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Museum panel discusses first media trial

November 7, 2013

By Daniel Herda

The Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage partnered with Cleveland State University’s Cleveland-Marshall College of Law to host a panel discussion on the Dreyfus Affair, the first media trial in the modern era.

The panel discussion was part of the ongoing exhibition on the Dreyfus Affair at the museum.

Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a French army artillery officer of Alsatian Jewish descent, was wrongfully sentenced to life in prison for espionage in 1894. The authorities had charged Dreyfus with passing military secrets to the Germans. Even though during the investigation it came to light that another Frenchman, Ferdinand Esterhazy, was the spy, Dreyfus was still sent to prison.

French newspapers flooded the public with details of treason and conspiracy. It was not long until the majority of the French people were convinced of Dreyfus’s guilt. 

Dreyfus’s name was finally cleared in 1906 after French intellectuals led by literary figures such as Emile Zola campaigned on his behalf.

France was mainly Catholic, which meant that many of the French people were quickly geared to persecute Dreyfus for not only his crime but for his Jewish ancestry.

The discussion on the Dreyfus Affair was split into two parts. One was a lecture from attorneys, professors, and judges and the other was a Q and A session engaging audience members. 

The audience was comprised of lawyers, scholars and students. The seats inside the Maltz theater room were completely filled. People also stood in the back during the discussion.  

Jill Rembrandt, director of Education and Public Programs at The Maltz Museum, organized the panel discussion and contributed to the Dreyfus exhibit.

“We are very proud of our Dreyfus exhibit,” said Rembrandt.

One of the topics discussed was how the media covers religious minority groups today.

Steven M. Dettelbach, U.S. attorney for the northern district of Ohio, spoke about discrimination against religious minority groups as well as the Dreyfus Affair.

Dettelbach shared his views on the destruction at the Toledo mosque, where ex-marine Randy Linn received 20-years in prison after admitting to setting fire to the mosque.

“Linn was asked where he got the ideas for his crimes and said he kept seeing negative coverage of Muslims on FOX 8,” said Dettelbach.

Doron M. Kalir, clinical professor of law at C-M Law, was born in Israel and mentioned how he grew up in the shadow of the Dreyfus affair.

Kalir said the ‘power of the press’ was the first lesson he learned about the Dreyfus Affair and that the second was anti-Semitism.

“The emancipation that allowed Jews to become an integral part of the French society demonstrated their presence and successes in professional fields,” Kalir said. “A new sort of jealousy and hatred was geared towards Jews by the French people, which came out during the Dreyfus affair.”

Students and lawyers gathered in the lobby to discuss the Dreyfus Affair before taking the tour in the museum’s exhibit.

Brad Thiede, a communication student studying online from the University of Phoenix, saw the event on his school’s website and said he did not want not miss it.

Thiede mentioned that he has a Muslim friend who taught him how to live and pray, which changed his life and brought him back to school.

“Anti-Semitism is the same as anti-Muslim and I usually don’t listen to the media when they are stereotyping,” Thiede said. “I usually get more than one source to prevent an incomplete picture.”

Stuart A. Friedman, Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court Judge, spoke about how the French newspapers covered the Dreyfus affair more like propaganda and less like journalism.

“We have institutions in this country today that make an incident like the Dreyfus Affair less likely to happen,” said Friedman.

The museum put together a tour of Dreyfus’s life, with photos and written descriptions hanging on the walls. Patrons were able to learn more about France in the early 19th century and how the Dreyfus affair impacted the country.