It was one of the most famous frame-ups in history.
In 1894, a young Jewish military officer from Alsace, Capt. Alfred Dreyfus, was wrongly accused of treason against the French government. Convicted and shipped off to Devil’s Island, Dreyfus was finally exonerated years later through the intervention of a famous non-Jewish writer, Émile Zola; he forced the French political, legal and military system to confront its own inbred anti-Semitism, even as Jews throughout Europe, including Theodor Herzl, concluded that the only solution to the “Jewish problem” was to emigrate to Palestine.
Now, “The Dreyfus Affair,” a new multimedia show about the episode, comes to the Brooklyn Academy of Music this week (through May 7.) It opens on the heels of the first round of presidential elections in France, as the second-place finisher, Marine Le Pen, has expressed views that many see as anti-Semitic, and as Muslim anti-Semitism continues to induce French Jews to leave the country.
Has France ever truly put the Dreyfus Affair behind it?
Pianist Eve Wolf is the writer and producer of “The Dreyfus Affair,” which is directed by Donald T. Sanders and stars Max van Essen (Tony nominee for “An American in Paris”) as Dreyfus. Her company, Ensemble for the Romantic Century (ERC), has presented dozens of biographical shows that are based in historical research and incorporate live classical music.
“The Dreyfus Affair” presents a number of short scenes about Dreyfus, accompanied by visual projections that include anti-Semitic images and films. The classical music, which will be performed onstage, uses harpsichord, baroque flute, string quartet, piccolo, piano and organ; it ranges from 18th-century dance melodies by Jean Phillipe-Rameau to arias from Fromental Halévy’s 1835 opera, “La Juive.”
The Dreyfus Affair, she said, “is connected to Vichy France and to the rise of Marine Le Pen; it’s a line that never breaks.”
Wolf’s show differs from major films about the Dreyfus Affair, such as Paul Muni’s 1937 “The Life of Émile Zola” and Jose Ferrer’s 1958 “I Accuse!”, which downplay Dreyfus’ Jewishness; by contrast, Wolf puts his Jewish identity front and center, with Dreyfus even chanting Maurice Ravel’s “Kaddish” when he reaches his lowest ebb. (Roman Polanski’s new film about the Dreyfus Affair, based on Robert Harris’ novel, “An Officer and a Spy,” told from the point of view of Marie Georges Picquart, the army officer who insisted on Dreyfus’ innocence, is still in the works.)
In an interview, Wolf told The Jewish Week that her show resonates in many ways in our own age, from the still-precarious position of Jews in France to the wrongfully detained prisoners at Guantanamo. The Dreyfus Affair, she said, “is connected to Vichy France and to the rise of Marine Le Pen; it’s a line that never breaks.”
Dreyfus got caught in a squeeze, she explained, between the religious right-wingers who wanted to keep the monarchy in power and the progressive left wing that stood for the values of the French republic. At the end of the first act of Wolf’s show, as happened in real life, he is publicly “degraded” — his cap, gold braids and buttons are destroyed and his sword is broken. This is excruciating for a man who says in the play that he is “not an observant Jew” but has a “strict, even religious, faith in France.”
Because France had lost the Franco-Prussian War just a couple of decades earlier, there was still, Wolf said, “ongoing fear of the Germans, as well as renewed patriotism and nationalism.” By reading the diary that Dreyfus kept during his long imprisonment on Devil’s Island, along with letters and other documents from the period, Wolf was able to create a picture both of Dreyfus and those who railroaded him; one was Maj. Ferdinand Walsin-Esterhazy, who was ultimately unmasked as the true culprit, a German agent who betrayed his country. (In 1906, Dreyfus was finally exonerated and restored to his position in the French military.)
Peter Scolari, best known these days as Lena Dunham’s (Hannah Horvath) father (Tad Horvath) on “Girls,” plays Zola, whom he calls the “darling of the Parisian bourgeoisie,” who risked everything to win justice for Dreyfus. “I can’t think of anyone in our modern society who put himself on the line the way he did,” Scolari said. But he also noted that many of his characters’ words in the play are reminiscent of things that were said in the last U.S. presidential campaign. “Among those who guard our civil liberties,” he declaims at one point, “no one has yet let his conscience speak.”
But it is the current political situation in France, even more than the one in our country, with which “The Dreyfus Affair” seems to mirror. Marine Le Pen’s advance to the next stage of the presidential election, as she did Sunday, coming within three percentage points of centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron, signals a huge rise to power of the far-right in France.
Le Pen has attempted to distance herself from the virulently racist and anti-Semitic rhetoric of her father, long-time National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, who has been fined repeatedly for Holocaust denial. Nevertheless, her attempts to win Jewish voters were hindered by her insistence two weeks ago that France is blameless for the “Vel’ d’Hiv” mass arrest in July, 1942, when French police rounded up more than 13,000 Jews (a third of whom were children) and deported them to Auschwitz. Le Pen has also called for the banning of religious headgear, including the Muslim hijab and Jewish kipa, and she has proposed that dual French citizens of non-European nations, including Israel, be forced to choose between their French or non-French citizenship. If Le Pen wins the presidency, which is considered extremely unlikely, some Jewish leaders have called upon Jews to leave France.
Is this, in some ways, the Dreyfus Affair redux? Jonathan Laurence, a professor of political science at Boston College and a senior fellow for the Brookings Institution, says no. “France was the first nation in the West that treated Jews as citizens,” he said, referring to Napoleon Bonaparte’s famous edict of 1806 that emancipated the Jews. “French anti-Semitism is not intrinsic to French society,” he said, pointing out that just a few decades after the Dreyfus Affair, France elected its first Jewish prime minister, Léon Blum.
“Jews have not been a feature of this election,” he told The Jewish Week. Even with a Le Pen victory, he speculated, “I don’t think that you would see any official state connivance in anti-Semitism.” While French Jews have been the targets of Islamic terrorism — especially with the torture and murder of Ilan Halimi in 2006 and the Toulouse day school shootings in 2012 —and many have chosen to leave France in recent years, Laurence conceded, their rate of emigration has slowed as of late. “Now the targets of terrorists are indiscriminate,” he said, “not specifically Jews.”
Robert Weiner, who teaches history at Lafayette College and is an expert on anti-Semitism in France, said that much has changed in France since the Dreyfus Affair, with both Catholics and Protestants much more tolerant toward Jews than in the past. But there is still anti-Semitism not just on the far-right but also on the left, where anti-Zionism often shades into anti-Semitism, especially in the “more liberal elements of the French press,” where Israel is not given a fair shake. And worst of all, he concluded, is Islamic terrorism, which is “against the whole national community, but even more so and more quickly so against the Jews.”