Amid Antisemitism Controversy, BBC Calls Alfred Dreyfus a ‘Notorious Jewish Spy’
The BBC’s relationship with the UK Jewish community seems to have become increasingly strained this year. Earlier this month, many Jews were appalled by a BBC report about the termination of an overtly antisemitic professor that misleadingly described him as being “sacked over Israel comments.”
In June, the BBC was forced to fire an employee after HonestReporting exposed her history of deeply antisemitic tweets, including one featuring the hashtag “HitlerWasRight.”
Now the BBC is under the microscope again, due to a TV series description on its website that characterized Alfred Dreyfus as a “notorious Jewish spy.”
In reality, Dreyfus was a falsely accused officer in the French army, who was initially stripped of his rank and then sentenced to life in prison on trumped-up charges of treason.
He was later fully exonerated.
As Martin Gilbert elucidated in his tome “Israel: A History,” what became known as the Dreyfus Affair was fueled by antisemitism, and had a significant impact on the advancement of Zionism:
One of those who had little knowledge of what had already been achieved in Palestine, especially by the Russian immigrants of the previous two decades, was a Hungarian-born Jew, Theodor Herzl. As a journalist in Paris since 1891, he was shocked by the anti-Semitism in France at the time of the Dreyfus case, when a Jewish officer was found guilty of treason, a charge later found to have been false. The harsh anti-Semitic tone of much of the criticism of Dreyfus appalled Herzl who also knew of the suffering of Jews in Russia. His calls for a return to Zion appealed above all to the Jews of Russia, for hundreds of thousands of whom the United States had hitherto been the main possible place of refuge and renewal.
The Dreyfus trial was a watershed in Jewish history. Jews everywhere asked themselves what had gone wrong with Jewish life. Why was there anti-Semitism? Three ways out of the trap seemed to present themselves: to become assimilated into the nation with whom one was living, to fight for a revolutionary socialism that would cure all the evils of the world including anti-Semitism, or to seek a ‘normal’ Jewish life in a Jewish land with a Jewish government. Herzl was drawn to the last option.
Therefore, for the BBC to describe Dreyfus as a “notorious Jewish spy” exhibits either staggering ignorance of history, or a severe lack of interest in avoiding spreading long-discredited antisemitic tropes.
The error was first noticed by columnist Norman Lebrecht, who wrote on the Slipped Disc website that the mistake is “akin to calling Hitler ‘a successful German populist.’”
The same day, the error was brought to the attention of our site, and we posted the following to Twitter:
Dreyfus was a Jewish officer in the French army who was baselessly accused of treason by a deeply antisemitic establishment.
After initially being convicted and humiliated, he was later exonerated of all charges.
— HonestReporting (@HonestReporting) October 10, 2021
This tweet recorded hundreds of thousands of views, and numerous prominent Twitter users shared it some adding their own comments:
Following the social media backlash, the blurb on the BBC website was edited to describe Dreyfus more accurately as “arrested for spying,” but not before the matter caught the attention of journalists at The Daily Express, The Jerusalem Post, and the popular British website Joe.
The Jerusalem Post article included the following:
“For the BBC to produce a series featuring Alfred Dreyfus, who was baselessly accused of treason, and then describe him as a ‘notorious Jewish spy’ is an insult to his memory and to the Jewish community in general,” Emanuel Miller, a media analyst at the media watchdog organization HonestReporting, told The Jerusalem Post.
“The Dreyfus case represented a key moment in Zionism’s history and in the eyes of many is a byword for the miscarriages of justice suffered by Jews throughout the ages. How many times must a Jew’s name be smeared?”
“While the website text was quietly changed, the BBC evidently feels it doesn’t owe Jews an apology, much less take serious steps to familiarize its staff with the basics of antisemitism in order to prevent such easily avoidable mishaps,” Miller said to the Post. “Unfortunately, judging by past experience, the BBC is unlikely to apologize for the insulting mischaracterization.”
For whatever unacceptable reason, the BBC has again failed to uphold basic journalistic standards, and instead possibly helped fuel the dissemination of a century-old smear.
It’s time that the BBC takes antisemitism more seriously.
Emanuel Miller is a writer-researcher for HonestReporting, a Jerusalem-based media watchdog with a focus on antisemitism and anti-Israel bias — where a version of this article originally appeared.