Open Letter to My Students 32: A Cautionary Passover Message – The Dreyfus Case and Us

[Yes, #32. I went through the old letters and discovered no end of faulty numbering. This is legitimately #32]

Passover starts tomorrow night, but instead of preparing for it, I am writing this letter. I cannot help it, because ever since the week began, I’ve been obsessed with a remarkable coincidence. Pesach always falls on Nisan 15, but starting the night before, which is April 15 as well. No big deal, that. But on Nisan 10, the Israelites slaughtered the paschal lamb to ensure that the angel of death “passed over” their homes; and this year, the eve of Nisan 10 fell on April 10, which is the day (in 1894) when Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish Captain in the French army, was found guilty of treason and banished to Devil’s Island.

The twists and turns of the Dreyfus Affair are well known – they read more like fiction than history – but it is worth recalling some of them as a precautionary Passover message this year. 

Devil’s Island is a jungle off the coast of French Guiana, where inmates were subjected to hard labor, a tropical climate, and filthy conditions that would probably kill them. The mortality rate reached 75%. Even the authorities who accused Dreyfus knew that he was innocent. But he was Jewish, a convenient scapegoat. 

He was eventually released but until then, France was polarized into warring factions that attracted observers from all over Europe: most notably, Theodor Herzl, who was so shaken by the anti-Semitic protests in the streets that he returned to his native Vienna intent on founding a Jewish state where Jews would always find a safe harbor. 

One obvious lesson for this Passover is the one that Herzl drew: even in Republican France, the land of “Liberty, Equality Fraternity,” Jews are never completely safe. That is also a lesson of the Passover Haggadah, where we read that “in every generation” our enemies “arise against us to make an end of us.” 

That lesson was added to the Haggadah somewhere in the Middle Ages by Jews who were so convinced of its validity that they inserted it into the original Seder account in the Mishnah (c. 200) as if our ancestors had put it there from the very beginning. It is not the lesson I choose to emphasize when I sit down to our Passover table, but I would be an idiot to ignore it. Take just one image that is not easily forgotten: the torchlight parade in Charlottesville and its chant, “The Jews will not replace us.” Still, my seder table seeks a broader vision of tomorrow, a hopeful one, even if also a cautionary one, and toward that end, I return to the Dreyfus Case for a more nuanced lesson of the Haggadah’s warning. 

The background to the Dreyfus case is the Franco-Prussian war, when Germany routed French forces, overran Paris itself, and ended the brief emperorship of Napoleon III. For two months a populist Paris Commune called for a socialist redistribution of wealth and an end to the domination of the retrogressive Catholic Church. Its excesses brought about its own demise, but the era that succeeded it (the Third Republic) continued to give Jews equality — hence Dreyfus, himself, becoming a captain, but also, a symbol of the new era where the ideals of the Enlightenment and science replaced the traditional order where old wealth, upper class, and the church establishment dictated privilege. Dreyfus had the misfortune of being a lightning rod for the old guard seeking to reinstate an actual monarchy, aided and abetted by the equally old-guard church which bemoaned its loss of power.

All of which returns us to Charlottesville and our current state of discontent. Here too, radical conservative voices want to return us to yesterday when America was great – Make America Great Again. Not incidentally, they also deny the validity of science and of basic civil liberties. Fueling that discontent is once again a religious voice, not the Catholic Church this time – we are not 19th-century France – but a collection of evangelical white supremacists who want to overturn the liberal freedoms that Americans enjoy. I do not fault all evangelicals, many of whom I know and admire. Nor do I dismiss all conservatives: I believe we benefit from thoughtfulness all along the political spectrum; and liberals too can be stridently radical. But the Dreyfus case teaches me that militant conservative religion paired with aggrieved conservative warnings about our heritage going off the rails is likely to end up implicating Jews as some imagined secret power behind the cabal: Jews today risk being cast again as so many Captain Dreyfuses. 

It is not just Charlottesville. It is also the reiterated white supremacists and their myth of “the Great Replacement”; the QAnon supporters in congress; the outright war on hard-won civic liberties that Jews have supported overwhelmingly (same-sex marriage, for example); the big lies that right-wing media are mainstreaming (that the January 6 insurrection was just a peaceful demonstration); and more. In addition, we have a kind of reactive fundamentalism on the other side, which only exacerbates the country’s moral cleavage and drives us farther into the hands of totalitarian demagoguery. At the rate we are going, the future is bleak. 

But I am not a fatalist. The Haggadah’s warning takes hatred of Jews as just a given, whereas we know now that history’s givens can also be given back; not everything that history offers need be accepted. We know now, also, that Jews are not the only victims of right-wing religious revivalism, which will initially target women who rightly need an abortion, same-sex couples, immigrants, and anyone who is not white, most especially anyone who is obviously black. 

Now that we have a Jewish state, it turns out that Jews too can be the problem. In Israel, as well, right-wing religion allied to power is a scourge. Revanchist Catholics in France; militant white Protestantism in America; ultra-Orthodox fanatics in Israel: they all advocate a regime of religious fundamentalism, at the expense of personal freedom.

The problem is endemic to modern democracies, which arose in place of monarchies allied to state religions; and took pains, therefore, to prevent the return of both. Liberal religion, which accepts separation of church and state as a positive good, is content to operate by moral suasion. Conservative religion, which never accepted separation of church and state in the first place, and which feels wrongfully disempowered as a result, allies with demagogues who will reinstitute religious control of ordinary people’s lives. With Rabbi Gilad Kariv’s election to the Knesset, Israeli Reform Judaism has entered the power game. Whether American liberal religion can succeed at that is questionable, and I am not sure I even advocate it. 

But moral suasion can itself be leveraged, and the current moment demands that we leverage it with every ounce of our being. Religion itself is not the enemy; reactionary fundamentalism in league with revanchist nostalgia is. And illiberal liberalism doesn’t help us any.

This Passover, we should recognize the need for our own religious alternative to have a say; we can no longer abandon the public square to the other side. We should commit as well to financing organizations that do the political influencing that we cannot manage, individually. And we should double down in support of congressional candidates who will fight for us. The alternative, waiting in the wings, is a twenty-first century theocracy, with Dreyfus-like victims – Jews and non-Jews — and with enclaves of suffering all over America that look increasingly like Devil’s Island revisited. 

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