"The Dreyfus Affair was the first crack in the illusory dam that forty years later would burst with National Socialism’s democratic electoral victory in Germany."
Introduction: The demonization of the Jews has been a persistent, if usually hidden, threat since Constantine married the Church to the Roman Empire in the fourth century. While the seeds of antisemitism appear in gospel anti-Judaism, and have developed over centuries of evolving theology, it was during the Middle Ages, a period marked by extreme social stress and accompanying superstition that Jewish stereotypes began to take their shape. 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 a French-Jewish army captain, Alfred Dreyfus. The second, and a clear updating of mediaeval superstition, involved Menahem Mendel Beilis, a Russian Jew charged in the ritual murder of a Russian youth. The third involved a “liberal democracy,” the trial and conviction of an American Jew, Leo Frank, charged and convicted in the rape/murder of a thirteen year old girl. A lynch party consisting of many of Georgia’s elite, including an prior governor, supreme court justice and the son of a US senator dragged Frank from his cell and hanged him on a sheriff’s farm. The lynching, which sparked the birth of the Anti-Defamation League and the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan, will be discussed in detail later.
But I begin with the kidnapping of six year old Edgardo Mortara which represents a sort of transition from theological anti-Judaism to secular antisemitism.
In June, 1858 Pope Pius XI ordered Bologna city police to take custody of Edgardo Mortara and deliver him to the Vatican.
“Edgardo, age six, was one of eight children of Marianna and Momolo Mortara. The Mortaras had employed a Christian servant to help in raising the children. It had come to the light of Church authorities in Bologna, specifically the Dominican head of the local Inquisition, that the servant girl had baptized young Edgardo as an infant when she thought he was in danger of dying… The law in the matter was clear: a baptized Christian could not be raised in a Jewish home... [as it] would be seen as being a party to apostasy... Edgardo was taken from his parent’s home and transported to Rome, where he would be raised a Catholic.
Raised Catholic in the Vatican Edgardo would study for the priesthood and become a monk. According to the publication from which this account is drawn, (the Catholic League defends the right of Catholics – lay and clergy alike – to participate in American public life without defamation or discrimination), it was the Church that was victimized by its “enemies”:
“The Mortara affair supplied the enemies of Pius IX with a strong propaganda weapon at a point when the Papal States were about to collapse. The extent of the vitriol aimed at Pius was enormous and worldwide. Adopting the anti-Catholic rhetoric of the Know Nothings, Jewish groups in the United States saw it as a Jesuit-inspired conspiracy of “soul-less lackeys,” compared Pius to the “Prince of Darkness” and reminded their Protestant audience of the “history of these incarnate fiends, written in the blood of millions of victims.””
The priest Edgardo Mortara with his mother and a brother, c. 1880 (Wikipedia)
According to the League the incident was not an act of “antisemitism” but its opposite:
“The Church in Rome had a long history of defending Jewish converts to the faith and accepting them completely after such a conversion, as was done in the case of Edgardo Mortara. In his actions, Pius reflected both the generally accepted norms of the time concerning families of mixed religion [my emphases].”
The League’s j’Accuse involves “the Jews” and Jewish historian Daniel Kurtzer because,
“the story had been generally forgotten until resurrected in David Kertzer’s, “The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara” published in 1997.”
The Beilis Affair: Already infamous for its history of hands-on persecution, antisemitism in Russia only intensified, thrust Czarist Russia into the international spotlight with the infamous blood libel 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 was arrested and remained in jail for two years awaiting trial, which began in September/October, 1913. The Czar’s government pulled out the stops to create a prosecution team and expert witnesses assuring conviction. Those witnesses included a university professor expert on ritual murder and a Catholic priest expert on Jewish ritual. The priest, Justinas Pranaitis, was the author of the popular 1892 book, Talmud Unmasked.
The police department official who vetted Pranaitis informed his superiors that,
“The course of the trial will depend on how the ignorant jury will perceive arguments of priest Pranaitis, who is sure about the reality of ritual murders. I think, as a priest he is able to talk with peasants and to convince them.”
All went according to plan until the priest took the stand:
“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 lamplighter, who had found the murdered child, became confused while being prepared to testify against Beilis at the trial. Added to ineptitude of the "expert witnesses," this further harmed the prosecution’s already failing presentation.
The 12-man jury consisted of seven members of the notoriously antisemitic Black Hundred and five peasants, faced with weak prosecution and audience ridicule; this jury chosen to guarantee conviction, not even this jury could find for the prosecution and after two years in jail Beilis was finally set free. The untold story of Menahem Beilis is that, facing certain conviction he resisted all efforts accept a “plea bargain” that would have left him guilty, and subjected Russia’s Jews to a likely pogrom.
After his acquittal Beilis chose to move his family to Palestine rather than choose America as he was encouraged to do. After several years of struggle and unable to provide for his family he finally followed his American welll-wishers advice and, in 1923, moved to the United States, where he died in 1934. A few months before his death, in an interview for the New York Times, he told the reporter, “I still long for Palestine.”
Neither was the United States immune from blood libel. In 1928 a four year old girl disappeared and,
“a rumor spread that local Jews had kidnapped and killed her… A state trooper questioned the [town’s] rabbi, and asked him whether Jews offered human sacrifices or used blood in rituals. The girl was eventually found alive and unharmed.”
Captain Alfred Dreyfus was, as Theodore Herzl and Menahem Beilis, an assimilated Jew. Accused of selling military secrets to the Germans a military courts marshal convicted him of treason in 1894 and sentenced to life in prison on Devil’s Island. Two years later evidence surfaced pointing to an officer in military intelligence as the real traitor. At the trial for the real traitor Military Intelligence fabricated evidence exonerating colonel in order to keep the spotlight on the Jew as traitor.
Alfred Dreyfus stripped of rank, 5 January 1895, (Wikipedia)
The motive of the army was transparently antisemitic and l’affaire Dreyfus pitted the secular and liberal against the Church and conservative royalists. Pro- and anti-Dreyfussards clashed in the press and on the street.
The case was re-opened in 1898 due, in large part, to the efforts of Emile Zola, Bernard Lazare and other liberal seculars. Zola’s open letter, j’Accuse, characterized the military tribunal a kangaroo court, distinguished by “judicial errors” and lack of evidence. During his 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.
L''Aurore''s front page on 13 January 1898 features Émile Zola''s open letter to the French President Félix Faure, (Wikipedia)
With the Dreyfus Affair the 19th century revolutionary country that spread the cause of Jewish emancipation in all lands conquered by Napoleon’s came full circle. France was the first Western country to make use of a state institution to promote antisemitism. The Dreyfus Affair demonstrated the survival of Jew hatred within secular Christendom. Dreyfus was the first crack in the illusory dam that forty years later would burst with National Socialism’s democratic electoral victory in Germany.