The Dreyfus Exhibition

When I was in Paris I went to the exhibition on Dreyfus at the Jewish Museum. It wasn’t well attended – only a few people there. But I found it insightful. In fact it produced a reaction I would say was profound. Not as if lightning struck or anything of the sort. This was much more quiet and subliminal. The displays were simple and some of them I had difficulty following because of my poor French. But I was able to gain a picture of the times and because it is so close to the period I’m researching in England, I felt drawn into the moment in a way I rarely feel when going to a museum event.

I have little sense of Dreyfus the man. He comes from a class and a background that is far too distant, culturally, for me to understand. The Jews of the Alsace were a people apart. They had very little in common with their religious brethren of Central Europe. Their integration into French society had been established through the Napoleonic wars – in fact the Jews of Alsace had a prayer that included the name of Napoleon as their liberator. So the Alsatian Jews were beholden to the Republic and saw themselves as the prime benefactors of the new rights of assimilation. Dreyfus was one of their sons given to the Republic to be trained as an officer in the army. It was a significant gesture from a people who had suddenly found themselves part of something larger than their ghettoised past. But it was the reaction to his moment in history that I found striking. The polarisation of French society and the symbol of the Jew as a foil for the nationalists is rife with emergent symbolism of the new age devouring the old world order and causing the tremors and eruptions which would leave the fields of Europe soaked in blood for many years to come.