Dreyfus: An Affair to Remember

How is it possible that an espionage trial in France in the mid-1890s set into motion events that (tangentially) led to the rebirth of the State of Israel after 2,000 years? Noam Weissman demystifies the oft-repeated but often misunderstood story of the Dreyfus Affair. He also explains why this extraordinary — but also ordinary — example of antisemitism cuts to the heart of questions surrounding Jewish identity that are still being asked today.

  • Review
  • Discussion
  • Activities
  • Reflection
  • Further Learning
  1. What was the proof that Alfred Dreyfus was guilty of treason?
    • There was none
    • His signature
    • His “fake” signature”
    • His Jewish identity
  2. How long did Drefus spend on Devil’s Island as a prisoner?
    • Five months
    • Five years
    • One year
    • One month
  3. What aspect of the Dreyfus affair inspired Herzl to push for a Jewish state?
    • The fair trial Dreyfus got
    • Hearing Frenchmen chant “death to the Jews!”
    • His strong Jewish identity
    • Herzl’s Zionism he was raised with
  4. In 1906, Dreyfus was exonerated and:
    • Never worked another day in his life
    • Served for the French military in World War I
    • Made Aliyah to Palestine
    • Began working as a journalist with Herzl
  5. What role did French novelist Emile Zola play in the Dreyfus Affair?
  1. From the Dreyfus Affair, it is noted that the facts of Dreyfus’s guilt or innocence is less relevant than the hostile atmosphere that the trial created in which the French country was split and people were even chanting, “Death to the Jews.” From a historical lens and from the perspective of the history of Zionism, why do you think the reaction is more important than the facts of the case itself?
  2. Does the Dreyfus Affair sound to you like something that could only take place at a certain time and place in history or something that could happen today? Discuss.
  3. Eventually, Dreyfus was pardoned and reinstated in the French military with high honors. To what extent does this rectify what had previously been done to him?
  4. The French Revolution gave the Jewish people rights as individuals, but not as a people. Clermont-Tonnerre declared, “To the Jews as individuals–everything; as a nation–nothing.” Anita Shapira notes in Israel: A History, “A paradox was created whereby in an era of increasing secularization, the Jews’ self-definition began to lean heavily on religion: Germans of the Jewish faith, French people of the Jewish faith, and so forth.” For the first time, Jews felt a distinction between Jews as a people and as a religion. In what ways do you see Judaism as a religion, a nationality or a culture?
  5. Put yourself in Herzl’s shoes. How would you feel if you watched such injustice take place? What would you write in your journal or diary?
  1. Play our Dreyfus Affair Kahoot!
  2. Lead a podcast listening party. Download our PDF Guide.
  1. Unpacked for Educators, The Dreyfus Affair
  2. Unpacking Israeli History Podcast, “Dreyfus: An Affair to Remember”
  3. Unpacked for Educators, “Who Was Theodor Herzl?” Herzl: The Zionist Dream of a Jewish State
  4. Joellyn Zollman, The Dreyfus Affair
  5. Liam Hoare, “Did Dreyfus Affair Really Inspire Herzl?” Did Dreyfus Affair Really Inspire Herzl?
  6. Adam Gopnik, Trial of the Century: Revisiting the Dreyfus Affair

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