‘J’accuse’: Dreyfus in Our Times

Jacqueline Rose

For Tony Judt

What is a collective passion? And is it something we should want, or get excited about? Today the political climate across the Western world is marked, we are told, by a curious and disabling atrophy or disaffection. We do not care enough. The election of Obama would be the exception. His election was of course inspirational, notably in terms of collective life: the mass registration of black voters was close to what might be called the forging of a new political constituency across generation and race. But the enthusiasm he roused, the very force of his rhetoric, so one argument runs, has at moments appeared to be something of an illusion, or even his Achilles’ heel. Despite the passage of the healthcare bill, it remains to be seen whether rhetoric can fully triumph over the crushing anomie of state bureaucracy and the realities of political power. And that is not to speak of the lethal counter-enthusiasm, the ugly, race-tinted hatreds also provoked by the election of the first black president, the dogs baying on the White House lawn.

Which of these public sentiments will prevail? Only time, as they say, will tell. For now, our era seems only rarely to be capable of marshalling collective affect in the direction of the common good. As Tony Judt has eloquently argued on several occasions over the past year and in his new book, Ill Fares the Land, the sense of mass belonging which characterised European and American politics from the late 19th century well into the last, doesn’t seem to be there any longer. In an interview with Kristina Bozic in this paper, he laments what he sees as a failure of political vocabulary, the absence of a language that could inspire ‘collective ideals around which we can gather, around which we can get angry together, around which we can be motivated collectively, whether on the issue of justice, inequality, cruelty or unethical behaviour’.[1] Where there has been such mobilisation in recent years, it has fallen, ineffective, to the ground. One million marched against the war in Iraq (I think it was one, Judt says two, I loved the inflation): it made no difference. There is a fundamental ‘disconnect’ between the people and those who claim to represent them. As the last 18 months have so brutally testified, the anti-globalisation movement, though it is testament to something of what Judt is calling for, has had no effect on the clout and corruption of international finance across the world. Action on climate change seems to be in freefall. With no apparent awareness of the irony, we will save the banks before – or rather instead of – saving the world.

What has happened to collective purpose in the West? As a feminist, who lived through and was in many ways formed by one of feminism’s most inspired moments, in the 1970s, the question has special resonance for me. I would say special poignancy, but that would be to concede that such moments are gone for ever. We need more anger (in another essay Judt suggests we need more fear). We have lost our capacity for political rage. Can passion be stronger than power? Do we want it to be?

Imagine now the Palais de Justice in Paris in February 1898. Emile Zola has been charged with libelling the army in his famous letter, which we know today under the title ‘J’accuse’ (it was a stroke of genius of the editor of L’Aurore, the left-wing paper in which it appeared, to splay these words in a bold headline across the front page). Zola wrote the letter in response to the acquittal of Major Esterhazy, a low-life womanising swindler, who had been exposed as the true author of the bordereau or missive that had precipitated the affair. Discovered in a wastepaper basket at the German Embassy in Paris by a cleaner working for French intelligence, the bordereau revealed that classified military information was being passed from France to Germany. Wrongly – wilfully, as it turned out – it had been attributed to the young Jewish artillery captain, the rising star at the headquarters of the General Staff of the French army, Alfred Dreyfus. To put it simply, Dreyfus had been framed. In 1894, he was court-martialled, convicted of treason and then in 1895 deported to Devil’s Island, the tiniest of three tiny Iles du Salut, or Salvation Islands, off the coast of French Guiana, where the climate was so intense that to be sent there was considered a death sentence. By the time of Zola’s trial, Dreyfus had already been languishing on the island for three years, in inhuman conditions. It almost killed him (he had also been kept in complete ignorance of the campaign to free him). He would remain there for more than a year until he was brought home for his 1899 retrial, at which he would be reconvicted ‘with extenuating circumstances’ by a court set up by the army to vindicate itself. Given that by then everyone knew he was innocent, this was in many ways a more shocking conviction than that of 1894.

Zola was sparked into his famous protest when Esterhazy walked free. As the world watched the events in France with growing dismay, Zola, along with the rapidly expanding number of Dreyfusards, had believed that the inevitable conviction of Esterhazy would be the beginning of redemption. Instead, it was a whitewash for Esterhazy and for the army. In fact, Esterhazy had himself requested the court-martial, so confident was he of acquittal.

Dreyfus would finally be pardoned in 1899, fully exonerated and reinstated in the army in 1906, and made an officer of the Légion d’honneur in the First World War (although the experience came close to destroying him). We might therefore turn to the story in the first instance as an illustration of how justice, under force of public pressure, can finally prevail. The question is how, and why? And what can the whole affair teach us in the process about public passion? I will track the main strands of the affair as I see them: the struggle for justice, the corruption of state and army, the outpouring of anti-semitism and the fate of the Jews. But the lessons I draw from them, the ways I see them combined, may not – by the end – be those most obviously expected.

Because of Dreyfus, therefore Israel. It is an argument that many find unanswerable: the crimes perpetrated by the French state against the Jewish officer heralded, for those who could hear, the end of the dream of emancipation for European Jews. Jewish nationalism would then be the most important lesson of the affair (for many in Israel it is Dreyfus as much as, or even more than, the Shoah that makes this unavoidably clear). But what happens if instead we run the line: because of Dreyfus, therefore justice, or rather the struggle for justice, crucially for the Jews a universal and endless affair? Today, following Israel’s assault on Gaza in 2008-9, the question of justice in relation to Israel has become a burning international issue. What happens if, like Bernard Lazare, a key player in the affair, we make justice a defining priority of what it might mean to be a Jew?

The affair has three heroes: Zola, the less known Colonel Picquart, one of Dreyfus’s few defenders inside the army, and Bernard Lazare, the Jewish socialist-anarchist and critic who was the first to speak out publicly in Dreyfus’s defence. But we should also add a fourth: the radical, little-known literary journal La Revue blanche.

We start with Zola. His involvement in the affair came late, and he admitted that at first he had been driven by something other than political concern. What had excited him was the aesthetic dimension of the affair. ‘What a poignant drama, and what superb characters!’ he opened a letter to the Figaro, the year before ‘J’accuse’: ‘Faced with documents of such tragic beauty, my novelist’s heart leaps with passionate admiration.’ ‘Tragic beauty’ turns the whole affair, we might say, into a Yeats poem before its time. Later Zola is somewhat embarrassed: ‘One will note in these first pages that the professional, the novelist, was above all seduced and exalted by such a drama,’ he writes in a note appended to a later publication of the letter. ‘And,’ he continues, ‘pity, faith, the passion for truth and justice all came later.’

Public viciousness can be a source of pleasure. Zola started out as a spectator (one definition of a spectator might be someone who effortlessly turns anything, however nasty, into entertainment). Political crises do not necessarily rouse noble passions. Curiosity about the cruel fate of an innocent man is not in itself always innocent. Zola is acknowledging that something else is needed to arouse the pity, faith and passion for truth that is the foundation of the struggle for justice.

‘J’accuse’ was a masterpiece of political rhetoric, as well as a piece of staged drama in itself. It was addressed to the president of the Republic, Félix Faure, calling on him to wipe the ‘tache de boue’ spreading across his name and the face of the nation. After listing the judicial errors, the cruelties to which Dreyfus and his family were subjected (the chief investigator telling his wife in the early hours of Dreyfus’s disappearance that if she told anyone about the arrest, her husband would be killed), the reproaches against Dreyfus, including bizarrely the fact that he was hard-working and proficient in several languages, the manipulation of evidence, the flouting of legal procedure, Zola lists in minute detail the damning evidence of widespread, high-level corruption surrounding Esterhazy’s trial. ‘Truth is on the march, and nothing will stop it.’ (His collected writings on Dreyfus have the title La Vérité en marche.) He concludes with a litany of accusations – each one starting ‘J’accuse’ – which ends with the charge against the military tribunal that it knowingly acquitted a criminal. He knew that, by doing this, he was himself courting a charge of criminal libel, a prospect he welcomed with enthusiasm: ‘Let there be an inquiry in the full light of day!’ He ended: ‘I am waiting.’ He also knew that, as the question of what the tribunal knew or did not know would be virtually impossible to settle in law, he was almost certain to be found guilty. ‘It is impossible,’ Louis Begley writes in his recent book about the affair, Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters, ‘to overstate Zola’s courage.’[2]

Zola’s trial was billed as the social event of the decade. It was the place where anyone who was anyone went to see and be seen. ‘Never had a crowd more numerous or more passionately agitated invaded the Assizes chamber,’ Joseph Reinach reported in his Histoire de l’Affaire Dreyfus:

Lawyers were piled on top of each other, some clinging to the high partitions surrounding the reserved enclosure or to the windowsills; and mingling with them, crushed to suffocation point, in the emotion of the spectacle absorbing the whole world’s attention, elegant ladies, journalists, officers, men of leisure, actors, ‘Everybody who was anybody. All – the cream – of Paris.’

In the crowd, among many others, was the young Marcel Proust, who would take from this unedifying spectacle of indecorous bodies clambering all over each other as they jockeyed for position, some of the more sadistic components of his portrayal of the French high-society drawing-room. Society ladies, but also writers, journalists, actors, officers, were happy to risk, if not their lives, certainly their limbs, in order to witness Zola on trial. The exit from the courtroom was like a riot. One young man who had cheered Zola was accused of calling out ‘Down with France,’ and beaten. The uproar spread to all the galleries of the Palais and Zola had to take refuge. When he eventually appeared surrounded by a protective cordon of lawyers and friends, a huge, seemingly ever expanding mob – ‘fantastic, in the misty winter night’ – greeted him with a torrent of boos and catcalls. Without the personal intervention of the préfet de police, he would undoubtedly have been knocked to the ground. His carriage left at top speed, pursued by the death cries of the rabble – ‘Into the water! Into the water! Into the Seine!’ – mixed with patriotic slogans. Today public spectacle of this sort is associated with a celebrity culture that thrives above all on the vacuousness of the lives it relentlessly and sadistically displays. When Judt laments our loss of shared social purpose and bemoans our lack of collective participation, I think we can be fairly sure that this isn’t quite what he has in mind.

As well as splitting France down the middle in what was routinely described as a civil war, the Dreyfus affair raised public life to the pitch of frenzy. ‘The coups de théâtre’ of Zola’s trial, ‘one after the other without interruption, sparked intense emotion, passions … were roused to madness … Brains pounded with the fever.’ For the Dreyfusards, the affair unleashed a type of joy, made life, in the words of Léon Blum looking back in 1935, not just ‘tolerable, but happy’. Emile Durkheim and Charles Péguy both saw it as a moment of ‘conscience humaine’ (the French conscience is both ‘consciousness’ and ‘conscience’) that introduced into political life a new level of moral seriousness. ‘Not since the Reformation,’ Reinach solemnly pronounced, ‘has human consciousness taken a greater step … we must bow to this endeavour to imbue politics with the spirit of morality.’ His view was shared by Tolstoy, who sent his greetings to France, congratulating it on its ‘great fortune’ that such a crisis was presenting itself to the nation.

We should not get carried away. The Dreyfus affair is also and above all the story of a very different, more sinister form of collective passion. Although justice would finally prevail, it is a real question, as we will see, whether, in the longer term, it was triumphant. If there is a lesson to be learned from Dreyfus, it might equally be, after Derrida, that justice is an infinite affair. Dreyfus knew that he had been framed because he was a Jew. ‘My only crime is to be a Jew,’ he stated to the Cherche-Midi prison director, Commandant Forzinetti, as Forzinetti led him back after his first conviction; the fact that he looked like a ‘madman’ and could not be calmed persuaded Forzinetti, before anyone else, of his innocence.

The publication of ‘J’accuse’ in 1898, and Zola’s subsequent trial, were the occasion for the most vicious outpouring of anti-semitism across France. The day after the letter was published, anti-Jewish riots, attracting up to 4000 people in each town, broke out in Nantes, Nancy, Rennes, Bordeaux, Moulins, Montpellier, Angoulême, Tours, Poitiers, Toulouse, Angers, Rouen, Châlons and Saint-Malo, as well as in Paris. Jewish shops were attacked, synagogues besieged, Jews were assaulted in the street, effigies of Dreyfus and Zola were burned. During the trial, the agitator Jules Guérin, founder of the Ligue Antisémitique, deployed his troops on the Left Bank and all round the Palais de Justice. ‘I can still see,’ Reinach writes, ‘the furious young woman who came after me, trying to tear off my Légion d’honneur ribbon, as the demonstrators shouted out: “Death to the Jews! Death to traitors!”’ Similar cries had greeted Dreyfus’s court-martial (following his indictment many called for the reinstatement of the death penalty for treason). The police, most of them former soldiers, smiled at the rioters, who took care to accompany their declarations of Jew-hatred with cries of ‘Long live the army!’ Anyone daring to counter with ‘Long live the Republic!’ was immediately threatened (one such was apparently, and somewhat unbelievably, set upon by one of the judges who had acquitted Esterhazy).

Algeria saw the worst outbursts. ‘A Jewish sow has just given birth to two swine,’ one Algerian newspaper announced. The same week, a band of youths, encountering a pregnant Jewish woman in the street, stripped her and urinated on her. For Edouard Drumont, author of the 1885 anti-semitic diatribe La France juive, a bestseller, all this was the expression of the noble rage of a people who wanted to throw all Jews into the river or roast them: ‘Except that grilled Yid must stink,’ his newspaper, La Libre Parole, shouted. The Catholic newspapers – La Croix, the Pèlerin, the Gazette de France – all made themselves vehicles for anti-Jew hatred. ‘With very few exceptions,’ Bernard Lazare wrote, ‘the press was anti-semitic.’ For a country which, according to Reinach, had lost the habit of public display, the riots were remarkable for unleashing ‘the brutality of wild beasts’.

‘Wild beasts’ is perhaps a bit easy. It ignores the extent to which outbursts such as these draw on the underside of other, more civilised passions. ‘They are stirring France up,’ Zola wrote of the army’s appeal to national sentiment, ‘hiding behind her legitimate emotions, clamming mouths shut by vexing hearts, perverting minds. I know of no greater civic crime.’ For Reinach, anti-semitism was ‘descending into the lower depths, into the old bedrock where it has flowed for centuries’. It is worth pausing here. This is not the vague image of an eternal, unchanging, anti-semitism, which Hannah Arendt warned against as placing anti-semitism beyond the reach of history and politics – and which always involves a claim for its inevitable recurrence, stoking a regime of perpetual, ineffective fear. Anti-semitism belongs in time. There is a bedrock, but it takes a historical crisis flush with the needs of the time to bring it to life.

Worse was to come. In 1898, La Libre Parole launched a fundraising petition for ‘the widow and orphan’ of Joseph Henry, the forger of the main incriminating document (which has gone down in history as ‘le faux Henry’). Exposed, Henry had cut his own throat in prison. As well as raising money, the intention of the petition was to defend Henry’s honour, the ‘French officer killed, murdered by the Jews’. In the relative privacy provided by the petition, which came to be known ironically as the Henry ‘monument’, there were no bounds. ‘Long live the sabre that will rid us of all the vermin,’ one contributor wrote. There were calls for expulsion and extermination – for the sake of the country, ‘for God’. Although ritual rather than – yet – seeking enactment, as the historian Jean-Denis Bredin points out, running through the Henry monument was ‘the latent justification of genocide’.

If we look more closely at this virulent anti-semitism, one belief stands out from the rest: the conviction that the Jew was not a Frenchman. He was therefore inherently a traitor. Seen in this light, the Dreyfus affair was the fulfilment of an anti-semitic dream – ‘an immense grace proffered to France’, in the words of La Croix after Dreyfus’s 1894 court-martial. ‘Why would God have created the Jews,’ Drumont wrote, citing Bismarck, ‘were it not to serve as spies?‘ In fact this is neither spying nor treachery, since the Jews cannot betray a country which is not theirs. (When Dreyfus was arrested, Drumont declared he had been ‘prophetic’.)

No French Jew escaped the charge, not even the French-born, successfully assimilated Jew such as Dreyfus – rich, educated, rising up the military hierarchy – had thought himself to be. Why on earth, his defenders repeatedly asked, would he have wanted to jeopardise so much? Assimilation, on which the French Jew prided himself, turned out to have been a myth, since overnight one Jew had gone – in Hannah Arendt’s terms – from being a parvenu to a pariah. In this context the worst offence of the Jew was no longer embodying the world of money to which his talents and history had consigned him (not that such views ever included any recognition of Jewish history). If the Jew’s crime was being a foreigner, a far worse sin was to think he might cease to be one. ‘We used to attack them for being nothing but usurers,’ one commentator wrote, ‘today people want to strike at the Jews because they now claim to be foreigners at nothing.’

It is a conviction that survives well into the 20th century. A 1966 poll of public opinion conducted by the French Institute uncovered that 19 per cent of French citizens believed that the Jews were not fully French like other Frenchmen (this too has more recent analogies: 36 per cent of Republicans believe Obama was not born in the US). The same sentiment was expressed to me verbatim on the eve of Sarkozy’s election when I found myself, extraordinarily, sitting next to the grandson of Charles de Gaulle in a Paris restaurant (I am not sure how or why we started talking).

Imagine then the extraordinary spectacle of an army officer – a colonel no less – who had previously been considered an anti-semite, stepping to the defence of Dreyfus, and pressing his innocence at the General Staff. If Zola’s courage is remarkable and duly famous, Colonel Picquart, less known to posterity, can equally be described as a hero of the affair. It was Picquart who discovered that the writing on the bordereau, the sole piece of evidence against Dreyfus, corresponded with Esterhazy’s. He had originally believed in Dreyfus’s guilt, but faced with the evidence, he put prejudice to one side. When General Gonse said to him, ‘What do you care if that Jew rots on Devil’s Island?’ Picquart replied: ‘What you are saying, General, is abominable. I will not in any event take this secret with me to the grave.’

From the moment of his discovery, Picquart stopped at nothing, including, for ten years, jeopardising his own career, in his attempts to redeem an injustice which he saw as threatening the integrity, if not the existence, of France as a nation. For that he was hated, far more indeed than Dreyfus himself. ‘A strange thing and one I have noticed frequently,’ wrote Maurice Paléologue, representative of the Foreign Ministry at Zola’s trial, ‘is that Dreyfus is not an object of hatred for the officers … As for Picquart, the name alone of that renegade is enough to arouse them; they detest, loathe and execrate him to the point of fury.’ As Begley puts it, Picquart was nearly destroyed by the army because he was the whistleblower. At the time of Zola’s trial, Picquart was being detained in a fortress pending an army investigation into his conduct. He had already been sent on a mission to Tunisia where – this was of course denied by his superiors – the hope was that he would be killed by the natives. (He would end up as minister of war in Georges Clemenceau’s 1906 cabinet.)

Picquart’s testimony at Zola’s trial – for which he had temporarily been let out of detention – was one of the high points of the proceedings. Despite being virulently hated, or perhaps for that reason, he was a bit of a superstar and for hours before his arrival in court there was speculation – the rumours flew – as to whether he would in fact appear. In the dock, he announced that he did not think his country, or indeed the army, best served by ‘wrapping oneself in blind faith’:

Tomorrow perhaps I will be driven out of this army which I love and to which I have devoted 25 years of my life! This has not stopped me from thinking it my duty to search for truth and justice. I have done so in the belief that I was thereby doing greater service to the army and to my country.

For Picquart, blind faith in army and/or nation was the enemy of justice and truth. If he did not quite raise this opposition to the level of an abstraction, nothing makes its import clearer and more powerful than the Dreyfus affair. Nor, given the army’s final and total climbdown, does anything show quite so clearly the price it had to pay for its own machinations, cover-up and self-deception. The army lied. And once its prestige and standing had been compromised by the first lie – the wrongful accusation of Dreyfus – it became even more important for it to lie over and over again. Crushed by defeat in the war with Prussia and the loss as a consequence of Alsace-Lorraine (home to both Dreyfus and Picquart), the army had to be infallible. That is why many anti-Dreyfusards believed that, even if Dreyfus was innocent, there must be no second trial. Reading the accounts of the affair is to watch an army dig itself deeper and deeper into a morass of its own making, like the hero of a Russian novel, in Reinach’s striking image, who enters a house with the intent to burgle, and leaves it a murderer ‘having killed the two women who surprised him in the act.’

When we consider the issue of justice in relation to Dreyfus, a central question must therefore be – as it still is today – whose justice are we talking about? Under interrogation at Zola’s trial, Major Ravary of the Paris military tribunal declared in an extraordinary outburst: ‘Military justice does not proceed like your justice.’ At which Albert Clemenceau, his interrogator and the brother of the future prime minister, expostulated: ‘There is only one justice, not two.’ Ravary’s reply was unyielding: ‘Our code is not the same.’ His frankness was impressive, beautiful even in the words of Reinach, who chillingly comments: ‘Clemenceau’s protestation was groundless. It was Ravary who was right. There were indeed two justices, two conceptions of duty and honour, two mentalities, two nations of France.’ This distinction between summary military justice and the due process of law still has its advocates. In the words of Scott Brown, the Republican elected to Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in January: ‘It’s time we stopped acting like lawyers and started acting like patriots’ (he was arguing against court trials for alleged terrorists).

The contemporary parallels don’t stop there, and certainly reach British shores. On grounds of national security, the state prosecutors argued that the most incriminating evidence against Dreyfus, which in fact did not exist, could not be revealed in court. David Miliband recently used exactly the same argument to justify withholding details of Great Britain’s policy on and, the evidence suggests, complicity in rendition and torture. National security as the cover for the erosion of civil liberties is something we have all become familiar with since 9/11. This is to take matters one step further, however: national security, more straightforwardly, as the brazen cover for state secrecy and – I think we can confidently say – lies. (Begley gives a stunning account of these parallels with Dreyfus in relation to torture and whistleblowing.)

In all of this France’s humiliation by Prussia in 1870 was crucial, since it had insinuated the idea of treachery into a nation which, like any other nation, could not bear to see itself as responsible for its own defeat. That was why having someone who could be accused of treason was such a consolation. Idolisation of the army was the cover for catastrophe. This is also an essential lesson of the affair. There is no army more dangerous or ruthless, more prone to internal corruption, than one haunted by failure. It is often under conditions of disaster, past or threatened, that an army turns into a god. After 1870, the newly modernised army – modelled in many ways on the victorious Prussian army – was the fulcrum of the nation. An Ecole supérieure de guerre was created that admitted officers via open competition. This provided the opportunity for orchestrated resentment against Jewish officers whose numbers were hugely exaggerated by the anti-semitic press. It was, however, true that Jews were disproportionately successful in gaining admission. ‘Since we cannot describe them as cretins, the least we can do is cast them as spies,’ one commentator wrote. ‘Therein lies the source of the entire Dreyfus affair.’

Excluding Jews from the army became a priority of the anti-Dreyfusards. It is one of the tragic ironies of the affair that there was in fact no more loyal officer than a Jewish officer, since rising up the ranks of the army was a way of proving that the Jew was one of France’s true sons (for the same reason, Dreyfus’s undimmed wish throughout his ordeal was rehabilitation into the army).

How then – the question must arise – did the Jewish community respond to the affair? Sadly, but also understandably, above all by avoiding it. The way it did so has much to tell us about the dilemma of the European Jew at the time of Dreyfus. French Jews feared that any intervention on their part would further inflame anti-semitic opinion, that it would jeopardise any painfully won status they enjoyed in society, and above all that Jews would be seen as rallying to the defence of a traitor purely because he was a Jew (for the first few years after the 1894 conviction, there was little reason in the public mind to question the court’s judgment). None of these fears was groundless. The hardest thing for French Jews was to relinquish their faith in the republic that had emancipated them in 1791. The Jews had been freed, and as part of that freedom, were in some sense obliged to become Frenchmen (all the more important when that possibility was exactly what the anti-semite denied).

Chief Rabbi Zadoc Kahn was just one outspoken voice who feared that assimilation was leading to a loss of Jewish community and faith. For most Jews, the whole affair was a deviation, and France would soon return to its senses. The result, for the most part, was silence. ‘Generally speaking,’ Léon Blum commented in his 1935 memoir, ‘Jews did not talk about the affair among themselves; far from raising the topic, they studiously avoided it. A great misfortune had befallen Israel. You submitted to it silently, while waiting for time and silence to wash away its effects.’ The saddest thing about his observation must be that, silent not only in public, Jews did not discuss the fate of Dreyfus among themselves. Even when anti-semitism was at its height, not one Jewish organisation spoke out or organised in favour of Dreyfus. But for any Jew reading this today, before she rushes to judgment, the question must be, as always in relation to such predicaments, what could have been – what would I have – done?

Looking back, Blum’s criticism was unflinching. To his mind, it was their attitude that constituted the real danger for the Jewish people, at the time of Dreyfus and even more so when he was writing in 1935:

Rich Jews, middle-class Jews, Jews in the civil service, they were all frightened of actively engaging in the struggle for Dreyfus in exactly the same way that today they are frightened of fighting against Fascism. They understood no more then than now that no precaution, no role-play, would fool the adversary and that they remained the proffered victims, as much of a victorious anti-Dreyfusism, as of triumphant Fascism.

Blum was both right and wrong. Ultimately, the Dreyfus affair was a defeat for anti-semitism. Dreyfus ended up freed and reinstated. Prejudice was finally trumped by the law. Blum himself would become France’s first Jewish prime minister in 1936, and was again prime minister in 1938 and 1946-47. But – as we know now, as he couldn’t have known then – Blum’s fears for French Jews, under the threat of an incipient Fascism, would turn out to be hideously justified. The factors feeding anti-semitism in Occupied France and Vichy were at once very similar (military defeat) and very different (a financial crash in 1931 on the heels of the world crash of 1929; a massive influx of impoverished migrant Jews). The parallels, the sense of Vichy as the revenge of the anti-Dreyfusards, are, however, chilling. Not for a second did Vichy hesitate to adopt the anti-Jewish measures of the German occupier and former enemy. Indeed in many ways, as historians attest, they outstripped them. That is why the lesson of the affair cannot finally be that justice will prevail, but rather that the struggle for justice is endless. In November 1938, a law was passed allowing French nationality to be stripped from those already naturalised should they be deemed unworthy of the title of French citizen. One of the first legal measures of the Vichy regime was the Statut des Juifs, passed on 3 October 1940, excluding Jews from top positions in public service, from the officer corps and from the ranks of non-commissioned officers. In a cruel irony, the right to hold menial public service positions would be reserved for Jews who had once served in the army.

The day after the Statut des Juifs was passed, the Jewish former Deputy Pierre Massé, interned at Drancy before being deported to Auschwitz, wrote to Pétain:

I would be obliged if you would tell me if I must remove the stripes from my brother, sub-lieutenant of the 36th Infantry Regiment, killed at Douaumont in April 1916; from my son-in-law, sub-lieutenant in the 14th Dragoons, killed in Belgium in May 1940; from my nephew Jean-Pierre, killed at Rethel in May 1940. May I allow my brother to keep the medal he won at Neuville-Saint-Vaast, with which I buried him? Finally, can I be sure that no one will take away my great-grandfather’s Sainte-Hélène medal? I want very much to abide by the laws of my country, even when they are dictated by the invader.

‘I thought there was a better way to serve a cause than to wrap oneself in blind faith’: Picquart’s words at Zola’s trial received the strongest support from what might appear at first glance to be an unexpected quarter. La Revue blanche, an eclectic literary journal, founded in 1889, was home to some of Proust’s earliest writing and boasted Blum as one of its foremost contributors. Up until 1898, it seemed to share no aesthetic or ethical principles, no communal identity, except, perhaps – for some of its writers – the sense, in the words of one historian, ‘of belonging to the race of Israelites’. Thadée Natanson, its proprietor, was a Jew and friend of Reinach’s. Its writers included Gustave Kahn, Julien Benda and Bernard Lazare. On 1 February 1898, two weeks after the publication of ‘J’accuse’, the Revue published a ‘Protestation’ of its belief that Dreyfus was the victim of a judicial error and of its ‘nausea’ at the affair. La Revue blanche, one of the few public forums in which Jews were willing to speak out in defence of Dreyfus, provides a context which allows me to ask two questions which are, as I see it, among the most important legacies of the affair: what is an intellectual, and what is a Jew?

Almost overnight, the Revue went from being a literary journal whose only manifesto was not to have one, to a publication in the service of a political cause. In an outburst that nothing could have led one to anticipate, La Revue blanche picked up Zola’s baton and ran with it. For anyone considering the affair in relation to the politics of writing, the Revue must surely constitute one of the most extraordinary resource books of its time. It was a home to intellectuals, a term which, it turns out, we owe in its modern meaning to the Dreyfus affair (it was coined by Albert Clemenceau). ‘Manifesto of the Intellectuals’ was the name of an early petition in support of Dreyfus. A quarter of a century later, in 1927, Julien Benda, one of the Revue’s writers, was the author of the famous Trahison des clercs or, as it is usually translated, Betrayal of the Intellectuals, a quotation from which opens Edward Said’s 1993 Reith Lectures, Representations of the Intellectual. For the anti-Dreyfusards, the intellectuals were the chief culprits: ‘To the extent that a people becomes intellectual (s’intellectualise), it perishes,’ the ultra-nationalist Maurice Barrès had written, ‘military virtues alone constitute the force of a nation.’

In the eyes of the Revue, it was the writer’s role to redeem the political disaster engulfing France: ‘Justice, like charity, like solidarity, must always be able to count on writers.’ It knew it was sticking its neck out. A basic mindset had taken hold of the country: unconditional faith in nation and army; a belief that any challenge to the army threatened the stability of all national institutions and would fatally weaken the country; and finally, the deepest suspicion of intellectual life, a hatred, in the words of Robert Gauthier, key chronicler of the affair, ‘of free inquiry masquerading as a call to action’ (to my mind, this is just about the best definition of anti-intellectualism you could hope to get). ‘To tolerate that an external force of intellectuals, professors, writers and unaccountable journalists – that is, the force of mere opinion – be allowed to exert pressure on decisions taken by our authorities, is to open the door to subversion,’ Gauthier wrote. For any public intellectual, a huge unintended compliment.

The titles of the Revue’s articles are a political object lesson in themselves – ‘The Peril’, ‘The Dreyfus Affair and the Principle of Authority’, ‘The Nationalist Idea’, ‘The Traitor’, ‘The Disciplote’ (sic), ‘The Tourniquet’. One by one, they dismantled the shibboleths of French nationhood on which the case against Dreyfus had been built. Suddenly home to investigative journalism, the Revue made its calculated intervention into public affairs. ‘La Disciplote’ and ‘Le Tourniquet’ were about the brutality of the French army towards soldiers it wished to discipline. In graphic detail, they laid out the forms of physical and psychological torture to which these prisoners were subjected, often fatally. These exposés appeared a few months after Dreyfus was pardoned. For many of his family and many of his supporters, the pardon was a disaster. A pardon is only granted to the guilty. It spelled the end of the struggle for justice while allowing the army – once more and wickedly – to save face. Aware, surely, of the echoes of the affair that was now meant to fall from memory, the articles turn on the army in the remotest parts of the globe, exposing an unaccountable military authority free of checks and balances, the ‘omnipotent’ disciplinary council to which there was no appeal, and an inhuman regime that was, they said, reducing men to wild animals: ‘Man is annihilated, only the beast exists.’ In the furthest reaches of empire – most of the stories come from Africa – the French army was condemning its own soldiers to Agamben’s ‘bare life’. ‘The word “torture” is not exaggerated,’ ‘La Disciplote’ claimed.

Some of these tortures – iron shackles, being deprived of light, food and sleep – were meted out to Dreyfus during the five years he spent incommunicado on Devil’s Island. Many, including Dreyfus himself, described his life on the island as a living tomb. One of the prisoners in ‘La Disciplote’ is reported to be building his own tomb: ‘The expression is no longer a metaphor.’ Again the allusions must surely have been intentional. If treating a Jew inhumanely might – just – past muster, the systematic brutalisation of its own soldiers, even for a breach of discipline, was something else. The articles in La Revue blanche were ripping the cover off an institution that had blithely trusted that no one, in the words of General Gonse, would care a toss if a Jew was rotting on Devil’s Island. This was a military machine out of control. A brutal colonialist army was treating its own soldiers like conquered natives. (Remember the victims are Frenchmen, not, say, Iraqis in Abu Ghraib).

To write like this in 1900 was to attack a sacred object. More than a century later, there are parts of the world where it still is. ‘The famous special honour of the army,’ the Revue retorted to the anti-Dreyfusards in 1898, ‘is a cover for the privilege of lying, of treachery, of thieving with glory and assassinating with impunity’ (amazingly, they were not sued). France had become a military state: ‘All at once, we can see the state, in its terrifying power as military state … The rule of law is over … The despotism of the sword has begun.’ The government was no more than a ‘vain shadow, fading away in the face of the generals’. The Revue could already discern the seeds of a totalitarianism which would come to fruition in 1940 (the Israeli historian Ze’ev Sternhell has described the anti-Dreyfusard League of Patriots as the first proto-fascist organisation). France had submitted to the yoke of its generals. The rule of law was in thrall to the army, which had been raised to a ‘theocratic’, ‘sacerdotal’ principle, idealising itself in direct proportion to the violence it was meting out, and not just to its own soldiers: ‘To prove our indomitable courage, we go off and kill defenceless negroes … prey to the murderous insanity that fatally seizes a man with weapons.’ ‘Scrape beneath your national patriotism,’ Lucien Herr wrote in an open letter to Barrès in 1898, ‘you will find haughty, brutal, conquering France, pig-headed chauvinism … the native hatred of everything that is other.’ There was no way to stand back, the Revue insisted, ‘without degrading parts of the soul’. I think this can fairly be described as ‘counter-hegemonic’ discourse blissfully running away with itself and I found myself silently cheering in the British Library when I came across it.

There is more. Perhaps the best reply to the anti-semitic charge that the Jew was not a Frenchman is to raise the question of who is. Or where, in the words of Gustave Kahn in his essay ‘The Nationalist Idea’, ‘does France end, where does it begin?’ ‘It is not true,’ the ‘Protestation’ asserted, ‘that the Jews belong to one race and the rest of France to another.’ The vision of La Revue blanche was inclusive. In striking anticipation of arguments used today in the fight against racism, Herr wrote to Barrès: ‘You should know that if the word “race” has any meaning, you, like the rest of us, are not the man of one race, but the product of three, six or 12, melted together and indissolubly mixed in your person.’ This is to take the blood of the nation – the racist, nationalist metaphor par excellence – and pollute it in the name of humanity. A people will only survive, I read them as saying, if it embraces the stranger which it itself already is. There is of course a vital part of Jewish tradition in this: ‘For you were strangers in the land of Egypt.’

Although many of the writers at La Revue blanche, as well as its proprietor, were Jewish, they did not write as Jews. ‘It was in spite of his origins,’ Proust’s biographer Jean-Yves Tadié writes, ‘that a Jewish intellectual took the side of Dreyfus.’ The fight for justice, the critique of ethnic hatred, the case for Dreyfus, were all mounted in the name of universal humanitarian values in which we can already see the outlines of today’s human rights discourse. We have to recognise however that for the Jewish defender of Dreyfus, such appeals to universality could also be a form of camouflage, a way of not standing out in the crowd, of covering up an identity which – it was sincerely felt – would do neither the case for Dreyfus nor the Jews of France any favours. To that extent, many Jews, where they did not simply lie low, were drawn into a posture which could be interpreted as a betrayal of their people.

On this topic, the most scathing critic was Bernard Lazare. The first defender of Dreyfus, he is our final hero – last but not least. His pamphlet, Une erreur judiciaire, commissioned by Dreyfus’s brother Mathieu, was written in 1896, two years before ‘J’accuse’ (3000 copies were printed and sent in sealed envelopes to members of Parliament, notables, lawyers and the press). It is Lazare who raises most powerfully the question with which I wish to end. What does it mean to be a Jew? Throughout the whole saga, he never ceased to identify himself as a Jew. In this he was already exceptional: ‘Let it be said,’ he wrote in an open letter to the former minister of justice Ludovic Trarieux,

that the first who spoke, the first who stood up for the Jew martyr was a Jew, a Jew who suffered in his own flesh and blood the sufferings of that innocent man, a Jew who knew to which disinherited, wretched people of pariahs he belonged and who drew from this awareness the will to fight for justice and for truth.

‘I am a Jew,’ he wrote in his account of his polemic with the anti-semite Drumont, ‘having been born a Jew.’ (They fought a duel – Lazare was a true hero.)

Interestingly, Lazare had not been raised with a strong sense of Jewish identity, but to his mind this only made his task as Jew all the more pressing: ‘I am a Jew and I know nothing about the Jews,’ he wrote in one of his aphorisms: ‘Henceforth I am a pariah and I don’t know with what elements to rebuild a dignity and a personality for myself. I must learn who I am and why I am hated and what I can be.’ For Lazare, being a Jew did not, therefore, mean an exclusive ethnic identity. It was more like a project, an identity to be discovered and forged against hatred, as well as a form of continuous self-education (an éducation sentimentale, one might say). Lazare was one of those Jews described by Léon Blum, deeply, eminently, capable of faith even when lacking in religious conviction: ‘But in what could such a non-religious faith consist?’ Blum asks. His answer resonates powerfully today: ‘In a word, justice. Just as science is the religion of the positivists, justice is the religion of the Jew.’

In a scathing attack, Lazare accused the Jews of France – ‘well do I know them’ – of abandoning solidarity with their own people, rejecting foreign-born Jews on whom they dumped their own failings, becoming ‘more jingoist than the French people of France’ (among whom he clearly had no desire to include himself or any Jew). Even if a few dozen may have come to the defence of ‘one of their martyred brothers’, thousands more would have been willing to mount watch on Devil’s Island along with the ‘most devoted champions of the fatherland’: ‘The Jews have drawn away from each other, and shame of the Jewish name has come upon them.’

And yet, what is crucial about Lazare – and the reason he brings my journey to its end – is that he demonstrates so clearly that to fight for justice as a Jew, against a pseudo-universalism in which any sense of being a Jew is lost, requires no restriction – indeed quite the opposite – either of your ethical or your political vision. He had nothing but contempt for those who, declaring their concern for all humanity, turn aside from individual misery. But his greatest anger – his word was ‘horror’ – was reserved for those who ‘confer only on their own unhappiness, or on the unhappiness that befalls one of their family, tribe, party or sect, the status of a universal calamity’. For Lazare, there could be no exclusivity – not of family, party, sect or tribe. ‘I have spoken out for one man’s salvation; so that freedom will be restored to an imprisoned man, but so as to safeguard the freedom of each and every citizen.’ It was therefore possible – indeed this is Lazare’s wager – to fight as a Jew for all mankind. According to Péguy, there were two Dreyfus affairs: ‘The one to emerge from Colonel Picquart was very fine. The one to come out of Bernard Lazare was infinite.’

To return to the beginning. There is a line, we are often told, that runs from the Dreyfus affair to the creation of Israel. It is true that, for many, Dreyfus signified the end of the dream of Jewish emancipation. Theodor Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, was a journalist in Paris at the time of Dreyfus’s first trial and would later describe the moment as inspiring his vision (although his reporting and diaries suggest that he made little connection between the events in Paris and the fate of the Jews, and was far more concerned with the electoral rise of Austrian anti-semitism). Lazare also became a Zionist for a while, although he would finally fall out with Herzl and reject a political programme in which he could no longer envisage a viable future for his people. What Lazare wanted above all was for the Jew to acquire the status of a free citizen, to gain the right, wherever he found himself, to stand up and enjoy the sun. This was no metaphor. Following a wholly unfounded rumour of his escape, Dreyfus’s jailors raised an eight-foot-high palisade around his compound, cutting off the daylight and preventing him from seeing the sea. There can be no doubt that Lazare took his vision – all-inclusive, non-territorial – from the Jew languishing on Devil’s Island:

For a Jew, the word ‘nationalism’ should mean freedom. A Jew who today may declare, ‘I am a nationalist,’ will not be saying in any special, precise or clear-cut way, ‘I am a man who seeks to rebuild a Jewish state in Palestine and who dreams of conquering Jerusalem.’ He will be saying, ‘I want to be a man fully free, I want to enjoy the sunshine, I want to have a right to my dignity as a man. I want to escape the oppression, to escape the outrage, to escape the scorn with which men seek to overwhelm me.’ At certain moments in history, nationalism is for human groups the manifestation of the spirit of freedom.

The story, because of Dreyfus, so Israel, is not without some truth: what happened in France at the turn of the century was in many ways a forerunner of Vichy. But it is not the only story, and those who tell it risk blinding themselves to what Israel as the nation for the Jewish people did to the Palestinians in order to become a nation, and no less to what Israel has become. If the only lesson we learn from anti-semitism is more and more anti-semitism – of necessity, eternally, and as the core and limit of Jewish life – then we have learned nothing. A different version of the story would instead take from the Dreyfus affair a warning against an over fervent nationalism, against infallible armies raised to the level of theocratic principle, against an ethnic exclusivity that blinds a people to the other peoples of the world, and against governments that try to cover up their crimes.

To conclude: in December last year, I received by email from a website called the Public Diplomacy Network an article by Gerald Steinberg published in the Canadian Jewish News and entitled ‘From Dreyfus to Goldstone’. My first reaction, I must confess, was one of anxious excitement that he would be making the argument – the line from Dreyfus to Israel – that I wanted to make. I needn’t have worried. In fact I was very naive. In Steinberg’s eyes, Israel is the modern-day Dreyfus, and judge Richard Goldstone and his co-authors are the military court, perpetrators of injustice falsely indicting the ‘entire Jewish nation’ of war crimes.[3] This takes some doing, not least because Goldstone, as well as being a Jew, has been so deeply involved in international criminal law – he was chief prosecutor of the United Nations International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda between 1994 and 1996. In 1991, at the request of Nelson Mandela, he chaired an inquiry into South Africa’s political violence. None of which requires us to excuse his actions as a judge under South Africa’s apartheid regime (of course detractors who seek to highlight this era make no mention of Israel’s deep military involvement with that regime). ‘It may take years,’ Steinberg concluded, ‘until a modern Emile Zola emerges to articulate and denounce this immoral farce and its perpetrators.’ If I was momentarily delighted by this confirmation of the continuing relevance of Dreyfus, let’s just say that it didn’t last. I hope it is clear that I see things rather differently. That the story of Dreyfus, the fight for justice, leads rather to universal human rights and the need to abide by international law. To my mind, the Goldstone Report instead affords Israel a unique possibility, I would say an obligation, to take responsibility for its own actions and to recognise the injustice of those actions, not just during Operation Cast Lead in the winter of 2008-9, but on a daily basis against the Palestinian people. There will always be a better way to serve a country ‘than to wrap oneself in blind faith’. All comparisons are invidious, but we could say that we already have our Zola. We already have ‘J’accuse’.

‘I belong to the race of those,’ Lazare said, ‘who were first to introduce the idea of justice into the world’:

All of them, each and every one, my ancestors, my brothers, wanted, fanatically, that right should be done to one and all, and that the scales of the law should never be tipped in favour of injustice. For that, over centuries, they cried out, sang, wept, suffered, despite the outrages, despite the insults spat at them. I am one of them and wish to be so. And that being the case, don’t you think I am right to speak of those whom you haven’t even dreamed of?

For me, there is finally no more important lesson to be learned from the Dreyfus affair.

This is an adapted version of a lecture Jacqueline Rose delivered on 21 April. A video of the event is available here.

[1] The interview appeared in the LRB of 25 March. Ill Fares the Land is published by Allen Lane (256 pp., £20, March, 978 1 84614 359 5).

[2] Yale, 272 pp., £18, October 2009, 978 0 300 12532 0.

[3] Human Rights in Palestine and Other Occupied Arab Territories – Report of the United Nations Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict.