The following is from a report by Allan Jay Gerber in The Jewish Star: With the recent verdict in the Rubashkin case, trials are yet again big news among Jews. However, trials are nothing new nor unique in the annals of our history and the miscarriages of justice is a repeating motif for us. Rubashkin’s case serves for us today as an opportunity to look back in time and to learn from the not-to-distant past what an unjust act by state power can mean to a community.
Recently, a new biography appeared by Ruth Harris, entitled, “Dreyfus: Politics, Emotion, and the Scandal of the Century” (Metropolitan Books 2010). The work deals with one of the most egregious examples of state-sponsored criminal behavior cloaked in the righteous garb of the judicial system.
In 1894, Captain Alfred Dreyfus was the only Jew on the general staff of the French military. Given the anti-Semitic tenor of that era, he was subject to a false charge of treason. The resulting trial unleashed a torrent of bigotry that haunted French society and French history for the next century.
Harris’ extensively researched volume goes a long way to demonstrate the depth of hatred that enveloped the French military establishment to its core. The accomplices to the false accusation leveled at Dreyfus included many distinguished members of the press, the intellectuals, and major sectors of the political establishment.
Previous biographies have played down Dreyfus’s Jewish identity and for the past century this impression was given almost divine sanction. While no great religiously devout Jew, Harris brings out that both Dreyfus and family were indeed proud of their faith and never denied their adherence to it.
Consider the following: “On 30 December 1894 – only days after Alfred’s conviction – she [his wife] went with the Dreyfus clan to the synagogue on the first anniversary, or Yahrtzeit, of Alfred’s father’s death and recited the Kaddish, the prayer of mourning for their lost father. Their sense of loss was expressed in Jewish terms. Dreyfus himself admitted in a letter to Lucie that he wept without restraint in thinking about it. The family’s private culture was still marked by Jewish practice, no matter how attenuated.”
This Jewish religious factor runs throughout this well-written book and gives the whole tragedy of the Dreyfus Affair a legitimate page in the annals of Jewish history.
The horrid events of the Dreyfus Affair were also witnessed by an assimilated Austrian Jewish journalist, Theodore Herzl, and became the inspiration for his founding the World Zionist Organization, an act that led directly to the founding of the State of Israel.
While not understood nor appreciated in the immediacy of time, events do have consequences.
The Dreyfus Affair happened upon the cusp of the 20th century. In retrospect, the event served as a harbinger for what was to play out 40 years later: the near total destruction of the Jewish population on the European continent.
What the Rubashkin verdict will mean to us has yet to play out in the days ahead. Is there a thematic link between Dreyfus and Rubashkin? I do not know for certain. There are qualitative differences in the crimes alleged and in the sociological dynamics at work that we must remember. However, my dear readers, consider this: the very day the verdict in the Rubashkin case was handed down was the very day of Alfred Dreyfus’s 75th Yahrtzeit.