis Begley’s “Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters” is the book to read for those who want to know more about the Affair – to know the full list of heroes and villains, the extraordinary number of twists and turns in the story, the details of the corrupted military and judicial processes, the significance of the political and social conditions in France at the time, particularly following France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, and the luck, both good and bad, which played an important role in how the Affair unfolded and came to a conclusion. The book, unfortunately, is not presented as simply a history of the Dreyfus Affair, which is what it is, but rather, as suggested by its title, as how what happened then teaches us lessons about the Bush war on terror. The title, and the promise which it implies, undoubtedly was to sell more copies. That implication is a broken promise. Indeed, the author does very little to even attempt to fulfill it. Only in a very small portion of the book, near the beginning and then in the very last paragraph, is there even an attempt to fulfill the promise. And the attempt is badly done. Although there are some similarities between what happened in the Dreyfus Affair and what happened during the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld war on terror, for the most part the author presses to make a connection, and some alleged connections are not accurate. In the end, the first real lesson of the Affair is one familiar to Jews – the millennia old story of anti-Semitism, repeated in the familiar pattern: Jews viewed as outsiders who, without any regard for the actual facts, are suspected to be conspiring with a foreign enemy (think as far back as Goshen and the Passover story). Dreyfus, like many who came before, and after, him, mistakenly believed that so long as he was a Frenchman more than a Jew, he would be accepted as part of the French community. This, more than anything else, probably explains the peculiar constancy of his dedication to France and its institutions, particularly the army, even after all of them had turned against him in a most hideous fashion. We as Jews know that anti-Semitism is a constant which lies in wait for circumstances to nourish its activation. The circumstances may have similarities (conflict with a foreign power, financial crises, religious fanaticism), but the anti-Semitism will often find the Jew a handy scapegoat whatever the crises. That’s what the Dreyfus Affair mostly reminds us. There is, however, another important lesson of the Dreyfus Affair. That is the importance of free speech, a free press, an independent judiciary, brave citizens, and luck. Indeed, what makes one tremble is how easily the Affair could have ended without the truth ever coming to light. It reminds us (and not only Jews) how fragile our liberties are, and how awful life could be without them. For those of us who are infuriated in our very being when there is injustice and abuse of power, this book will get that blood boiling over and over again. The author’s detailed description of the Dreyfus events ably reminds us of the importance of the need for eternal vigilance against such injustice and abuse of power. Indeed, if the author intended this second lesson, rather than the thin reed of the war on terror, as “why the Dreyfus Affair matters,” he would have gotten it right. There are a number of errors in the book, but the one I feel compelled to mention is the author’s statement that 1791, when Jews were given full freedom in France, was the first time since the Babylonian Captivity that Jews had rights as full citizens. I believe the United States of America offered that freedom earlier, and still does.