J’accuse…

The basics of the Dreyfus affair are, I had thought, fairly well known.

Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish artillery officer in the French army, was accused of treason in 1894 and convicted. He was stripped of his army uniform and badges in a ‘ceremony of degradation’, all the while declaring his loyalty to France and his innocence. He was sentenced to life imprisonment and deported to the Devil’s Island penal colony in French Guiana.

As members of his family and some others argued tirelessly for his innocence, Lieutenant Colonel Georges Picquart, the newly appointed head of the Military Intelligence Service, discovered that the key piece of evidence against Dreyfus was in the handwriting of another officer, Esterhazy.

Despite this, and the lack of other evidence of Dreyfus’s guilt, Picquart and the other ‘Dreyfusards’ faced the implacable hostility of the establishment to any suggestion that the case should be reviewed. That they succeeded in the end is a tribute to their resilience in the face of threats to their careers and indeed to their lives. That it had to be such a hard fight reveals the extent and virulence of French anti-semitism at that era.

Dreyfus was framed. Because he was a Jew, people were ready to believe that he would not be loyal to France. And because he was a Jew, and the true culprit was not, it was unthinkable that he should be vindicated and a non-Jew convicted in his place, whatever the truth. Picquart realised not only that Dreyfus was innocent, but that the establishment knew this, and had no intention of doing anything about it, but would allow him to continue to suffer on Devil’s Island, whilst the real guilty party (also known to the powers that be) retained his freedom, his army post, his salary.

Dreyfus was pardoned (not found innocent) in 1899. In 1906 he was reinstated in the army, but retired a year later, his health having suffered greatly from the privations of Devil’s Island. His most famous champion, Emile Zola, had died in 1902, in suspicious circumstances. Dreyfus himself died in 1936, and members of his family fled to the Unoccupied Zone from Paris when the Occupation began. His granddaughter, Madeleine Levy, was a member of the Resistance, who was arrested in 1943 and murdered in Auschwitz.

The case played its part in the founding of Zionism as a political force. As Theodor Herzl said:

If France – bastion of emancipation, progress and universal socialism – [can] get caught up in a maelstrom of antisemitism and let the Parisian crowd chant ‘Kill the Jews!’ Where can they be safe once again – if not in their own country? Assimilation does not solve the problem because the Gentile world will not allow it as the Dreyfus affair has so clearly demonstrated.

The ‘affair’ divided France. One was either pro- or anti-Dreyfus. The anti-camp used every anti-semitic trope and image in the repertoire to vilify Dreyfus and his supporters. And this rhetoric never went away. The ground was well-prepared for the Vichy regime’s collaboration with the Nazi occupiers from 1940. (Charles Maurras of far-right anti-semitic movement Action Francaise called his conviction in 1945 for acts of collaboration ‘the revenge of Dreyfus’.)

See any similarities with the case of Julian Assange? Me neither.

But John McDonnell would disagree.

 I think it is the Dreyfus case of our age, the way in which a person is being persecuted for political reasons for simply exposing the truth of what went on in relation to recent wars.”

https://www.theguardian.com/media/2020/feb/20/julian-assange-case-is-the-dreyfus-of-our-age-says-john-mcdonnell

Where do we start with this nonsense? Dreyfus was not persecuted for political reasons. He was an army officer, just doing his job, notable only for being Jewish. He was framed because he was a Jew. He was persecuted solely because he was a Jew.

Even if one believes that the prosecution of Assange is unjust, he wasn’t picked out because of his race to be used as a scapegoat for someone else’s crime.

Even if Assange is a victim of a miscarriage of justice, and that is very much open to argument, one cannot (surely?) speak of the Dreyfus affair without speaking about anti-semitism.

Anti-semitism fitted him up. Anti-semitism condemned him to life imprisonment. Anti-semitism blocked any review of his case and threatened those who supported him. Anti-semitism vilified him and all Jews in the crudest of terms. Without anti-semitism, there is no Dreyfus affair.

McDonnell’s comparison drew swift condemnation, but his response suggests he doesn’t really get why it was so offensive:

Just like the Dreyfus case, the legal action against Julian Assange is a major political trial in which the establishment is out to victimise an innocent. On that basis, of course it’s right to assert that it’s a parallel.

https://politicshome.com/news/uk/political-parties/labour-party/john-mcdonnell/news/110034/john-mcdonnell-defends-comparison

Over the last few years, I have raged and despaired on so many occasions as Labour politicians, councillors and activists have demonstrated their inability to recognise and comprehend anti-semitism. This issue has divided and still divides the Party. Given how damaging this has been, how is it possible that McDonnell did not see what was wrong with his appropriation of this key moment in the twentieth-century’s shameful history of anti-semitism? As Ian Dunt puts it, ‘to say it is a misreading of history is to put it in its kindest possible light’.

It’s a form of erasure. And that’s not just wrong, it’s dangerous.

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