The Anti-Semitic Moment

by Pierre Birnbaum

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 522

As blatant anti-Semitism increased across Europe and escalated in France in the late 1800s, a political incident called the Dreyfus Affair set the city of Paris on fire, both politically and socially. Alfred Dreyfus was a Jewish, French officer who was accused of sharing state secrets with Germany. Through investigations, it was eventually discovered that he was falsely accused.

In October 1894 a Jewish captain in the French army, Alfred Dreyfus, was accused of spying for Germany. On the basis of documents later proved to be forgeries, a secret military tribunal convicted him of treason and in January 1895 sent him to the notorious penal colony of Devil's Island in French Guiana. During the summer of 1896, a conscientious new member of the General Staff, Georges Picquart, discovered that the true spy was Major Ferdinand Esterhazy, an impecunious rake who was willing to exchange French secrets for German cash.

However, the anger towards Dreyfus centered not only on his supposed treason against France but also on his Jewish heritage. The hatred, discrimination, injustice, and violence that shook France were unfortunately very powerful.

This sordid tale of military injustice might have been a footnote in French and Jewish history had it not served as the catalyst for a powerful outburst of anti-Semitic rage throughout France. A nascent anti-Semitic movement that had enjoyed limited success since the 1880s seized the case as an opportunity to propagate its message about the dangerous power of "the Jews."

In his analysis of the famous event, Pierre Birnbaum seeks to enlighten readers about the far-reaching effects of the Dreyfus Affair and the state of France throughout the duration of the event. Birnbaum, who openly acknowledges that he is not a historian, establishes from the beginning of his text that

this tour of anti-Semitic France turns its back on meticulous research methods, on the desire to explain, to choose the sample with great care, with the goal of providing proof, quantifying, demonstrating how the variables were constructed, and reaching definitive conclusions.

During the famous Dreyfus incident, which engrossed the French republic from 1894 to 1906, many newspapers across France, including those in small villages, printed angry rhetoric: “Beware, all Jews of Feverney and Jussey, if you do not want to be scalded alive like the animals whose flesh you refuse to eat.”

Rivals set aside their differences to attack a perceived common enemy, and the result was a seemingly endless series of demonstrations, speeches, and newspaper pieces in which Jews were denounced as vermin, bacilli, vipers, and other unsavory creatures bent on the destruction of France. Jews suffered threats, beatings, and the destruction of their property, and they had reason to fear a Russian-style pogrom.

French novelist Emile Zola actually defended Dreyfus and was threatened by many.

In 1898, there were violent protests in Paris, in which phrases such as “Out with Zola! Death to the Jews! Death to the Yids! Long live the army!” were bellowed across the city. Soon, news spread, and similar protests were documented in every corner of the nation, which resulted in a rash of anti-Semitic vandalism and hate-crimes, highlighting the ways in which the political can rapidly become personal.

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