Alfred Drey­fus: The Man at the Cen­ter of the Affair

  • Review
By – February 23, 2024

Join us on April 18th at 7 p.m. ET to hear Rab­bi Diana Fer­sko and author Mau­rice Samuels in a dis­cus­sion about anti­semitism as part of our Unpack­ing the Book Series. Reg­is­ter here. Mod­er­at­ed by Stephanie But­nick, host of Tablet​’s Unortho­dox pod­cast. This event is in part­ner­ship with Jew­ish Book Coun­cil, the Jew­ish Muse­um, and Tablet Magazine. 

A new biog­ra­phy of Alfred Drey­fus may strike some read­ers as unnec­es­sary, even irrel­e­vant. Wasn’t the Drey­fus Affair some old French case about a Jew who was per­se­cut­ed and then vin­di­cat­ed? What more do we need to know? But by read­ing this con­cise new biog­ra­phy by Mau­rice Samuels, we real­ize how much the Drey­fus Affair has shaped anti­semitism in the mod­ern era.

Samuels gives us just enough infor­ma­tion about Dreyfus’s life to be able to under­stand the issues he rais­es. Born in 1859 to a bour­geois Alsa­t­ian Jew­ish fam­i­ly in the tex­tile man­u­fac­tur­ing busi­ness, Drey­fus chose a career in the mil­i­tary. He stud­ied in Paris and gained admis­sion to the top schools, and mer­i­to­crat­ic rules allowed him to advance up the mil­i­tary ranks. All went well — until it didn’t. One morn­ing in Octo­ber 1894, Drey­fus was accused of trea­son and thrown into mil­i­tary prison. He was tried, con­vict­ed, and deport­ed to Devil’s Island, French Guinea. He endured that pur­ga­to­ry until 1899, when he was returned to France and even­tu­al­ly exonerated. 

This is where Samuels begins to raise ques­tions: about the role of anti­semitism in Dreyfus’s pros­e­cu­tion, the degree of sup­port he got from French Jew­ry, and the impact of his case on Jews world­wide. Samuels sets the scene care­ful­ly. After the French Rev­o­lu­tion, equal rights were accord­ed to all men in France, mean­ing that Jews were no longer exclud­ed from var­i­ous occu­pa­tions. This did not mean, how­ev­er, that Jews were nec­es­sar­i­ly wel­come. The same reac­tionar­ies who bemoaned the mod­ern­iza­tion and sec­u­lar­iza­tion of French soci­ety also resent­ed the nor­mal­iza­tion of Jew­ish pres­ence, espe­cial­ly in tra­di­tion­al enclaves like the upper ranks of the mil­i­tary. Although Drey­fus mar­ried Jew­ish, said Kad­dish, and sup­port­ed Jew­ish insti­tu­tions, he didn’t con­sid­er him­self par­tic­u­lar­ly reli­gious. He did know when he’d been dis­crim­i­nat­ed against as a Jew, and he filed his protests in accor­dance with the prop­er pro­to­cols. Samuels por­trays him as an inte­gra­tionist who tried to fit into French soci­ety, who believed in the rule of law and the jus­tice sys­tem. In Dreyfus’s upper-class Jew­ish cir­cles, inte­gra­tionists were fair­ly typ­i­cal. Zion­ists, by con­trast, argued that nations like France would inevitably turn against her Jews, so a Jew­ish home­land, Pales­tine, was the only answer. Then there were the French Social­ists, split between those who advo­cat­ed for Jews as anoth­er oppressed peo­ple, and those who called the Drey­fus Affair a bour­geois prob­lem. Weren’t Jews, like Drey­fus, essen­tial­ly capitalists?

Is it pos­si­ble for any nation — France in the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, or the US in the twen­ty-first — to ful­ly embrace their Jew­ish cit­i­zens, or is anti­semitism always hid­ing just under the rug? Is a Jew­ish home­land the only answer? In Dreyfus’s times, major fac­tions of the Left con­sid­ered Jews the oppres­sors, not the vic­tims. The right wing, who were old mon­ey and Catholic, plot­ted revenge against Jews in their draw­ing rooms and smeared them open­ly in their tabloids. All around the world, Jews were becom­ing aware of each oth­er — not because their rit­u­als were sim­i­lar, but because they knew that what was hap­pen­ing to Drey­fus could hap­pen to them.

Doesn’t this all sound more like the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry than you expect­ed? Samuels writes so well that you don’t feel hit over the head with the mes­sage. But once you look at this his­to­ry, you under­stand the present with new eyes.

Bet­ti­na Berch, author of the recent biog­ra­phy, From Hes­ter Street to Hol­ly­wood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezier­s­ka, teach­es part-time at the Bor­ough of Man­hat­tan Com­mu­ni­ty College.

Discussion Questions