The Graveyard of Nationalism

From the Dreyfus Affair to Contemporary Zionism

I recently wrote on this blog a series of articles on the Dreyfus Affair. Besides what I hoped to be their pure historical interest, the point was to prompt reflection on the relevance of the events in the Third Republic to contemporary politics: the bizarre, conspiratorial fantasies and ideologies, the creation of hostile national identities, the furious battles that started in the press and descended into the streets. But while imagining all the ghosts and shadows of the Affair, I neglected to deal with what is one arguably one of its living products: Zionism. With the terrible events now unfolding in Gaza, the West Bank, and Israeli cities with mixed Arab and Jewish populations it seems like a worthwhile moment to go back and deal with this part of the history.

The Dreyfus Affair is famously given as the moment of Theodor Herzl, founder of political Zionism, conceived of the need for a nation-state for the Jews. At the time, Herzl, born in Austro-Hungary, was a journalist living in Paris covering Dreyfus’s trial. His witnessing of the conviction and degradation of Dreyfus supposedly triggered a conversion-like experience: the Jews could never be safe in Europe. In his 1896 book Der Judenstaat, Herzl wrote:

[I]f France – bastion of emancipation, progress and universal socialism – [can] get caught up in a maelstrom of antisemitism and let the Parisian crowd chant 'Kill the Jews!' Where can they be safe once again – if not in their own country? Assimilation does not solve the problem because the Gentile world will not allow it as the Dreyfus affair has so clearly demonstrated….

The Dreyfus Affair was thus presented as the ur-example of the Zionist theme that liberalism, humanism, the Revolutionary principles of liberte, égalité, fraternite, could not guarantee safety for the Jews, a theme that seemed to be so horribly confirmed half a century later with the Holocaust.

As is often the case with stories about the birth of nationalisms, there is a good deal of myth-making involved here. The dramatic realization of the impossibility of continued Jewish life in Europe did not really seem come to Herzl like a thunderbolt with the observation of Dreyfus’s mistreatment. According to Shlomo Avineri, an investigation of Herzl’s reporting and journals from the time reveals something else:

According to Avineri, it was the rise of the antisemitic mayor in his native Vienna, Karl Lueger, that truly shaped the progression of Herzl’s politics. He wrote in one letter: “I will fight antisemitism in the place it originated — in Germany and Austria.” (His picture of fin-de-siécle Paris as a nest of fevered chauvinism and corruption is hopefully familiar to readers of the Dreyfus series.) But the striking image of Dreyfus’s trial and degradation, a singular event that evokes martyrdom and symbolizes persecution, is an irresistible one for the purposes of myth-making and propaganda, elements without which nationalism is impossible to foster. Herzl was also directing his argument at French Jews, who might be frightened by the events of the Affair, and therefore possible recruits to the Zionist cause.

In point of fact, the Dreyfus Affair as it actually played out is not the best object lesson to foster a Zionist political consciousness. The victors of the Affair were the forces of European humanism and all the heirs of the ethos of the French Revolution: liberals, socialists, and “intellectuals,” a term coined at the time, all rallied to the cause of a lone persecuted Jew, saw in his case the entire moral and political fate of their country, and gradually defeated the power of the military, the church, cowardly, opportunistic parliamentarians, and the chauvinistic mob leaders. The Dreyfus Affair was a triumph of the Revolutionary tradition over the newly-emerging “tribal” nationalism. It was an imperfect victory: chauvinistic nationalism and antisemitism were never fully snuffed out, France’s colonial empire continued to exist under Socialist and Radical governments, but it was not in France where the new fascist synthesis would fully take power. The democratic coalition that united in the Dreyfus Affair repeatedly resisted the reaction, rallied popular power, and managed at the same time to institute important social reforms. Whatever weakness and instability there was in the Third Republic, the anti-Dreyfusard clique could only come to power with the assistance of Hitler and the Wehrmact.

One of the indelible and disturbing images emerging from the present events in Israel and Palestine are the Jewish mobs, assaulting and attempting to lynch Israeli Arabs, destroying Arab stores, and shouting “Death to Arabs!” For anyone familiar with the events of the Dreyfus Affair and the subsequent history of antisemitism in Europe, this spectacle can only provoke a sense of bitter irony. The antisemitic mobs that attacked Jews and Dreyfusards in the street during the Affair chanted, “Death to the Jews!”

The Zionism that dominates Israeli politics and can be witnessed on the streets of Jaffa and Lod is the cousin—not the opponent—of the nationalism that appeared at the time of Dreyfus Affair in Europe. As Hannah Arendt wrote, “[Their] Zionism belongs to those nineteenth-century political movements that carried ideologies, Weltanschauungen, keys to history, in their portmanteaus.” These ideologies imagine a world of never-ending, murderous struggle, dictated by the forces nature and history; they reject the possibility of human solidarity in favor of a vision of despair and nihilism; they offer no political choice but to hive off into various racial and ethnic hordes.

What is apparently lacking in Israel now, which was present in France from the time of the Dreyfus Affair virtually until the fall of the Third Republic, is any real power on the left. During the crises of the French Republic, a coalition would periodically emerge in defense of the Republic and the Revolution. This alliance could contest, check, and ultimately defeat the nationalist mobs, the military, and the religious reactionaries both at the ballot box and in the street. It seems today there are too few Dreyfusards in Israel, or at the very least, they have as yet no organized political power behind them. Until that situation changes, the nationalist right and its outrages appear to have no countervailing force and further catastrophe seems to be the only imaginable outcome.