Two months after its shellacking in the United Kingdom’s general elections, the Labour Party continues to remind British voters of why they chose the “anyone-but-Jeremy-Corbyn” option.
Last week, it was the turn of John McDonnell—Corbyn’s main lieutenant and a stalwart of the party’s far-left—to plumb the depths of illogical, offensive and plain ignorant political rhetoric. Speaking immediately after a visit to Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, in the grim surroundings of south London’s Belmarsh prison, McDonnell produced an unforgettable soundbite. Just not in the way he intended.
“I think this is one of the most important and significant political trials of this generation, in fact longer,” said McDonnell, referring to the possibility that Assange will be extradited to the United States to face 18 charges related to national security violations, of which 17 are covered by the Espionage Act. Warming to his subject, McDonnell then ventured, “I think it’s the Dreyfus case of our age.”
Perhaps McDonnell believed that this comparison would send journalists scurrying onto Google for a quick refresher course on “Dreyfus,” and that he would consequently be congratulated for having offered such a thoughtful, historically resonant observation. No such luck.
Diligently performing their duties as representatives of the Jewish community, organizations including the Community Security Trust and the Holocaust Educational Trust swiftly countered McDonnell’s claim. Whatever Assange might be, they said, he is no Dreyfus.
This, by the way, is not a slight towards Assange. Even if you temporarily forget McDonnell’s breathtaking gall in appropriating one of the seminal episodes of modern anti-Semitism to make his point that Assange is facing a show trial, on a purely empirical level, the comparison with Dreyfus is hopeless.
Firstly, no one would dispute—least of all Assange himself—that WikiLeaks’ disclosures were done for the purpose of exposing and embarrassing the Western alliance. Always eager for as much publicity as he could get, the key point is that Assange did these things of his own volition in the aggressive pursuit of a political mission. By contrast, one of the more heartbreaking aspects of the ordeal of Capt. Alfred Dreyfus was that he didn’t leak secrets to the enemy, nor compromise the lives of allies, nor conspire to weaken France in any way before he was drummed out of the French Army in a grotesque ceremony of humiliation. Other than faithfully discharging his responsibilities as an officer in the French artillery, Dreyfus didn’t actually do anything to warrant the charges of treason that were deliberately and falsely laid at his door in 1894.
But then—and this may be what John McDonnell simply didn’t grasp—the Dreyfus case was never about Dreyfus as an individual. Dreyfus was not, as is Assange, one of a handful of famous whistleblowers in an ongoing conflict with the security establishment. One did not become a Dreyfusard (a supporter of Dreyfus) to portray this falsely convicted man as a speaker of truth to power, shining a beacon of light upon the murky secrets of the state. One became a Dreyfusard because Dreyfus was punished for what he was, not for what he did or didn’t do.
This basic fact was well understood by the great French writer Emile Zola, among the most eloquent defenders of Dreyfus. “I accuse General [Jean-Baptiste] Billot of having held in his hands the unquestionable evidence of Dreyfus’s innocence and of suppressing it, guilty of this crime that injures humanity and justice, with a political aim and to save the compromised Chief of High Command,” Zola wrote in his famous text J’Accuse! And if it was easy to frame the only Jewish officer on the army General Staff, it was because—as the rabidly anti-Semitic newspaper La Civilta Cattolica put it at the time—what was really on trial in the Dreyfus case was the “treacherous character” of the “deicidal people” to whom he belonged.
Unquestionably, Dreyfus suffered terribly as a man prior to his being officially exonerated in 1906, but his fate came to him because he was a Jew in the wrong place at the wrong time. In that ugly environment, stoked by anti-Semites determined to roll back the clock on a century of Jewish emancipation, any Jew would have done.
These truths have already been pointed out to McDonnell by commentators in Britain. Writing in the left-wing New Statesman weekly, Karen Pollock of the Holocaust Educational Trust argued that McDonnell’s comparison “downplays the institutionalized anti-Semitism, hatred and degradation that embodies what happened to Dreyfus and is particularly ludicrous when Assange himself has perpetuated anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.”
However, unsurprisingly for a man who decided against immediate resignation after helping his party to sink to a historic electoral low, McDonnell is sticking to his guns. “It was quite clear what I meant,” he countered the following day, clearly bruised from the criticism. “Just like the Dreyfus case, the legal action against Julian Assange is a major political trial in which the establishment is out to victimize an innocent.”
Why, though, choose Dreyfus specifically as an analogous case, if the only purpose is to make a generic point about someone’s alleged innocence? Why not pick another example closer to home? As a longtime supporter of Irish republicanism, McDonnell is doubtless aware of the high-profile terrorism trials of the 1970s, when British courts locked up entirely innocent Irish people after framing them for atrocities that were committed by the IRA. Why not invoke these?
Here’s why. For much of the left, the history of Jewish suffering is something that can be universalized and “de-Judaized” for political purposes in ways that would be condemned as grossly insensitive if, for example, the subject was African-American slavery instead. The version of Alfred Dreyfus that John McDonnell gives us is a Dreyfus whose Jewish identity is so incidental, it doesn’t even need to be mentioned.
If our history is to be openly and shamelessly manipulated in this way, you can be forgiven for wondering whether it’s worth talking about at all.
Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.