The Dreyfus Affair was the first crack in that slowly opening door to lethal antisemitism, the secular, radical, and final solution to the West’s Jewish Problem.
Introduction: The demonization of the Jews has been a persistent, if usually hidden, threat since the emperor Constantine married the Church to the Roman Empire. While the seeds of antisemitism appear in gospel anti-Judaism, and developed over centuries of evolving theology, it was during the Middle Ages, a period marked by extreme social stress and superstition that the Jewish stereotypes present today were fleshed out. This week’s discussion focuses on two of three antisemitic outrages inspired by one or another of those stereotypes.
The best known of the three was the trial and conviction for treason of assimilated French-Jewish army captain Alfred Dreyfus. The second targeted the Russian-Jew Menahem Mendel Beilis who was charged with ritual murder. Next week the American-Jew Leo Frank was charged and convicted in the rape/murder of a thirteen year old girl.
But I begin with the kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, representing a post-emancipation transition from theological anti-Judaism to secular antisemitism.
In June, 1858 several city police appeared at the door of the Mortara family. They had been ordered by Pope Pius XI to take custody of their son Edgardo and to deliver him to the Vatican. “The law in the matter was clear: a baptized Christian could not be raised in a Jewish home.” According to a young employee in the Mortara household the child had been “secretly” baptized by her as an infant. Edgardo, who was raised under papal supervision, eventually entered the priesthood (David Kertzer, The kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara).
The Beilis Affair: Already infamous for its history of pogroms, antisemitism in Russia only intensified, thrust Russia into the international spotlight with the infamous blood libel the trial of Menahem Mendel Beilis. Beilis was a superintendent at a brick factory in Kiev. On March 20, 1911, the mutilated body of a 12-year-old boy was discovered by a peasant in a cave on the city’s outskirts. Beilis sat in jail for two years waiting for his trial which took place in September/October, 1913. The prosecution was hand-picked and represented the best the Czar’s government could find. A university professor was the prosecution’s expert on ritual murder; a Catholic priest, Justinas Pranaitis, author of the then popular 1892 work, Talmud Unmasked, was the government’s expert on Jewish ritual.
“Pranaitis'' credibility rapidly evaporated when the defense demonstrated his ignorance of some simple Talmudic concepts and definitions… many in the audience occasionally laughed out loud when he clearly became confused and couldn''t even intelligibly answer some of the questions asked by my lawyer."
One of several antisemitic fliers distributed in Kiev before the Beilis Trial. The caption reads "Orthodox Russian people, commemorate the name of the youth Andrey Yushchinsky who was martyred by kikes! Memory eternal! Christians, guard your children!!! On March 17, the Pesach of kikes begins." (Wikipedia)
The stacked jury 12-man jury, including a majority of seven members of the notoriously antisemitic Black Hundred, faced with confused and inconsistent testimony by the government’s “expert” witnesses found Beilis innocent.
Captain Alfred Dreyfus was, as Theodore Herzl, an assimilated Jew. Accused of betraying France by selling military secrets to the Germans he was, convicted by a military courts marshal of treason in 1894 and sentenced to life in prison on Devil’s Island. Two years later evidence pointing to an officer in military intelligence as the actual traitor surfaced which the army chose to ignore. A military court acquitted the real traitor. It was later disclosed that military counter-intelligence had even fabricated evidence exonerating the traitor and supportive of their conviction of Dreyfus.
Alfred Dreyfus stripped of rank, 5 January 1895, (Wikipedia)
Clearly antisemitic in motive, l’affaire Dreyfus was strongly supported and defended by the Catholic Church. Pro- and anti-Dreyfussards clashed in the press and on the street, set Church and other social conservatives against liberal secularists.
The case was re-opened in 1898 due in large part to the efforts of Emile Zola and his open letter, j’Accuse, in which he charged the court with serious judicial errors and lack of evidence. The letter, and efforts by Bernard Lazare and others, resulted in the case being reopened in 1899. During the second trial the original charges were found to be baseless and Dreyfus was acquitted. Although it took seven years for the army to relent, Dreyfus was reinstated in the army in 1906. For his efforts Zola was prosecuted and found guilty of libel.