Wednesday, July 12, 2006

More Dreyfus UPDATED

I figure this blog is a good a place as any to keep track of who's doing French-Jewish research these days. Via Arts and Letters Daily, I found another great article about the Affair, whose 100-year anniversary, in a sense, comes so soon after another French Jew, Ilan Halimi, ended up in a situation that would suggest that the Affair never really ended. Ronald Schechter, a professor at William and Mary doesn't see the Halimi and Dreyfus cases as identical. I don't either, but for different reasons. But the main point we can all agree on is that the "justice" achieved at the official end of the case was limited, to say the least, and that the Affair itself--the debates over everything from what it means to be French to whether torturing people just because they're Jewish is acceptable-- is not even close to resolved.

But back to Dreyfus vs. Halimi: Schechter argues that Dreyfus was about universal ideas of justice while Halimi was about specific group discrimination. While the Jewish museum in Paris, the Musée d'art et d'histoire du Judaïsme, has called its exhibit commemorating Dreyfus's acquittal, "Le combat pour la justice," and there was certainly a fight for justice, the Affair was at least as significantly the beginning of Western European Jewish nationalism, of otherwise content, highly assimilated Jews up and becoming Zionists, as if that were the most normal thing in the world, as though they'd grown up in the America of Birthright Israel and AIPAC and not in the Paris or Vienna of a pre-Israel, pre-WWII world. The legacy of the Affair is that justice in a particular case, while important, is ultimately not everything--Dreyfus won, but the Jews of France lost so soon after. Universalism, human rights, and all that were not enough to defend the Jews of Europe. The way I see it, what makes the Halimi and Dreyfus cases different is that people today--and French Jews in particular--are less inclined to affix all causes to the universal, and are willing to fight, as specific groups, against specific prejudices. Basically what I wrote in February. There is also the more basic fact that being against Halimi's killers hardly makes one anti-French, whereas fighting Dreyfus's detractors meant just that. But this doesn't strike me as the crucial point. While Zola is by far the best-remembered dreyfusard, Bernard Lazare and the obviously better-known Theodor Herzl both treated the Affair the way it would most readily be treated today, and were thus ahead of their time. The "fight for justice" aspect of the Affair--and of the Halimi case, for that matter--were obviously important and can be applied to situations not specific to Jews.

In any case, Schechter says a whole lot more about all this--and about why a 21st century American Jew might find French Jewish history interesting--in a 2004 interview.


Via Sam, a NY Sun piece by Adam Kirsch that absolutely gets it right:

One hundred years later, the Dreyfus Affair has lost none of its power as a human drama. But its moral and political legacy is no less vital. Its first lesson, which Herzl learned (and Dreyfus himself never did), had to do with the failure of Jewish emancipation in Europe. No European country had granted its Jews legal equality earlier than France, or prided itself more on the power of its secular, republican ideals. Yet even in France, anti-Semitism had the power to pervert justice, excite violent mobs, and almost overthrow the government. There were anti-Jewish riots in many cities at the height of the Dreyfus Affair, and a wave of killings in French Algeria; the poisonous Drumont was elected to parliament. The French fascists of the 1920s and 1930s, and the collaborators of Vichy, were direct ideological heirs of the anti-Dreyfusards. As Hannah Arendt put it in "The Origins of Totalitarianism," "the Dreyfus Affair in its entirety offers a foregleam of the twentieth century."

The one thing no one seems to have mentioned, though, is that the Dreyfus Affair was huge especially in proportion to the violence it caused--practically none. When one considers the two world wars that followed, the Affair was all talk and no action; no one aside from the major players in the Affair was under any kind of physical threat. That's probably the aspect of the Dreyfus story I find most fascinating, that a conflict so definitive could take place without, say, wiping out the male or Jewish population of Europe. Was war averted when justice prevailed, or might a physical showdown (rather than a J'Accuse and a dreyfusard Charles Swann) in which the "correct" side had one have led to a more permanent resolution? Or can the fight for justice not be won by violence?

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