The Prisoner and the Writer is a beautiful book – beautifully written, beautifully illustrated – and what writer can fail to be inspired by the story of Émile Zola and Alfred Dreyfus? Yet for me the book was also a disappointment.
Alfred Dreyfus was a French military officer falsely accused and convicted of spying for Germany. Zola was a renowned author and he took on Dreyfus’s case, writing the most famous newspaper article of all time “J’Accuse!” which accused the French military of persecuting Dreyfus solely because he was Jewish.
Beyond that the purpose of Zola’s article was to force the French military to take Zola to court for libel so that, in court, Zola could show up the case against Dreyfus as the lie it was. A ballsy move – that resulted in antisemitic French courts convicting Zola of libel and him fleeing France to avoid prison.
Thanks to Zola and the widespread efforts of many in France, Dreyfus was eventually freed from his prison on Devil’s Island, pardoned, and awarded the Legion of Honour.
This is the story told in Heather Camlot’s picture book recommended for children aged 9 to 12. Written in free verse, the book brings out the emotion of the story, while Sophie's deft illustrations with drawings that suggest both the emotion of the story and the historical era.
This surely is a story everyone should know – about a writer lending his pen to a fight for justice and against prejudice – and doing so at great personal risk to himself. Indeed, it’s suspected that Zola’s eventual death from smoke inhalation was no accident – that an anti-Dreyfusard had blocked his chimney in order to murder him.
But I cannot help but mourn that the most significant historical effect of the Dreyfus Affair is missing from Camlot’s story and her Afterwards: Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, said it was the Dreyfus Affair that convinced him that Jewish life in Europe was a dead-end – that the only hope for Jews was for us to create our own state.
Tragically, Herzl was right. The triumph of the Dreyfusards in France did not mean the end of French antisemitism. Some decades later when the Nazis occupied France, there were plenty of French citizens to assist the Nazis in shipping Dreyfus’s granddaughter Madeleine Levy, along with tens of thousands of other French Jews, to Auschwitz to be gassed to death.
In her Afterward, Camlot voices her fears of resurgent antisemitism. It’s a fear many of us share. She also speaks of her hope: “When I see antiracism protests sweeping the globe, Queer-Straight alliances in schools, growing expectation that the diversity of the population should be represented at the highest level of government – when I see people standing up and speaking out – I have hope. “
Alas, I can’t share this hope. I see an antiracism movement that slides into antisemitism, with the leadership of the Black Lives Matter movement wanting to remove the world’s only Jewish state from the map (see here and here for starters). And I see a “diversity, equity, and inclusion” industry that excludes Jews, that singles out Israel and Jews who support Israel for condemnation, and descends into outright antisemitism (see here, here and especially here for starters). The lessons of the Dreyfus Affair do continue to resonate, but those lessons haven’t yet been learned.
The Prisoner and the Writer is a book worthy of a place on people’s bookshelves. But what the Jewish community needs – and is not getting – are kids’ books that speak to the danger of antisemitism and Israel-hatred on the left.
Brian Henry is a writer, editor, creative writing instructor, and publisher of the Quick Brown Fox blog. He reviewed books for Books in Canada and The Toronto Star and has written opinion pieces for the National Post and the Toronto Star. He was also a regular contributor to the (now defunct) Jewish Tribune and the Engage and Harry’s Place websites in the UK.
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