On a freezing day in Paris in 1895, a captain of the French army was led into the courtyard of the École Militaire. Convicted on trumped-up charges of passing military secrets to the Germans, he was to undergo a ceremony of ritual humiliation. An officer tore the badges and stripes from his uniform and broke his sword. The crowd roared: “Judas! Traitor!”
Alfred Dreyfus was a Jew. His ordeal at the military school was the beginning of a 12-year struggle that divided the country and unveiled the depths of French, and European, antisemitism: the Dreyfus affair.
Watching the spectacle that day was a Budapest-born journalist, Theodor Herzl. Today he is known as the father of modern Zionism, the movement to secure a homeland for the Jewish people. Herzl would come to believe that if even an exemplary officer and loyal Frenchman like Dreyfus could become the victim of such persecution, then the only hope for the Jews was to found a state of their own.
More than half a century later, his improbable dream became a reality. Out of the ashes of the Second World War, a shattered people created a new country in the land of their ancestors.
They made the desert bloom. They raised a citizen army. They built a robust democracy that is still the only one in their neighbourhood that deserves the name. They welcomed refugees from Europe, the Middle East, Africa and the Soviet Union. They built a high-tech, free-market economy that bursts with energy and invention.
And yet today a shadow has fallen over their creation. The Hamas attack of Oct. 7, the worst atrocity that Jews have suffered since the Holocaust, shattered Israel’s fragile sense of security. The whole purpose of the Jewish state was to provide a safe haven, to put muscle behind the phrase “Never again.” Yet, in 2023, Jews were once again massacred in their homes and dragged away into captivity.
As if the murder of 1,400 Israelis and abduction of 250 more were not enough proof of the hostility they face, the reaction to the massacre and Israel’s response confirmed it. After a short period of sympathy for Israel’s plight, opinion has turned.
The President of Turkey, a NATO member, calls Israel a “war criminal” and Hamas “freedom fighters.” Crowds yelling antisemitic slogans rush an airport in Russia’s Dagestan region on rumours that Jewish and Israeli passengers are arriving on a flight from Tel Aviv.
People tear down posters of Israeli hostages. Students label Israel an apartheid, settler state. In China, state media and social media seethe with vitriol against Jews and Israel. Like Dreyfus in the courtyard, Israel stands pilloried and jeered in the public square.
Hard luck, its critics say. What did you expect? Your bombs are raining down on Gaza. Civilians, many children among them, are dying. You can hardly be surprised about getting a black eye in world opinion. Any country would get the same.
If that were true, then Israel would indeed have nothing to complain about. As a democratic state, it can expect its conduct to come under scrutiny. Even before Oct. 7, there was plenty to scrutinize, from its toleration of fanatical settlers to the hard right turn of its government and the arrogance of its Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
Now that the war is on, it is perfectly legitimate to criticize the way Israel is employing its military might and to deplore the deaths of civilians in Gaza, though every one of those deaths ultimately must be laid at the feet of Hamas, whose fighters came into Israel to commit mass murder, then crossed back into Gaza to hide among children.
But the criticism goes far beyond that. Today’s protesters don’t just shout “Save the children” and “Cease fire.” They wave banners accusing Israel of genocide, a stinging word for a nation founded in the wake of that crime. They say: “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” You need only look at a map to understand from whom.
Israel is accustomed to intense scrutiny. Though it is a country of fewer than 10 million on a sliver of land amid a vast region, its every action comes under a microscope, especially at the United Nations, where Israel bashing has been a habit for decades.
But to see such a wave of hate and anger right after Israel has endured the worst atrocity of its life is chilling. Israelis can be forgiven for feeling, like Herzl in his time, that they have still not truly been accepted among the family of nations. Despite all their accomplishments, despite their three-quarters of a century of proud independence, despite the support of friends like Canada, much of the world persists in viewing their homeland as an illegitimate state established on stolen land – “so-called” Israel, as some Canadian student unions like to call it.
Dreyfus was sent to Devil’s Island, the notorious prison colony off French Guiana. Most French people applauded. Only after years of campaigning by his family and a group of skeptical journalists, writers and politicians did the real story come out: Dreyfus had been framed. He was a patriotic citizen whose only wish was to serve his country and live in peace. If France had looked at the facts instead of listening to its prejudices, it might have avoided years of turmoil and pain.