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Dr Beilter
Meet the Curator  |  A Collector's Perspective

Although the Dreyfus Affair took place over a century ago, the subject is of interest for the Beitler Foundation, not for its sensational aspects, but for the timeless issues it raises. A decade ago, an exhibition on the Dreyfus Affair, held at the Jewish Museum in New York City, unveiled diverse aspects of nineteenth-century French society, cutting across artistic and cultural boundaries. Profoundly impressed by it, I began to reflect on the events at the turn of the century and how they spoke through the years to a contemporary audience. The realization that the many objects and artifacts in that exhibition would be returned to their disparate owners served as a stimulus for my search for Dreyfus materials.

There seemed to be a need for some permanent resource with holdings of material so rich in moral,
political, and cultural implications, which would be accessible to younger generations.

Selection for the collection could clearly not be limited by aesthetics. My aim was not to acquire trophies for mute admiration. Acquisitions were made taking account of the social and historical context of the period and to reflect contrasting voices. The collection would be exhibited to serve as a graphic witness of the issues as recorded and expressed by contemporaries, and suggest the reverberations in our present century to a broad, contemporary public.

The Beitler Foundation believes that active participation and inquiry are essential components of the educational process. To create environments that will encourage the development of critical thinking, the Lorraine Beitler Collection of the Dreyfus Affair offers a variety of documents to stimulate, to provoke insight. Its aim is to provide the basis for understanding the context of the events and to reflect the opposing voices and differing agendas at the end of the nineteenth century.

During the Affair, modern antisemitism developed as a political platform for nationalism, illustrating how a marginal group can be targeted--leading to what Hannah Arendt has called "the banality of evil"--and demonstrating the horrors of racism which are still reenacted in countless ordinary people's lives. A critical issue raised by the Affair is the role of the individual in civic life. How often one hears that a single voice cannot make a difference. And yet the Dreyfus Affair provides outstanding examples of individual courage. There is the loyalty and belief in the judicial process of Alfred Dreyfus himself, proud and confident in the values of the French Republic; the valor of Lieutenant Colonel Georges Picquart--opposing injustice, though with a great deal to lose in his stand against the grain of professional esprit-de-corps. There is the vision of Theodor Herzl, for whom the impact of the Affair provided a stimulus, as a leader and founder of modern Zionism. And then there is the heroism of Emile Zola, the outstanding intellectual example and director of moral conscience for France. These and others remind us of how many of the world's great movements of thought and action have flowed from the work of a single person and how these diverse acts of belief and courage have changed history.

The Affair also raises important issues of journalistic responsibility and the power of the media to represent those who have no voice or those who are at risk. The Affair demonstrates the dangers and potentials of journalism in the public arena--and its perennial necessity as a means of expressing various agendas and open debate. The use of caricature as a political tool, the power of the press and of the pen are immediately apparent as one is surrounded by many of the unusual items in the exhibition from the collection. Media proliferation at the end of the nineteenth century mirrors what weface today and will continue to face in the twenty-first century.

The Dreyfus Affair demonstrates a fundamental ideal of modern polity that governments can rectify errors,
that leaders can speak out to establish justice.

Although the process took twelve years, Dreyfus was finally exonerated and decorated. In its admission of error, and through the ability to correct it, France revealed itself a leader among democracies.

On January 13, 1998, I had the privilege of being present in Paris at the commemoration of Zola's engagement in the cause of humanity. It was a passionate experience to be a part of that celebration of the courage of Emile Zola, a writer so infused with the ideals of a noble spirit. One felt the international significance of Zola's courageous action which had prompted solidarity across the world and which was so instrumental in bringing about change. On February 2, a plaque was unveiled in the courtyard of the Ecole militaire by Minister of Defense, Alain Richard to give homage to Alfred Dreyfus and to mark the site of the innocent man's rehabilitation with Zola's immortal phrase: "Truth is on the march, and nothing shall stop it."

Given that we are part of a long continuum, each generation has a responsibility to transmit history's truths, to maintain and add to the moral foundations of society and government to inspire understanding of the ethical issues that face all individuals. The twentieth century has provided ample evidence that the issues raised by the Affair continue to have relevance. The horrors are there and so are the examples of resistance, hope, and triumph. World change can be achieved through a mobilization of opinion. It is for these reasons that we feel a need to remember the "Affair" which exemplifies the importance of a public role for intellectuals and for citizens beyond national frontiers. One person can make a difference, one individual has power. And it is for this reason that I feel privileged to participate in the commemoration of a man of honor, Alfred Dreyfus and of Emile Zola, a man of conscience.

Action! Action! All must act, all must know it is a social crime to remain passive in the face of injustice.
-Emile Zola

© Copyright 2008 by Lorraine Beitler