Ask why people are antisemitic, says leading Catholic writer

Piers Paul Read, the writer of a new book about the 1894 Dreyfus Affair, was criticised this week after saying that the French soldier's treatment could be linked to Jews being a "very powerful influence in finance, in business", and that Jews should ask why people were antisemitic.

English literature Professor Jacqueline Rose, author of Proust among the Nations: From Dreyfus to the Middle East, said she was left "uncomfortable" after Catholic writer Read, whose latest book is The Dreyfus Affair, veered into an "antisemitic ways of talking".

The pair were discussing the case on BBC Radio 4's Front Row, when Mr Read said that Dreyfus was "picked on" because he was "a difficult character" and "wasn't the kind of person anyone would want on the General Staff".

He said: "They didn't pick on Dreyfus because he was a Jew, but the fact that he was a Jew made it much easier to believe that he was guilty."

He added: "It's so easy just to use the term antisemitism as a general catch-all phrase."

But an astonished Prof Rose noted that, as the case unfolded, Dreyfus's Jewishness "became absolutely central", with people shouting "Death to the Jews" outside the courtroom. "The level of antisemitism unleashed by this affair was absolutely monstrous," she said.

She added that she "wasn't quite sure why [Mr Read] went to such lengths to insist that it was not an anti- Jewish plot". Mr Read denied that his argument amounted to a justification, commenting: "If I was Jewish I would want to know why people were antisemitic."

Alfred Dreyfus's life imprisonment on Devil's Island after a vast cover-up by the French establishment, prompted Emile Zola's famous J'accuse letter and is widely considered one of the worst examples of antisemitism in European history.

Last updated: 12:47pm, February 9 2012