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1899 One Hundred Years Ago

June 2024
2min read

Dreyfus and the Jews

In France, September brought the denouement of the infamous Dreyfus affair, in which a Jewish army officer had been framed in a spy scandal to shield one of his colleagues. Capt. Alfred Dreyfus, convicted of treason by a court-martial in 1894, had languished on Devil’s Island for five years before the emergence of exculpatory evidence led to a retrial. When a kangaroo court announced a renewed verdict of guilty in September, Americans rushed to join the global chorus of condemnation. “It was incredible to the Anglo-Saxon mind,” wrote the determinedly Anglo-Saxon Harper’s Weekly , “that the judges should find for guilt when there was not the slightest proof of guilt, and, moreover, deny to the prisoner the right to present the only direct proof of innocence possible, beyond his own word.”

Yet the sordid affair had a silver lining. “It is immensely to the credit of our present civilization,” continued Harper’s , “that such an atrocity cannot be committed by any people with impunity. The world did not care, a few centuries ago, what any particular country did with its Jews. Now no nation can deny to one Jew even, the means of justice, and escape the condemnation of her sisters, so sensitive is the world-mind, and so closely knit have humankind become.”

Israel Zangwill, a popular Englishborn novelist and ardent Zionist, agreed. France’s ugly act, he wrote, was “nobly wiped out by the truly Christian attitude of the whole of the rest of the world. Since Jesus, no Jew has so drawn the world’s sympathy as Alfred Dreyfus.”

Mark Twain also addressed the Jewish question in September, in an article written before the final verdict in the Dreyfus case but prompted by it and other recent events. A reader had asked Twain for his thoughts on Jews and their place in the world. The author responded by balancing the race’s virtues ( “The Jew is not a disturber of the peace … he is not quarrelsome… . His race is entitled to be called the most benevolent of all the races of men") against its faults (“He has a reputation for various small forms of cheating, and for practising oppressive usury, and for burning himself out to get the insurance”). On the whole, Twain concluded, “the Christian can claim no superiority over the Jew in the matter of good citizenship.”

Twain advised Jews to take a more active role in politics, pointing out that “in America, as early as 1854, the ignorant Irish hod-carrier … made it apparent to all that he must be politically reckoned with.” He ironically opposed the establishment of a Jewish state: “If that concentration of the cunningest brains in the world was going to be made in a free country (bar Scotland), I think it would be politic to stop it. It will not be well to let that race find out its strength. If the horses knew theirs, we should not ride any more.” As for the fate of antiSemitism, Twain was almost as sanguine as Zangwill and the Harper’s writer had been. The persecution of Jews, he wrote, would continue “here and there in spots about the world, where a barbarous ignorance and a sort of mere animal civilization prevail; but I do not think that elsewhere the Jew need now stand in any fear of being robbed and raided.”

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