A small square in Paris has been named in honor of Bernard Lazare, the radical turn-of-the-century French Jewish journalist and thinker who was among the first to defend Capt. Alfred Dreyfus. Chief speakers at the June 15 dedication ceremony just south of Place de la Republique were Paris Mayor Bertrand Delano and Pierre Eidenbaum, mayor of the city’s third district. About 200 people attended.
Lazare was born in 1865 in the southern city of Nimes into a well-established, assimilated Jewish family. A writer and literary critic, his first book, “Anti-Semitism, Its Causes and History,” published in 1894, was heavily critical of Jewish capitalists in Europe and called for total assimilation of the Jews.
The militant anarchist was the first journalist or intellectual in France to defend Dreyfus, a Jewish captain in the French army who was accused of spying for the enemy Germans. Others, such as Emile Zola, who wrote the famous article “J’Accuse,” followed.
Beginning in 1894, the Dreyfus trial set off major anti-Jewish demonstrations and is considered one of the worst anti-Semitic incidents in French history. It led Lazare to become involved in the defense of oppressed Jews everywhere and to drop his assimilationist stand.
The trial was covered by a journalist from Vienna named Theodore Herzl, who deduced from it that anti-Semitism would never disappear from Europe. The trial was instrumental in helping Herzl formulate his vision of political Zionism.
Dreyfus was found guilty and spent several years on Devils Island, the French penal colony off the coast of South America. The verdict eventually was overturned, but Dreyfus returned to France a broken man.
Lazare was involved in the earliest stages of Zionism. But he never broke with his anarchist and class-struggle beliefs, and subsequently separated from the Zionists.
“I have great admiration for Bernard Lazare,” said Jean-Louis Levy, Dreyfus’ grandson, who attended the ceremony. “He was the first public figure to defend my grandfather. We never spoke about the affair at home, but we admired Lazare. He was a complex man and a defender of righteous causes.”
Jean Michel Rosenfeld, vice president of the Circle Bernard Lazare, a left-leaning secular Jewish group in Paris with links to the Yahad Party in Israel, called the ceremony “very powerful.”
“Until now, Bernard Lazare has only existed in French history books and in our group. Now he will exist in daily Parisian life,” said Rosenfeld, who also is an assistant mayor of Paris’ 20th district. The plaque is at the exit of a Metro stop, “and hundreds of people pass by every day.”
In addition to the Dreyfus and Lazare families, descendants of French writer Emile Zola, who was ruined after supporting Captain Dreyfus, also attended the ceremony.
Worn out by his battles, Lazare died in 1903 at age 38. He and Dreyfus are both buried in Paris’ Montparnasse Cemetery.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.