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What Dreyfus Can Teach Us About Darfur

Event examined aftermath of 1894 French injustice


At a March 2 forum, Robert Zelnick, a COM professor of journalism, along with French and legal experts, explored why the Dreyfus Affair of the 1890s still resonates today. Photo by Fred Sway

In 1894, French artillery captain Alfred Dreyfus was arrested for treason based on a false accusation. Following two months in prison, which included solitary confinement and psychological torture, the Jewish officer was found guilty in a closed-session court martial and sentenced to life at an island prison off the coast of French Guyana. He was retried five years later and again pronounced guilty.

Known as the Dreyfus Affair, the case caused a media stir, pitting the army and the Catholic Church against liberals and the intelligentsia and sparking anti-Jewish riots throughout France. The Dreyfus proceedings shone a light on anti-Semitism at the highest levels of French government and the military, as well as on the prejudice entrenched in French culture at large. The aftermath eventually led to the separation of church and state in France and planted the seeds for a sovereign Jewish state. Dreyfus was pardoned after his second trial, but was not fully exonerated until 1906.

On March 2, the New Center for Arts and Culture and Boston University’s Florence & Chafetz Hillel House presented a symposium called Catalyst to History: Why Dreyfus Matters. Panelists included Alan Dershowitz, a professor of law at Harvard University, Jeffrey Mehlman, a University Professor and College of Arts and Sciences professor of French literature, and Robert Zelnick, a College of Communication professor of journalism and national security studies. Dan Abrams, chief legal affairs correspondent for NBC News,  moderated.

BU Today spoke with Zelnick to find out why this case lives on.

BU Today: Of all the wrongful convictions and trials over the years that were miscarriages of justice, why does this century-old case still strike at the collective conscience?
I’d say for two reasons: first, despite the anti-Semitism that came to light in the Dreyfus proceedings, none of it went away. Alfred Dreyfus was freed basically because the government of France didn’t want any complications with the 1900 Paris World’s Fair, such as a foreign boycott. Anti-Semitism continued to grow in France. It was, in part, responsible for the collapse of the French army and the establishment of the Vichy government and the period of collaboration with the Germans.

Secondly, anti-Semitism is still widespread in the world, probably less so in Europe than it was during the period of the Dreyfus Affair. But all you have to do is check in with Hezbollah or Hamas and see what their charters have to say about Jews. I would add one other thing. The kinds of dehumanization that lead to massacres and bloodbaths, to the most extreme form of discrimination against peoples, aren’t limited to the Jewish people today. Obviously we saw it in Rwanda. We see it in Darfur. We see it to a far lesser extent in Kenya, as they break into tribes after a disputed election. So the more the world studies Dreyfus and events like Dreyfus, the earlier someone will recognize a situation that can lead to tragedy.

The phrase “dress rehearsal for the Holocaust” has been used in relation to Dreyfus. Can you explain?
What we saw in France — which had, in some cases, displayed itself before Dreyfus — was an anti-Semitism that claimed the Jews were an alien force, a wandering people who weren’t really Frenchmen and could never establish true loyalty to France; that they lived by their wits, were exploiters of economic situations, were corrupt. Some of the literature said they engaged in ritual murders of non-Jews. In the battle over Dreyfus, this anti-Semitism came to the fore, and many of those prejudices became embedded in French society, and in different ways and for slightly different reasons, became embedded in German society.

How did the case influence the separation of church and state in France?
The trial itself probably had little impact on the ultimate resolution, which was a separation of church and state. That battle was won or lost shortly thereafter for political reasons. But Dreyfus was something that helped define the two sides, that made them more distinct.

What role did the media play in the Dreyfus Affair? Emile Zola, of course, published “J’accuse,” his famous letter accusing the government and the military of anti-Semitism and obstruction of justice.
Dreyfus has been called the world’s first great media bash. In France, the newspapers were pretty well divided before the Dreyfus Affair. There were anti-Semitic papers like La Libre Parole, published by Edouard Drumont. The Dreyfus Affair was like a match set to dry timber. Jews were portrayed as people worthy of being excluded from the army and society. In some cases, Drumont even urged that there may be no solution but mass annihilation. He said that if a Catholic kills a Jew, the Vatican should grant him dispensation.

On the other side, there were a small handful of liberal and much more tolerant papers, the most prominent of which was run by Georges Clemenceau. That was the paper that eventually published Zola’s “J’accuse,” which was widely read and appreciated by the pro-Dreyfus crowd. Whether it was as influential in its time as it has become in the years since is a matter for legitimate scholarly debate, but it was a tremendously courageous act. It may have had its greatest impact, though, in the international arena. It could well have increased the pressure that France felt prior to the 1900 World’s Fair.

Does journalism still have that kind of power today?
I think that investigative reporting can have great consequences — witness the Watergate affair. But I think even more importantly, journalism on behalf of the weak and the discriminated against and the excluded can play a very useful purpose. We saw that during the civil rights movement in the South. I don’t think it would have occurred at the pace, or with the completeness, that it did had the press not fanned across the southern states documenting cases of injustice and inequity wrought by segregation and reporting on the physical attacks against sitting demonstrators and others who were marching and praying and resisting oppression.

What did the Dreyfus Affair have to do with the establishment of Israel?
The first trial was secret and there were rumors that Dreyfus had been railroaded, but not very substantial. However, the ceremony known as “degradation,” which was applied and was intended to humiliate people convicted of serious military crimes, was witnessed. That was where the accused or convicted was paraded around the courtyard and forced to come to a halt, and at that time a soldier approached him and ripped his service ribbons off his uniform, and then dragged his sword from its sheath and broke it into several pieces. One of the reporters who covered that event, representing a Viennese paper, was Theodor Herzl. It contributed very much to his belief that assimilation was not the answer for Jews, who had been segregated, who had been the victims of murders, blood libels, and pogroms century after century, but that they needed their own state and national ethic. Within two years of that degradation event, we had the first World Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, led by Herzl.

Catalyst to History: Why Dreyfus Matters was held in conjunction with the exhibition The Power of Prejudice: The Dreyfus Affair, also presented by Florence and Chafetz Hillel House and NCAC. Featuring documents, cartoons, film, video, and other artifacts, The Power of Prejudice is at BU’s 808 Gallery through April 6. The gallery’s hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; 1 to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; admission is free and open to the public.

Caleb Daniloff can be reached at cdanilof@bu.edu.


3 Comments on What Dreyfus Can Teach Us About Darfur

  • Scott C. Mohr on 02.29.2008 at 6:52 am

    Dreyfus case

    This is a terrific piece of journalism, very well written and reflective of a deep understanding of the subject by Professor Zelnick. It’s on a par with the best articles available nowadays — in the NYTimes, for example. Thanks!

  • Anonymous on 02.29.2008 at 11:10 am

    This article does indeed uphold the high standards of journalism. The news can (and just did) report on world events that affect our lives, inform us how we can make a difference (observe and respond) and cause us to search orselves to improve.

    Good job Caleb! Not just news – information!

  • Minh Ricks on 12.08.2014 at 12:55 am

    Good article, thanks.

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