The Anti-Semitic Moment

by Pierre Birnbaum

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Birnbaum’s The Anti-Semitic Moment looks at the historical ramifications of the 1894 Dreyfus affair, in which a Jewish captain of the French Army, Alfred Dreyfus, was wrongfully accused of treason. The characters who constitute the main focus of the book, therefore, are those individuals who were caught up in the turmoil and anti-Semitic outpouring that the Dreyfus trial produced.

Alfred Drefyus was a French artillery officer who was convicted of spying for Germany. However, in 1896, an incredulous new member of the French General Staff, Georges Picquart, uncovered documentation that would have exonerated Drefyus of the charges against him. Picquart discovered that the true spy was a French major, Ferdinand Esterhazy.

Picquart’s superiors prohibited him from sharing the information he had gathered in an attempt to obfuscate the ineptitude of the French military court in the handling of the manner. However, one year later, Picquart successfully managed to leak the information to lawyers, friends, and publicists, initiating a period of massive social conflict in France and pitting Dreyfus’s defenders against a mass of anti-Semitic protesters across the country. Therefore, Drefyus, Picquart, and Esterhazy are all critical characters in Birnbaum’s book.

During the crisis itself, a tremendous amount of literature was published concerning the guilt or innocence of Dreyfus. Paramount among this wave of publications was Émile Zola, whose publication of J’accuse ignited ethnic tensions even further. Directly addressed to the president of the French Republic, Zola denounced the corruption of the French military and openly declared his support for Dreyfus. For his efforts, Zola was convicted of libel and exiled to England. However, his polemic publication ensured the impossibility of covering up imperial negligence in the handling of Dreyfus’s case.

Other “actors” in Birnbaum’s narrative include the anti-Semitic protesters themselves: a great mass of rioters, ethno-supremacist publicists, looters, Catholics, and other infuriated non-Jewish French citizens. In both the republican capital of Paris and countryside French regions like Brittany and Marseilles, anti-Semitic protesters broke shop windows, burned down Jewish-run businesses, and beat—and in some cases even killed—Jewish townsmen. Yellow journalists like Edouard Drumond used the bedlam as an excuse to publish vitriolic attacks against the Jewish community in France, making a fortune while doing so. This group, which consisted of thousands of faceless, nameless actors (in the historical record) are also important characters in the narrative.

Finally, the pro-Jewish ideologue Theodor Herzl plays a significant role in The Anti-Semitic Moment. Herzl became convinced of the inability of the Jewish community to exist without a homeland after witnessing the violence of the Dreyfus affair. In his seminal publication Der Judenstaat (translated as The Jewish State), he argues that the Jews were not safe in a diaspora and needed to reclaim their ancestral homeland of Israel as a new refuge for the persecuted community. Herzl’s contributions to the Jewish question in Europe would have profound influence over the designation of Jerusalem as a Jewish enclave after World War II.

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