The Dreyfus revival

Herzl was wrong. Zionism did not put an end to anti-Semitism and now wildfires have sparked outrageous theories of an international Jewish conspiracy to take over southern Chile.

Theodor Herzl 521 (photo credit: E.M. Lilien)
Theodor Herzl 521
(photo credit: E.M. Lilien)
When Theodor Herzl began covering the trial of Captain Alfred Dreyfus in 1893 as Paris correspondent of the Neue Freie Presse, he suspected that the French army officer charged with treason was guilty of the crime for which he’d been arrested. A devotee of the promises of Enlightenment and Emancipation, it was difficult for him to accept that the French republic – born of the belief in liberté, égalité and fraternité – was capable of fabricating the web of lies that would result in the public humiliation and imprisonment of a loyal French officer. Ultimately, however, the affair would have a dramatic effect in propelling him toward the conclusion that the Jews could never be at home anywhere in the world until they had a home in a land of their own.
Herzl wasn’t so much shaken by his discovery that the authorities had conspired to frame an innocent Jew, but rather by the response of the masses to Dreyfus’s conviction, culminating in the cry of the mob that continues to reverberate to this very day. “Death to Dreyfus” he might have been able to swallow, but “death to the Jews” was a different matter altogether, giving expression, in Herzl’s words, to “the wish of the overwhelming majority in France to damn a Jew, and in this one Jew, all Jews.”
Enter Rotem Singer. Hustled into a Punta Arenas courtroom last month on charges of igniting the fire that would consume 28,300 hectares (69,900 acres) of pristine Chilean forestland, the Israeli backpacker was accosted by spectators who decried him as a ”stinking Jew,” unleashing a pandemic of anti- Semitism in this otherwise civilized society. Local newspapers, blogs and social networks are abuzz with the most outrageous conspiracy theories accusing Jews in general and Israelis in particular of a plot to establish a second Jewish state in southern Chile.
Suddenly it turns out that there are more people expert in Zionist history in Chile than there are here in Israel. Making reference to the possibility Herzl raised in his Zionist manifesto, The Jewish State, that the Jewish people might consider establishing their homeland in Argentina, an alarming and baffling number of personalities are now reviving talk of the century-old Andinia Plan, the South American equivalent of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Though no such program ever existed (Herzl himself nixed the idea of Argentina two months after publishing his book), those who swear by it maintain that there is an international Jewish conspiracy to colonize southern Argentina and Chile, in the precise area of Patagonia where the conflagration was burning out of control.
Fanning these flames of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, Andres Figueroa Cornejo published a diatribe against Israel in El Ciudadano that is shocking to read, even in an age when we have become accustomed to the virulent lies and vituperative distortions that characterize the campaign to delegitimize the very idea of a Jewish state. In it he accuses Israel of crimes against the Palestinian people that, he notes, are ironically similar to those perpetrated against the Jews by Nazi Germany. What else is new? In this instance, the insinuations included in his tirade that Singer, “a militaristic Israeli” trained in the ways of occupation and domination by one of the strongest armies on the planet, was sent by the imperialist Israeli government to further its strategic geo-military objective of taking over the territory that was ravaged.
I wish we could simply dismiss this absolute hogwash as the inane gibberish of a mentally unbalanced fanatic. Unfortunately, that would be dangerous to do. Figueroa Cornejo’s rantings are based in part on a statement attributed to a member of the Chilean senate and chairman of its Foreign Affairs Committee, Eugenio Tuma of the Party for Democracy. Tuma said that “it is not normal that the Israeli government send a military team to tour Patagonia. The free transit of tourists is completely different from having a state financing and organizing its former soldiers,” who, he suggested, are being sent to the area in order to help them deal with post-traumatic stress disorder developed as a consequence of their role in oppressing the Palestinian people.
These remarks were echoed by another Chilean senator, Fuad Chachin, vice president of the Christian Democratic Party, who raised questions as to whether Rotem Singer was really a tourist at all, or perhaps, as he suggested, someone sent by Israel for other reasons “after killing Palestinian children.”
Laudably, the heads of the Christian Democratic Party and the Party for Democracy have condemned these statements and distanced themselves from the anti-Semitism they reflect.
Unfortunately, others – probably far more than we would like to believe – take the wild claims seriously. A quick Google search revealed dozens of websites and hundreds of talkbacks relating to the matter. One that appeared on “The Ugly Truth,” a website “dedicated to defaming Zionism, Jewish extremism and a few other nasty items making our world uninhabitable today,” suffices to capture the essence of them all: “These IsraHelli ‘backpackers’ cause havoc to locals around the world… These creatures are never ‘retired’ just like a vampire never retires from drinking blood. Many of them are members of the IDF and the Mossad and they are always on call when their fellow demons ask them to do a favor. I feel sorry for the Polish people who have to put up with these creatures when they flood in to remember the holohoax.”
It now remains to be seen how the rest of Chilean society will react to such outrageous outbursts of anti-Semitism and whether this response will echo or rebuff Herzl’s observation of more than a century ago. “We have honestly tried everywhere to merge ourselves into the social life of surrounding communities,” he wrote. “We are not permitted to do so… In countries where we have lived for centuries we are still cried down as strangers.”
But one thing is certain. The legacy that the visionary of the Jewish state bequeathed to the 18,000 Jews of Chile is one that allows them to respond with confidence and pride to the accusations being made against them and the State of Israel, despite the trauma of their past and the less than comfortable circumstances of the present. Many are second-generation survivors of Nazi Germany and all of them are neighbors of Santiago’s Palestinian community which, numbering between 350,000 and 500,000 members, is the largest outside the Middle East.
Unfazed by this demographic disadvantage, the local Zionist Federation, now in the hands of a new generation of self-assured Jews in their 20s and 30s, responded swiftly to the hateful epithets hurled at Singer by those who acted zealously ”to damn a Jew, and in this one Jew, all Jews.” Its leaders, bolstered in their commitment to Jewish continuity by the existence of the State of Israel and the time they have spent here, have been in direct contact with the young Israeli and his lawyer and have launched a campaign on Facebook and Twitter to set the record straight on this and related matters.
Hopefully their efforts and those of others in this well-organized Jewish community will mean that the negative impact of the last few weeks will be minimal. But while Singer is certainly no Dreyfus, this disagreeable episode is nevertheless an unpleasant reminder that anti-Semitism did not disappear with the advent of Zionism, as Herzl predicted it would, and that the uncomfortable question as to just how much the Jewish people can ever really be at home outside of a Jewish state remains unanswered.
The writer is deputy chairman of the World Zionist Organization and a member of The Jewish Agency Executive. The opinions expressed herein are his own.