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December 22: Dreyfus Affair

Lawrence Bush
December 22, 2009

Dreyfus_Petit_Journal_1894On this day in 1894, Captain Alfred Dreyfus of the French military was found guilty of having treasonous communications with Germany. The verdict was based on anti-Semitic innuendo and the skimpiest of evidence. Dreyfus was sentenced to life imprisonment and spent two years in solitary confinement on Devil’s Island off the South American coast. Although evidence emerged in 1896 identifying Major Ferdinand Esterhazy as the real spy, Dreyfus was not exonerated for another eight years. The Dreyfus Affair split French society into two camps: the government, church, army, and nationalists on one side, versus freethinkers, socialists, and defenders of justice and human rights on the other. It also prompted Theodor Herzl, a Viennese journalist covering the trial, to write The Jewish State: A Modern Solution to the Jewish Question (1896) and launch the Zionist movement.

“[T]his is not about that army, whose dignity we are seeking, in our cry for justice. What is at stake is the sword, the master that will one day, perhaps, be forced upon us. Obediently kiss the hilt of that sword, that god? No!” —Emile Zola, J’Accuse! (1898)

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.

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