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Special to the JTA the Jewish Museum is Holding an Exhibit on the Dreyfus Affair

October 5, 1987
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“The Dreyfus Affair: Art, Truth and Justice,” on view at the Jewish Museum here through January 14, 1988, is a remarkable testimony to the interaction of politics, art and the press, using original works of high and popular art, newspapers, early cinema, photographs and memorabilia. This major exhibit surveys the circumstances surrounding the arrest and exoneration 12 years later of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a French army officer and an assimilated Alsatian Jew.

In 1894 Dreyfus was charged in France on false evidence of spying. He was subsequently stripped of his rank, condemned to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island, retried on appeal, reconvicted, exonerated, and in 1906 reinstated in the army with high honors. The exhibit clearly demonstrates that anti-Semitism was a major factor in the Dreyfus Affair.

The grandson of Dreyfus, Dr. Jean-Louis Levy of Paris, said at the opening of the exhibit last month that Dreyfus was isolated on Devil’s Island for 1,237 days. He was able to survive only because he had sworn an oath to his wife and children that he would regain the honor of his name, Levy said.

“During the Dreyfus case, an explorer was caught in the polar ice. When he was rescued, his first question was: ‘Is Dreyfus free’?” Levy said. “We must never stop asking ourselves this very question. Is Dreyfus free?”


“The Dreyfus Affair was a lesson for the 20th century because it established the modern role of politically engaged intellectuals,” exhibit curator Norman Kleeblatt told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

In the introductory chapter of the exhibit catalogue, Kleeblatt states: “The positions of the opinion makers vis-a-vis the military, the church, the fallen monarchy, capitalism, and the highly visible Jewish community were polarized into two perhaps too simplistic factions — the Dreyfusards and the anti-Dreyfusards ….. The Affair established for the first time in history a new role of social and political activism for writers, artists, and academicians, setting the pace for the involvement of the same groups in the ever more pressing and harrowing dilemmas of the 20th century. In fact the term intellectual as it is understood today has its roots in the France of the Affair.”

The exhibit’s blazing newspaper headlines dramatize the pervasiveness of the case in French society. In addition to the famous “J’Accuse” of Emile Zola in the January 13, 1898 Aurore, there are numerous pro-and-anti-Dreyfus headlines and news posters. If Zola’s “J’Accuse” — an open letter to the President of France, which denounced the perpetrators of the injustice against Dreyfus — was the prototype of Dreyfusard press, the anti-Semite Edouard Drumont, editor of the journal La Libre Parole, was the personification of the anti-Drey-fusard press. His journal, launched in 1892, assailed Jews in the army and the Dreyfusards. Six years earlier, Drumont had written La France Juive, attacking Jews in finance and rehashing medieval anti-Semitism. In the foreword of the exhibit catalogue, Eugen Weber, a prominent historian of modern European history, describes the Dreyfus Affair as the first long-running media event. He says:

“It was the anti-Semitic press that pushed hesitant military officials into prosecuting and convicting Dreyfus on flimsy evidence. It was in the press that the advocates of revision made their case. It was a press hungry for sensational fare to serve up to its public that launched the tales of Jewish, clerical, military, or foreign plots and counterplots, which turned a mere court case into an Affair and endowed it with moral and historical dimensions. Without the press, there would have been no Dreyfus Affair. Without the press Dreyfus would not have been vindicated. We may regard the scandal of Dreyfus as the first great triumph of the Fourth Estate.”

Regarding the anti-Semitism that permeated the Dreyfus Affair, Weber says: “Explanations of anti-Semitism come from as many directions as do rationalizations of anti-Semitism. None seems to me as forceful as the fact that history and cultural tradition made Jews the resident aliens par excellence.”

(French Jewry was the first emancipated European Jewish community, obtaining equality with other citizens of the French Republic in 1791.)

The exhibit’s collection of mass-produced popular culture items that reflect the Affair can be viewed as precursors of similar current items. Fin-de-siecle ladies’ fans, children’s cartoons, board games, picture postcards and other curiosities with Dreyfusard and anti-Dreyfusard themes can be compared with today’s Oliver North T-shirts and Pope John Paul II masks, garden sprinklers, and “Pope corn — the blessed in the West.” But current headlines and related souvenirs are quickly passe, and the Dreyfus Affair held the French public interest for 12 years.


The highlight of the exhibit is a room which displays and chronicles the involvement of some of the major artists of the day. “It is still unsettling to realize that it was the Dreyfus Affair that caused the break between two important artists (Edgar) Degas and (Camille) Pissarro, who had been fast friends,” Kleeblatt says.

The Dreyfusard camp included such prestigious painters as Pissarro, Claude Monet, Mary Cassatt, and Jean-Edouard Vuillard; anti-Dreyfusards included Degas, Paul Cezanne and Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

“On the surface, the Affair was as immediate as the latest newspaper or broadside. On a more fundamental level — more evident in the fine arts — there were basic social and ethical issues at stake,” museum director Joan Rosenbaum says in the preface of the catalogue. She refers to “the responsibility of the press, the power of the individual versus the state, the role of the artist and intellectual in society, and the insidious nature of anti-Semitism.”

There will be no Daily News Bulletin dated October 9, Succoth holiday. There also will be no Bulletin dated October 12, Columbus Day, a postal holiday.

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