The New L’Affair Dreyfus: the Jewish Lesson for Zionists

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By Dr. David Wurmser

The suit brought forward to the International Court of Justice by South Africa and backed by Jordan — claiming that Israel has committed war crimes and is conducting a genocide in its war against Hamas — is riddled with more holes than fabric. Most Western countries have backed Israel and dismissed the accusations as without foundation. 

Israel is accused of willfully engaging in the mass slaughter of innocents. And yet, virtually all objective military analysts in the West have outlined how Israel’s behavior in the conduct of this defensive war has been, in the context of the threat, exemplary.  It has followed all the rules of war, established humanitarian safe zones, given ample warning to evacuate legitimate military targets, and often forewarned and cancelled strikes that show signs of continuing to have civilians present.  Israel’s cautious tactics have cost them the lives of many soldiers. Compared to the tactics of any other military in the world, it has operated to the highest standards of humanity. 

Israel is accused of genocide – a crime defined after World War II in reaction to the slaughter of the Jewish people in the Holocaust by the Nazis. To forward this current claim against the Jewish people, South Africa has seized on a Biblical passage cited by Prime Minister Netanyahu in the early stages of the war on the Amalekites. While there is a passage in the Book of Samuel in the Bible that calls for erasing the seed of the Amalekites, that is not the passage quoted by Prime Minister Netanyahu. He quoted another verse from Deuteronomy, which not only does not call for the annihilation of the Amalekites, but it calls the Jewish people to remember those who commit genocide. It is such a powerful and apt verse that in is in fact enshrined on a plaque on the building of the very same International Court of Justice that now has brought suit against Israel. And in Kafkaesque inversion, it is Hamas – who is the real force behind this accusation through its alliance with South Africa’s ANC movement – that in words has trumpeted genocidal intent, in subversive networks has mobilized global antisemitism to threaten the survival of Jews, and in actions committed horrific war crimes as a down payment on its intent to not only kill all Jews, but do so in the most depraved and torturing manner, and then to erase the very legacy and history of the Jews’ peoplehood. Indeed, so spurious was the claim put forth by South Africa that it had to invent a new crime to justify squeezing the Jewish nation into it unsustainable accusation: domilicide – the destruction of houses so that people have no homes, amounting to an attempt to kill a people. Although Israel has not expelled any Palestinians from the territory, and indeed over decades of accelerating demographic growth under Israeli control, the idea that destroying structures in a war used for cover for terrorist tunneling is an Orwellian twisting of reality.

Israel is accused of imperial aggression. Israel had once controlled the entirety of the territory, but surrendered it all in order to be left alone.  There was a ceasefire in place. Israel allowed all non-military goods into Gaza, as well as funds from various sources. But Hamas, one day out of the blue, launched its murderous attack, after years of periodically and unilaterally ending previous ceasefires and launching lesser attacks. If Israel is accused of a war of imperialism, then this would be the first war of imperialism that was started by a “victim” given all the territory the Palestinians had claimed but which never was legally deeded to them to begin with (indeed, the territory has been deeded to Israel in the 1922 Mandate) but who repeatedly and consistently launched unprovoked, murderous waves of attacks.

Every aspect of this case before the International Court of Justice is thus a travesty.  And yet it proceeds, and the accusations against Israel have a reasonable chance of resulting in a verdict against Israel.

So what are we to make of this?  How can the unfolding of this episode even be possible? For that, we must look to history.

Anti-Zionism is antisemitism.  It has become the modern ideological form of attacking the Jewish people through the thinly veiled attempt to legitimize it by claiming it is only against Israeli evils. The veil is indeed more than thin; many of the advocates of anti-Zionism engage in rhetoric as well as attacks that fail to differentiate between Jews and Israel.  The Hamas charter calls for killing Jews, not Israelis, and the Palestinians refer to Israelis as al-Yahud, or “the Jew.”  Jews are attacked in Western cities for being Jews, and Jewish institutions and structures are vandalized in clearly antisemitic graffiti.  Swastikas have been used by Hamas, Palestinians, and Hitler’s war on the jews glorified by its supporters.  You do not need the IHRA definition of antisemitism to know that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism.

But if anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism, then it is natural that Israel will eventually have its l’Affair Dreyfus. The Dreyfus affair was a trial in 1894 in France – seen at the time as one of the most enlightened and tolerant of nations in the world to its Jews – where a highly decorated Jewish war hero, Captain Alfred Dreyfus was accused of treason in passing state secrets to the Germans. There was no evidence for his guilt, and indeed, two years later, the real spy, Ferdinand Esterhazy, was caught, but he was quickly exonerated in order not to reverse the conviction of Dreyfus. Indeed, not only was he not acquitted, but a new show trial was organized against Dreyfus, where additional charges were brought and he was again convicted without evidence. So transparent was antisemitism involved in this trial and conviction that it resulted in a public scandal that convinced many Jews that they have no future in Europe.  One Jewish reporter there – an advocate of Jewish assimilation – was so shaken by the transparency of the antisemitism that he, Theodore Herzl, became convinced that there was no future for Jews any more in Europe and that they have only one hope for survival: a return to their homeland.

If Israel is the Jewish nation, then it is clear that Israel at the International Court of Justice now passes through its collective Dreyfus Affair.  Its innocence is immaterial, as it was for Dreyfus. The transparency of the accusations against it are irrelevant, as it was for Dreyfus. Its conviction is predetermined, as it was for Dreyfus.  But so too now are the lessons collectively learned from the Dreyfus Affair applicable to Israel today.

The Israelis have learned that every attempt they undertook to be accepted as other nations has failed.  Their obsession with assimilating as a nation in the community of nations as Herzl himself had originally believed Jews among other citizens should was futile. Every effort to act in exemplary ways to prove its worth as a people — as exemplary as was Dreyfus’ patriotism did not convert the “conditional” right to live into an inherent right.  No amount of objective evidence shielded him from false conviction.  Indeed, nothing Israel can do — neither hi-tech nor Nobel Prizes, neither reasonableness nor flexibility, neither inventions nor medical aid, earthquake and relief missions, neither self-restraint nor our hyper-morality in war  — will ever convince the community of antisemites that the Jewish people have a right like all others to be treated with respect and dignity and that as a people, they have an inherent right to exist and defend themselves as any other people. This is so because the hatred of the haters, the venom of the antisemites, is not based on either behavior or guilt, but on who the antisemites are and the darkness of their souls. Antisemitism is the handmaiden of evil.

The realization of that, and the understanding that only independence, agency and self-defense will protect Jews is the collective “Herzl moment” that Herzl personally had reached in 1899 after Dreyfus’ final conviction. Israel has now for over five decades abandoned the Zionist anchor to its strategic imagery. It has increasingly surrendered agency and independence in its strategic doctrine and convinced itself that it can be accepted as a normal nation by integrating into global collective defense as a highly responsible member of the international community.  It has displayed exemplary behavior in war and exercised self-restraint, employed deterrence and enhanced defensive measures rather than preemption, and embraced a reactive strategy rather than proactively suppressing threats. It has become largely reactive and self-restrained because it had hoped such passivity would shield it collectively from international ostracization and condemnation and more broadly win acceptance and legitimization.  In other words, Israel internalized the idea that its very existence was contingent on its behavior rather than inherent to its very being

But on October 7, 2023 – culminating in the trial at the International Court of Justice in the Hague – Israel has learned otherwise.  It was the victim of an unprovoked, genocidal onslaught for which it stands now accused. The murdered and raped stand now accused of murder and rape. The nation grieving and burying its babies and toddlers who were beheaded and baked in ovens alive by Hamas stands now accused of infanticide. 

The trial is more than unfounded; it is a twisted addition to the psychological warfare being waged and the dehumanization via vilification of the Jewish people as the embodiment of evil rather than its victim.

Have Israel’s elites truly digested that? They certainly realize the ICJ trial is a gross injustice – a twisted inversion of the truth. But it is unclear whether they have taken the next step and internalized the futility of further attempts to prove their (Dreyfus’) innocence by  reducing war aims, increasing humanitarian shipments, and employing extremely cautious tactics in dense urban warfare above and underground amidst a large civilian population turned into a vast human shield by Hamas.  It is true that rules of war in Judaism are surprisingly extensive, ancient in tradition, and quite limiting, and thus Israel has its own reasons to exercise such caution. And yet, have its elites digested that the purpose of such tactical restraint, strategic withdrawal or surrender of the claims and rights, if intended to convince others of how selfless and harmless they are, has not only failed but along the way instead tarnished among many the respect they had for Israel’s long-cultivated reputation of dogged adherence to conviction and self-reliance?  

In other words, does the Israeli security and political establishment have the gumption to say it has had enough, and that the criticism is so detached from either reality or morality that anyone saying it has no leverage any more?  Has Israel’s security elite and political establishment now truly returned to Herzl’s realization: while there are those in the world who agree and are Judeophilic — and are welcomed with warmth to help the Jewish people thrive another 4000 years – but as a people, they are done trying to prove the extraordinary, indeed unique value of themselves as Jews or as nation as a precondition for his right to live? 

Israel as a nation appears to have come to this conclusion.  The Israeli elites, however, as with elites everywhere, seem to be the last to figure it out.