10 Things You Need to Know About…Emile Zola

Journalist, author, man of conscience

220px-ZOLA_1902B1. Emile Edouard Charles Antoine Zola was born in April 1840 in Paris. He was a French writer, an exemplar of the naturalist school, but this blog will concentrate on the reason why an Israeli street is named for this non-Jew who never set foot in Palestine.

2. Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a French artillery officer, one of the army’s General Staff, was a Jew. When French intelligence discovered evidence of military secrets being smuggled to the Germans, Dreyfus was accused, court-martialed, convicted of treason, and sentenced to life-long penal servitude on Devil’s Island in French Guiana. At the court-martial, Dreyfus was not permitted to examine the evidence against him. A handwriting expert testified that the very lack of resemblance between Dreyfus’ handwriting and the document in question was evidence that he had written it.

3. Dreyfus was publicly humiliated, his insignia torn off and his sword broken in half; he was marched around the parade grounds as the crowd spat at him and cried out “Jew” and “Judas.” Herzl, a young newspaperman at the time, was present, and the experience crystallized his conviction that Jews had no secure home in all of Europe.

4. When evidence emerged that the real culprit was another officer, Ferdinand Esterhazy, a military cover-up ensued. The issue was raised in the French Senate, but the government refused to consider new evidence in the case. Esterhazy was tried, but acquitted.

170px-J_accuse5. Enter Zola. On January 13, 1898, the morning after Esterhazy was acquitted, Zola, who was editor of the newspaper Aurore, risked his career and his freedom by publishing “J’Accuse…!” in bold letters on the front page. In an open letter to the French president Faure, he accused the top levels of the French army of obstruction of justice and anti-Semitism. The letter named names and offered evidence of Dreyfus’ innocence. It accused the handwriting experts of submitting false reports. It accused the courts-martial of violating the law and committing judicial crime. It accused Esterhazy of espionage. Zola wrote, “[Dreyfus] is the victim of…the ‘dirty Jew’ obsession that is the scourge of our time.”

6. Zola’s intention was to be prosecuted for libel so that new evidence could be brought and made public. His letter was to prove the turning point in the case; because of his stature among the intelligentsia, his stand was enormously influential, both in France and abroad. Zola was brought to trial for criminal libel on February 7, 1898, convicted on February 23, and removed from the Legion of Honor.

7. To avoid imprisonment, Zola fled to England, arriving in July of 1898 with only the clothing on his back. A year later, he was offered a pardon – as opposed to exoneration – which he accepted, saying, “The truth is on the march and nothing shall stop it.”

8. Nothing did. In 1899, Dreyfus was returned to France, retried, found guilty and pardoned. Then in 1906, Dreyfus was exonerated by the French Supreme Court. The guilty verdict was annulled; Dreyfus was awarded the Cross of the Legion of Honor as “a soldier who has endured an unparallelled martyrdom.”

9. Zola did not live to see this happy conclusion. He died in September 1902 of carbon monoxide poisoning due to a blocked chimney. Thousands attended his funeral, at which he was eulogized by Anatole France as not just a great man, but “a moment in the human conscience.” Suspicion remains to this day that the blocked chimney was deliberate, a murder by an anti-Dreyfusard.

10. For an excellent article summing up the ins and outs of the case, see Adam Gopnik’s “Trial of the Century: Revisiting the Dreyfus Affair,” published in The New Yorker of September 28, 2009. It should also be noted that in 1998, on the hundredth anniversary of Zola’s statement, France’s Roman Catholic daily, La Croix, apologized for its anti-Semitic articles during the Dreyfus Affair.

In Tel Aviv, you’ll find Emile Zola Street just west of Dizengoff and south of Ben Gurion.

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