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Dreyfus Affair - January 5th 1895


Events and Activities Ideas

There is no question that the Dreyfus Affair was a major turning point in how Jews saw themselves within their host nations in the late 1800’s. This was truly a scandal that included the highest echelons of government and the church. This event underlines the strong anti-Semitic attitudes and feelings of the time and can be thought of as a catalyst for the Zionist movement.


Background: Dreyfus Affair


Alfred Dreyfus was a French nationalist Jew working for the French Army holding the rank of Captain. In 1894, a series of confidential documents were found in the wastepaper basket of a German military attaché and it appeared that the documents were of French origin. This signaled French military intelligence there was a spy among their ranks providing the German government with French military secrets.

Since the information was of the same nature that Dreyfus had access to and since his family was originally from Alsace (a territory that was annexed by Germany), suspicion fell upon Dreyfus as the key suspect. There are accounts that also indicate that there were similarities in the handwriting between the found documents and Dreyfus' handwriting. It is believed that he was targeted because he was the only Jew in the department, making him an easy scapegoat.

Despite his claims to innocence, he was found guilty of treason in a secret court marshal. During this trial, he was not provided with the same rights as others would have been granted. He was stripped of his rank in a humiliating public ceremony and sentenced to life imprisonment. Dreyfus was sentenced to serve out his time at the dreaded Devil's Island, a brutal French penal colony off the coast of South America.

With the exception of a few individuals who believed in Dreyfus' innocence and the extensive anti-Semitism within the ranks of the French military, it seemed as if Dreyfus would spend the remainder of his days until his death on Devil's Island.

Two years after Alfred Dreyfus was sentenced, an unlikely individual, Lieutenant Colonel Georges Picquart (a blatant anti-Semite) was reviewing the Dreyfus file. He found that it was not Dreyfus but another officer who was guilty of the crime for which Dreyfus was imprisoned. He pursued his conclusion that the wrong man was sent to prison not because of compassion, but because an injustice had been served against a good and loyal solider. When it was brought to the attention of the higher ranks of the French military, Picquart was made to understand that it was more important to preserve the army's image than to revisit the case.

If not for the intervention of Emile Zola, who published an article on the army cover-up in a daily paper of the new Dreyfus findings, it is highly unlikely that there would have been newfound public “support” leading to another court marshal case in 1899. In short, this trial was also a fiasco of sorts and Dreyfus was found guilty with “extenuating circumstances” and again sent back to Devil's Island.

Later that year, the president of France pardoned Dreyfus. This pardon made it possible for Alfred Dreyfus to return to Paris. However, it was not until twelve years later (1906) that he was absolved of the charges and his rank returned to his former status.

The “Dreyfus Affair” had a major impact on France as a nation, pitting the republicans, radicals and socialists against the church and army. Aside from the personal trauma experienced by Alfred Dreyfus, this event might have gone into the history books as just another anti-Semitic incident of 19th century Europe.

However, during the ceremony where Dreyfus was publicly humiliated and stripped of his rank prior to being shipped to Devils Island, there was one particular journalist from Vienna reporting the events. This reporter was the young Theodore Herzl. The Dreyfus Affair has a tremendous personal impact on Herzl. The Dreyfus Affair was the catalyst that inspired Herzl to write The Jewish State, which would become the “manifesto” or center point of the rise of modern Zionism.


Event Ideas:

1) Anti-Semitism and the Rise of Zionism – The Dreyfus Affair was a critical turning point in the rise of modern political Zionism. For many, they are not knowledgeable on Zionism or the Dreyfus Affair. A simple brown bag teach-in would be ideal. In facilitating this discussion, focus more on what would you have done and thought had you been there or been Alfred Dreyfus.


2) Alfred Dreyfus Movie Night – Another alternative to help others understand the Dreyfus Affair is to have a movie night. There have been several movies and documentaries made about this event. Make sure that participants stay for the entire movie and are willing to participate in a discussion afterwards.

3) Anti-Semites and Anti-Zionists – The anti-Semitism of the Dreyfus Affair gave rise to Zionism. Not too far after the advent of political Zionism came a new enemy – the anti-Zionist. Today, we contend with the issues of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. But are they the same?

This issue opens the door to a wide array of interesting programming and potential discussions. At the core of your programming should be the fundamental question: Are you an anti-Semite if you are an anti-Zionist?

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