Why Dreyfus matters


Though it appeared almost two weeks ago, given the continued hand-wringing over the state of anti-Semitism in Europe, Adam Gopnik’s piece on the Dreyfus Affair in the Sept. 28 issue of the New Yorker, which reviews Louis Begley’s new book on the subject, is very much worth a read. As he notes, despite the current predicament, France is the only country outside of Israel that has had multiple Jewish heads of state in its history, and whose current president, foreign minister and national security adviser are, by Hitlerian standards, Jewish. 

It’s a dense piece, but here’s Gopnik’s conclusion:

Of all the readings of the Dreyfus case, the sanest still seems to be the reading of the French socialists and liberals, almost none of them Jewish, who first took it up passionately: an innocent man had been railroaded by villains, who took advantage of ethnic prejudice in a Catholic country. It was done in defiance of the plain rules and traditions and procedures of the country’s own military order and judicial system, and had to be remedied by them. After some time, though with less clarity than one would have liked, and with more fudge around the edges than was ideal, this was done. The lesson to be learned was the lesson that Clemenceau had tried to teach the jury at Zola’s trial. The urge to protect the nation from its enemies by going around the corner to get them is natural, but what you get is usually not the enemies, and, going around the corner, you bump into something worse. Breaking the law to defend the nation ends up breaking the nation. Sometimes long stories have short morals. 

Recommended from JTA