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Albert Tours Blog-  A Licensed Tour Guide - Israel

Captain Dreyfus and Tel Aviv

This topic is unusual because what could possibly be the connection between Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the man of the "Dreyfus Affair", and the city of Tel-Aviv?

To understand the answer, and without rewriting this whole infamous affair here, let's go back to a few facts. On January 5, 1895 the degradation of Captain Dreyfus took place in the Cour des Invalides in Paris.

The degradation of Captain Alfred Dreyfus (courtesy: Alamy)

In the assembled crowd, there was a journalist, correspondent in Paris for a Viennese newspaper: Theodore Herzl. Nothing could let imagine what was going to pass in the head of Herzl at the time of this degradation. And yet he, a fully assimilated Jew, who rejected all religious tradition, had understood in a flash that the Jewish problem was not going to be resolved by assimilation into society as he had himself thought. For Herzl had seen in Dreyfus the typical example of a fully assimilated Jew, just like him, who even served in the French army. However, it turned out that, being guilty (in 1895, no one doubted that he was), he was not simply singled out as a traitor, but also as a Jew. People did not see in him a traitorous French officer, but a traitorous Jew.

Theodor Herzl

It was a trigger for Herzl who, barely a year later, on February 14, 1896, published his famous pamphlet: Der Judenstaat, that is to say "The Jewish State". In it, he advocated a rather peculiar idea at the time that the Jewish problem would never be resolved by assimilation into societies but only by the existence of an autonomous state for the Jews. This idea was generally rejected by the entire Jewish Diaspora, which no doubt still dreamed of successful integration, or assimilation. People quickly forgot that the Dreyfus Affair, with its anti-Semitic echoes, had all the same taken place in France, that is to say in the nation of the Enlightenment, of secular religion under state control (the Jewish Sanhedrin was re-established by Napoleon) and the first emancipation of the Jews in a European nation. And yet, such an affair took place where no one could have imagined.

Herzl's famous pamphlet

Herzl devoted the rest of his life to promoting the idea of a Jewish state. And, barely 18 months after the publication of his pamphlet, which mostly found an echo in the countries where the Jewish condition was most precarious (notably in Eastern Europe and Russia), the first Zionist Congress was held in Basel at the end of August 1897. There were more than 200 delegates: the idea was now in motion. Much better, the idea of a Jewish state was also germinating in certain evangelical Protestant groups (and it had been so for several decades) who saw the return of the Jews to their ancestral land as a prerequisite for the return of Jesus. In a way, the "political" Zionist movement was born both in marginal Jewish circles and in influential Protestant circles.

Thanks to the help of a pastor, Theodor Herzl went to the Holy Land at the end of October 1898 to meet with Wilhelm II: his goal was to obtain support from the Kayser in founding Jewish colonies in Palestine under the patronage of the Prussian Empire (to read my article about it, click here). But this initiative had no success because the Sultan categorically refused to grant the Kayser this request. The latter had previously seen with a good eye the establishment of German-speaking Jewish colonies in Palestine. But, once there, he was able to meet other agricultural German colonies already solidly established for more than 20 years: these were the Templars, a sort of Protestant sect (read my article by clicking here). So, Herzl's initiative was no longer a necessity in Kayser's plans to increase German influence and colonies, especially since the Sultan refused to do so. Herzl died of exhaustion in 1904 but his idea continued and rebounded later with an initiative in England. This time, it ended up culminating in the famous Balfour Declaration on November 2, 1917, 19 years to the day after the unsuccessful meeting between Herzl and Wilhelm II in Jerusalem on November 2, 1898. And, in the end, the Jewish state that Herzl had dreamed of was established in 1948, barely 50 years (in May 1948) since the meeting in Jerusalem.

Wilhelm II's encampment in Jerusalem

Concerning the Dreyfus Affair, it had taken a new turn at the beginning of 1898 with the publication in the daily newspaper L'Aurore, on January 13, 1898, of the famous J'Accuse by Emile Zola.

The famous frontpage in L'Aurore

So let's go back to our initial question: what is the connection between Dreyfus and Tel Aviv? In 1902, Herzl had published another work, an utopic one this time: Altneuland. In this publication he dreamed of the renewal of the ancestral land: in German Alt means old and Neu new. The title therefore meant: the renewed ancient land (or ancestral land). This book was translated into several languages including, of course, into Hebrew under the seemingly bizarre title of "Tel Aviv". The author of this translation, Nahum Sokolov, had written to Herzl to explain it thus: It is a Hebrew, biblical name, ... and it serves as a connection between the new and the old because 'Tel' means a ancient city in ruins, and 'Aviv' means renewal (like spring). And so, "Tel Aviv" means an ancient city in ruins coming back to life.

Later, in 1909, when the first Jewish city was indeed founded after almost 2000 years, Menahem Sheinkin had proposed to name it... Tel Aviv, in honour of Herzl's work which was no longer a utopia. And so here is the connection with Dreyfus: Herzl had dreamed of such a revival, which was first materialized with the founding of Tel Aviv, since the degradation of Dreyfus in Paris. Tel Aviv's name is connected to Herzl and it all started with Dreyfus !

If you take a walk in old Tel Aviv, at the beginning of Herzl Boulevard (the aptly named), you will find the Institut Francais there. And if you pass behind this building, you will find a statue of Captain Dreyfus, standing respectfully upright but with his sword broken. It is a statue paying tribute to him.

Tribute to Captain Alfred Dreyfus in Tel Aviv

And if you wish to know more about the history behind the founding and development of Tel Aviv and walk through its historical buildings and its rich architectures, do not hesitate to contact me or any other certified tourist guide.

Albert Benhamou

Tour guide in Israel

January 2023


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