23. J'Accuse!

Today we meet a secular, assimilationist Hungarian Jewish journalist unengaged with Jewish history, culture, religion, Torah, or Hebrew. Theodore Herzl nevertheless had one of the most significant impacts on the Jewish People in our history. “All the deeds of men are dreams at first,” he once said, and in the 1890s he had a really big dream: to create a Jewish state. He was heavily influenced by the trial of Alfred Dreyfus in France, which would lead him and other western European Jewish leaders to the same conclusion as their counterparts in the east: that the Jews had no future in Europe and therefore needed a homeland of their own. 


The story of the trial of Alfred Dreyfus — or the Dreyfus Affair — begins in the early 1800s with Napoleon. Napoleon ushered in the age of what became known as the Jewish Emancipation, in which the Jews were freed of restrictive laws and given the same rights and privileges as any other French citizen. Jews mainly responded to this equality in two ways: they either doubled-down on their traditional Jewish observance, further separating from mainstream society; or they assimilated, dropping most aspects of their Jewish identity to become fully mainstream Frenchmen and women. 

But there was one problem: in assimilating into French society, they refused to take up Christianity. So while the Jews thought that they had finally been accepted by mainstream society, their neighbors still resented them. This dynamic was repeated throughout Western Europe. 

In 1862 the Jewish writer Moses Hess wrote a book called Rome & Jerusalemarguing that Europe would never fully welcome the Jews. In 1881, the German publicist William Marrcoined the term “anti-Semitism” to argue that Jews could never fully assimilate, and that they posed a threat to the racial purity of Germany. 

In Paris, in the fall of 1894, French counterintelligence agents discovered that military secrets had been leaked to Germany. Evidence was falsified to blame Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the only Jew at the General Staff Headquarters. A year later he was found guilty and stripped of his rank, with the crowd outside the trial yelling (according to Herzl, who was observing the trial), “Death to the Jews!”

Motivated by what he witnessed, Herzl published Der Judenstaat, or The Jewish State, in 1896, considered the groundbreaking book of the Zionist Movement.  He began traveling around Europe to promote his ideas about re-establishing the Jewish homeland in Eretz Yisrael — the Land of Israel.

Meanwhile, the sensation over Dreyfus’ guilt or innocence had become a proxy fight between the voices of tolerance and intolerance in France. The Dreyfusards were those who expounded his innocence and criticized French anti-Semitism, such as Marcel Proust, Emile Zola, Anatole France, and future political leaders. In 1898 Emile Zola published an open letter titled “J’Accuse!” (“I Accuse!”), warning that “this odious anti-Semitism will destroy freedom-loving France.” Zola forced the issue of anti-Semitism out into open debate.

Dreyfus wasn’t officially exonerated until 1906, when he went back on duty in the army. Wounded in an assassination attempt at Zola’s funeral in 1908, Dreyfus served during World War I, and died in 1935.


  • Theodore Herzl claimed that the one time he went to synagogue as an adult, he didn’t even know the words to the basic Shabbat blessings.

  • William Marr, who coined the term anti-Semitism, had four wives, three of whom were Jewish or half-Jewish. He later recanted his beliefs, blaming the Industrial Revolution, not the Jews, for the plight of Germany.

  • Herzl at first wasn’t particular about where the Jewish state would be located. He thought that Argentina would do nicely. But at the end of The Jewish State he insisted that “Palestine is our unforgettable historic homeland,” and that “the Jews who will it shall achieve it.”

  • After his conviction, Dreyfus was sent to the infamous Devil’s Island prison off the coast of French Guiana in South America. The stone hut where he lived still exists today.

  • French Jews only numbered only around 100,000, out of a population of 40 million.



  • Napoleon: Emperor of France in the early 1800s, he initiated the Jewish emancipation, ensuring that Jewish citizens of France enjoyed equal rights and freedoms.

  • Moses Hess: French Jewish writer and Zionist, wrote Rome & Jerusalem, an influential book arguing that the Jews would never be fully accepted in Europe and should look to re-establish their homeland in Palestine.

  • William Marr: German publicist who coined the term “anti-Semitism” in 1881. He argued that Jews and Germans were in a racial struggle for superiority in which the Jews were in danger of winning. He later renounced his arguments.

  • Alfred Dreyfus: French Jewish military officer falsely accused of espionage in 1894, whose conviction sensationalized France and led to much debate about the place of the Jews in French society.

  • Emile Zola: Non-Jewish French writer who took up the cause of Dreyfus, and whose forceful denunciations of anti-Semitism opened up that debate in France.

  • Theodore Herzl: secular Hungarian Jewish journalist, playwright, and author. Upon witnessing Dreyfus’ trial, he wrote The Jewish State in 1896, arguing that the Jews should seek political support to realize the Zionist dream.


Beginning in the early 1800s under Napoleon, the Jewish emancipation meant that the Jews were treated as equal citizens under the law, enabling them to further assimilate and integrate into European society. Unlike their counterparts in Eastern Europe, Western European Jews thought they had finally conquered anti-Semitism and would be accepted by mainstream Europeans. But these neighbors weren’t quite as enamored of the Jews as the Jews thought. And so while Western Europe in the 1800s was an era of increased Jewish participation, achievement, and assimilation, it also saw the flourishing of new theories about the perils of Judaism. 


Although Jews thought that their embrace of modernity would end anti-Semitism, it actually had the effect of increasing it. The Jews were hated because of their assimilation, blamed for economic problems and invading and corrupting local culture and European society. Building on these concepts, William Marr posited a racial struggle between Jews and ordinary Germans, a war which he warned the Jews were winning. 


Theodore Herzl, having watched the impact of the Dreyfus Trial, developed his own brand of Zionism. He came to the same conclusions as other Zionists — that the only hope for Jewish life lay in re-establishing a Jewish homeland. But he took it a step further by promoting Zionism as a political solution, based on Jewish national identity, and one that the nations of the world would come together to support. So he combined political Jewish self-determination with the spiritual notion of returning to the Jewish homeland in Palestine, to form this root of Zionism in Western Europe.