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Zola, Weiss, and "J'Accuse...! 2023"
Bari Weiss: “You Are the Last Line of Defense”
On 10/25, I offered to donate my next $1,000 of paid subscriber revenues to Magen David Adom (Israel’s Red Cross) along with a $500 match from my own pocket; that $1,500 has now been sent. From now till 12/1, 50% of new paid subscriber revenues will also go to MDA.
Two writers, two countries, two centuries, one story.
125 years ago, Émile Zola’s open letter, “J’Accuse…!”, ripped the scabs off the skin of France and revealed the festering pus beneath; a week ago, Bari Weiss’s speech, “You Are the Last Line of Defense”, did the same for today’s America. I can’t say whether Weiss’s speech will attain the immortality of Zola’s letter, but it ought to. Attorney/blogger Ilya Shapiro attended the speech and called it “Bari Weiss's Speech for the Ages.” The parallels between Zola’s letter and Weiss’s speech are sufficient that I have taken to calling the latter “J’Accuse 2023.”
Zola wrote of a French Jewish military officer, Alfred Dreyfus, wrongly accused and convicted of spying for Germany. A corrupt circle of military officers whipped up nationwide waves of antisemitic demonstrations to mask their own crimes and pin the blame on the innocent Dreyfus. Weiss spoke of the horrors unleashed on October 7 on Israel by Hamas, the orgiastic celebration that followed in the streets and universities of the West, and the intellectual cancers that spawned that enthusiasm—including the degradation of law and usurpation of individual liberties.
Weiss speaks of the sudden realization that your allies have become your worst enemies—and that you may find yourself unexpectedly allied with those you have previously considered adversaries or worse. She stresses this latter point by noting gently, even euphemistically, that her speech was spoken by a politically eclectic, perhaps left-of-center, LGBTQ+ mother in a same-sex marriage and listened to by a gathering of politically conservative attorneys, many of whom (she said) likely disapprove of her marriage. (I might add that Weiss grew up attending the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, where 11 people were murdered by an antisemite in 2018.) According to Shapiro, Weiss’s speech:
“drew the longest standing ovation I’ve ever seen at any Federalist Society event. People tell me that Ted Olson’s very first lecture—eulogizing his late wife, who’d just been killed on 9/11—is the only thing that rivals it.”
Weiss’s speech is not just an accounting of horrors. The final third of the speech is a four-point action plan for combatting the societal pathologies that have been laid bare by October 7 and its aftermath. She even manages to incorporate some anecdotes of inspiring defiance of the ongoing madness.
Just a few days after this speech, a chillingly ironic postlogue has emerged. Weiss’s speech was this year’s Barbara K. Olson Memorial Lecture. Olson was an attorney and political commentator who was one of 3,000 people murdered on September 11, 2001. She was flying on American Airlines Flight 77 when it slammed into the Pentagon. Weiss notes:
“The difference between 9/11 and 10/7—two massacres of innocent people, symbols to their killers of Western civilization—was the reaction to the horror. … The difference between 9/11 and 10/7 was that the catastrophe of 10/7 was followed, on October 8, by a different kind of catastrophe. A moral and spiritual catastrophe that was on full display throughout the West before the bodies of those men and women and children had even been identified. … People poured into the streets of our capital cities to celebrate the slaughter. … In Sydney, crowds gathered at the Sydney Opera House cheering ‘gas the Jews.’ People rejoiced on the streets of Berlin and London and Toronto and New York.”
[NOTE: There was also rejoicing on the streets of Zola’s Paris—including harassment of and physical attacks on Jewish schoolchildren—and, possibly one attempted murder. Over 100,000 people also took to the streets in marches against antisemitism in Paris.]
But here is the irony: Less than a week after Weiss’s speech, countless TikTok users have suddenly developed a deep and abiding admiration for Osama bin Laden and a sense that the dead of 9/11 and the country where they were murdered deserved what they got. As told by Nellie Bowles (to whom Bari Weiss is married):
“leftist American kids are discovering Osama bin Laden’s manifesto, ‘Letter to America.’ And oh boy, do they love it! Oh, how misunderstood bin Laden was. Oh, how beautiful his message is. And why, they’re now asking, have they been so thoroughly lied to about the emir of al-Qaeda? You have to watch this compilation of these people, and then you have to pour yourself a stiff drink.”
In the same week that Bari Weiss celebrated the life of Barbara Olson, then, a loud and ostentatious swath of Generation Z publicly celebrated her murderer. And lest you attribute this to a few over-medicated malcontents, October’s Harvard CAPS/Harris Poll asked Americans whether they side with Israel or Hamas in the ongoing conflict. 48% of 18-to-24-year-olds sided with Hamas. Not with Palestinians, mind you, but with Hamas specifically.
The parallels between the two works and between the environments in which they were delivered should shake any decent person to the core. On January 13, 1898, Zola published a letter of 4,564 words (full text here), ostensibly addressed to the president of France, but intended for the eyes of a nation going blind from an antisemitism that was a mere symptom of more generalized moral rot in France and beyond. On November 10, 2023, Weiss delivered a speech of 4,745 words (full text here), ostensibly addressed to the Federalist Society, but intended for the eyes of a nation going blind from an antisemitism that was a mere symptom of more generalized moral rot in America and beyond. (You can watch Weiss’s entire address on the video above.)
Zola and Weiss both spoke of societal institutions gone off the rails, of corrupt prosecutors, of deliberately unequal application of law, of sadism and enthusiasm for that sadism. Both missives were delivered amid streets packed with depraved, Jew-hating mobs. Both addressed complicity, complacency, and cowardice among elites of society—including those entrusted with civic responsibility, buckling before the rapacious and the malevolent.
Both pointed fingers at a corrupt press:
ZOLA: “it is still a crime to have relied on the filthy press”
WEISS: “An anti-Israel protester in Los Angeles killed a 69-year-old Jewish man for the apparent sin of waving an Israeli flag, though NBC’s initial headline made it hard to know: ‘Man dies after hitting head during Israel and Palestinian rallies in California, officials say.’”
Both pointed to moral failings by high officials:
ZOLA: “how General Mercier, Generals de Boisdeffre and Gonse were able to get caught up in it, engage little little by little their responsibility for this error, which they believed they had to impose, later on, like the holy truth, a truth which cannot even be discussed.”
WEISS: “University presidents—who leapt to issue morally lucid condemnations of George Floyd’s killing or Putin’s war on Ukraine—offered silence or mealy-mouthed pablum about how the situation is tragic and ‘complex’ and how we need to think of ‘both sides’ as if there is some kind of equivalence between innocent civilians and jihadists.”
Both spoke of those with backbones who leaned against the mobs:
ZOLA: “Likewise for Lieutenant-Colonel Picquart, who, out of a feeling of high dignity, did not want to publish General Gonse's letters. These scruples honor him all the more since, while he remained respectful of discipline, his superiors made him cover with mud, instructed himself his trial, in the most unexpected and most outrageous manner.”
WEISS: “New York coffee shop owner Aaron Dahan had all of his baristas quit when he placed an Israeli flag in the window and began fundraising for Magen David Adom—the Israeli Red Cross. … But his café didn’t close—quite the opposite. Suppliers sent him free shipments of beans and cups. Community members picked up shifts for free. There were lines around the block to buy a cup of coffee. The cafe made $25,000 in a single day. … Just this week, American cowboys from the Great Plains and the Rockies traveled to Israel to tend to the fields and animals of Israeli farmers who were killed in the past month. This is the opposite of the cheap solidarity of standing with Hamas that we see across our campuses and city centers. This is the essence of the West—of the idea that free societies must stand together.”
Both said antisemitism is always a symptom, never the disease
ZOLA: “It is a crime to mislead public opinion, to use this opinion which has been perverted to the point of delirium for a death task. It is a crime to poison the small and the humble, to exasperate the passions of reaction and intolerance, by sheltering behind the odious anti-Semitism, of which the great liberal France of human rights will die, if she is not cured of it. It is a crime to exploit patriotism for works of hate, and it is a crime, finally, to make the saber the modern god, when all human science is at work for the next work of truth and justice.”
WEISS: “[T]he proliferation of antisemitism, as always, is a symptom. … When antisemitism moves from the shameful fringe into the public square, it is not about Jews. It is never about Jews. It is about everyone else. It is about the surrounding society or the culture or the country. It is an early warning system—a sign that the society itself is breaking down. That it is dying.”
Both issued scorching accusations as to those responsible for the sordid state of society:
ZOLA aims his accusations more at specific individuals:
“I accuse the lieutenant-colonel of Paty de Clam of having been the diabolical worker of the judicial error, in unconscious, I want to believe …”
“I accuse General Mercier of being an accomplice, at least out of weakness of mind, to one of the greatest inequities of the century.”
“I accuse General Billot of having had in his hands certain proofs of Dreyfus' innocence and of having suffocated them, of being guilty of this crime of harming humanity and harming justice, with the aim of to save the compromised staff.”
“I accuse General de Boisdeffre and General Gonse of being accomplices in the same crime, the one no doubt out of clerical passion, the other perhaps by that esprit de corps that made war offices the holy arch, unassailable.”
“I accuse General de Pellieux and Major Ravary of having carried out a rascal investigation, by which I mean an investigation of the most monstrous partiality, of which we have, in the report of the second, an imperishable monument of naive audacity.”
“I accuse the three handwriting experts, Sieurs Belhomme, Varinard and Couard, of having made false and fraudulent reports, unless a medical examination declares them suffering from vision and judgment disease.”
“I accuse the war offices of having carried out in the press, particularly in L’Éclair and L’Écho de Paris, an abominable campaign, to mislead public opinion and cover up their fault.”
“I finally accuse the first council of war of having violated the law, by condemning an accused on a room which has remained secret, and I accuse the second council of war of having covered this illegality, by order, by committing in turn the legal crime of knowingly acquitting a culprit.”
WEISS aims her accusations more at groups and philosophies:
“In lockstep, the social justice crowd—the crowd who has tried to convince us that words are violence—insisted that actual violence was actually a necessity. That the rape was resistance. That it was liberation.”
“Then came [Black Lives Matter] Chicago using the paraglider—a symbol of mass death—as a symbol of freedom.”
“Then came posters across our campuses calling for Israel to burn.”
“Then came our own offices in New York City being vandalized with ‘Fuck Jews’ and ‘Fuck Israel.’ Then came Harvard’s task force to create safe spaces for pro-Hamas students.”
“At George Washington University, a few miles from here, students projected the words ‘Glory to Our Martyrs’ and ‘Free Palestine from the River to the Sea’ in giant letters on campus buildings.”
“At Cooper Union in Manhattan, Jewish students had to hide in the library from a mob pounding on the door.”
“At Columbia, Professor Joseph Massad called the slaughter ‘awesome.’”
“At Cornell, Professor Russell Rickford said it was ‘energizing’ and ‘exhilarating.’”
“At Harvard, more than 30 student groups signed a petition that found a way to blame Jewish victims for their own deaths—saying that they ‘hold the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.’”
“At Princeton, hundreds of students chanted, ‘globalize the intifada’ which can mean only one thing: open season on Jewish worldwide.”
“At NYU, students held posters that read ‘keep the world clean’ with drawings of Jewish stars in garbage cans.”
“Decolonization isn’t just a turn of phrase or a new way to read novels. It is a sincerely held political view that serves as a predicate to violence. … If you want to understand how it could be that the editor of the Harvard Law Review could physically intimidate a Jewish student or how a public defender in Manhattan recently spent her evening tearing down posters of kidnapped children, it is because they believe it is just.”
“At first, things like postmodernism and postcolonialism and postnationalism seemed like wordplay and intellectual games—little puzzles to see how you could “deconstruct” just about anything. What I came to see over time was that it wasn’t going to remain an academic sideshow. And that it sought nothing less than the deconstruction of our civilization from within. … It replaces basic ideas of good and evil with a new rubric: the powerless (good) and the powerful (bad). It replaced lots of things. Color blindness with race obsession. Ideas with identity. Debate with denunciation. Persuasion with public shaming. The rule of law with the fury of the mob. … People were to be given authority in this new order not in recognition of their gifts, hard work, accomplishments, or contributions to society, but in inverse proportion to the disadvantages their group had suffered, as defined by radical ideologues.”
“Over the past two decades, I saw this inverted worldview swallow all of the crucial sense-making institutions of American life. It started with the universities. Then it moved beyond the quad to cultural institutions—including some I knew well, like The New York Times—as well as every major museum, philanthropy, and media company. It’s taken root at nearly every major corporation. It’s inside our high schools and our elementary schools. … And it’s come for the law itself. … When you see federal judges shouted down at Stanford, you are seeing this ideology. When you see people screaming outside of the homes of certain Supreme Court justices—causing them to need round-the-clock security—you are seeing its logic.”
Both say the disease underlying antisemitism never stops with Jews:
ZOLA: “The beauty of the story is that he was justly antisemitic. Yes! We are witnessing this infamous spectacle, men lost in debts and crimes whose innocence is proclaimed, while the very honor is struck, a man with a spotless life! When a society is there, it decays. … They have rendered an unjust sentence, which will forever weigh on our councils of war, which will henceforth taint all their judgments with suspicion. … This, then, is the simple truth, Mr. President, and it is appalling; it will remain a stain for your presidency. I suspect you have no power in this matter, that you are the prisoner of the Constitution and those around you. You still have a human duty, which you will think about, and which you will fulfill.”
WEISS: “But it is not only Jews who suffer from the suggestion that merit and excellence are dirty words. It is every single one of us. It is strivers of every race, ethnicity, and class. That is why Asian American success, for example, is suspicious. The percentages are off. The scores are too high. The starting point, as poor immigrants, is too low. From whom did you steal all that success?”
Weiss’s Four-step Plan of Action
Zola’s “action plan” was to accuse enough individuals as to get himself arrested for criminal libel—and then win the day in court. He was arrested, but he was convicted (twice) and sentenced to a year in prison. Rather than serve time, he fled to London and remained there for over a year.
In contrast, Weiss outlines four steps that are necessary for the rest of us to halt the collapse of moral civilization in America and the West:
“First: look. We must recover our ability to look and to discern accordingly. We must look past the sloganeering and the propaganda and take a hard look at what’s in front of our eyes. … How it is the most educated, the most pedigreed who have become the most morally confused. The suspect in the killing of Paul Kessler is a college professor. … I do not need ‘context’ to know that tying children to their parents and burning them alive is pure evil, just as I do not need a history lesson on the Arab-Israeli conflict to know that the Arab Israelis who saved scores of Jewish Israelis that day are righteous.”
Second: we—you—must enforce the law. The wave of elected so-called “progressive prosecutors” has proven to be an immensely terrible thing for law and order in cities across America. It turns out that choosing not to enforce the law doesn’t reduce crime. It promotes it. … It is no coincidence that many of the same activists who have pushed to ‘defund the police’ are also now publicly harassing Jews.
“Third: no more double standards on speech. … Take Yale Law School. In 2021, law student Trent Colbert invited classmates to his ‘trap house,’ in his announcement of a ‘constitution day bash’ hosted by [the Federalist Society] and the Native American Law Students Association. It took 12 hours for administrators to process discrimination complaints, haul Colbert in for a meeting, and suggest his career was on the line if he didn’t sign an apology they penned on his behalf. The law school’s dean also authorized a message condemning Colbert’s language. Why? Because trap house was a term some claimed had racist associations with crack houses. … But when Jewish students wrote to that dean some two weeks after the Hamas attacks, detailing the antisemitic vitriol they have received, they got a formulaic reply from her deputy, directing them to student support services … The universities play favorites based on the speech they prefer, and the racial group hierarchies they’ve established. It’s a nasty game and they need to be called to account for it.”
“Fourth, accept that you are the last line of defense and fight, fight, fight. … We have let far too much go unchallenged. Too many lies have spread in the face of inaction as a result of fear or politesse. … No more. … Do not bite your tongue. Do not tremble. Do not go along with little lies. Speak up. Break the wall of lies. Let nothing go unchallenged. … Our enemies’ failure is not assured and there is no cavalry coming. We are the cavalry. We are the last line of defense. Our civilization depends on us.”
The message of both Zola and Weiss is that societal decay comes not only from evil, but also from ignoring, tolerating, and cowering before evil. Weiss does not hesitate to issue full-throated condemnations of organizations and philosophies that have been handled with kid-gloves by those who have known well the dangers they pose. For example, in another recent essay, “End DEI,” Weiss writes:
“It’s not about diversity, equity, or inclusion. It is about arrogating power to a movement that threatens not just Jews—but America itself.”
For me, Weiss’s profoundest words are her simple advice to:
“Look at your enemies and your allies. … And I say this more to myself than to you. Many of you have no doubt understood this longer than I have. But for many people, friends and enemies are likely not who they thought they were before October 7.”
“L’Affaire Dreyfus” was a twelve-year struggle. Dreyfus was accused of espionage in1894—tried and convicted that same year and imprisoned on the horrific Devil’s Island, off the coast of South America. Excuplatory evidence was produced by the earnest Lieutenant Colonel Georges Picquart in 1896, but Dreyfus remained imprisoned for years. Zola wrote his blockbuster letter in 1898, and Dreyfus was finally returned to France in 1899 for retrial. Once again, evidence be damned, Dreyfus was re-convicted and sentenced to ten years in prison, but he was pardoned and released—officially still in disgrace. Throughout these years, antisemitic demonstrations clogged the streets of France, and the nation divided into bitterly opposing camps of Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards. In 1906, he was exonerated, reinstated in the Army, and elevated to the rank of Major. There he served France honorably in World War I and ended his service as a lieutenant colonel. He died in 1935 and was buried with full military honors.
Something of a happy ending to a sordid saga, I suppose. Unless one considers that a mere five years after Dreyfus’s death, German troops conquered France and, with considerable French complicity, arranged for the murder of 72,500 or France’s 330,000 Jews. That said, it is critical to note that French Jews had one of the highest survival rates of any nation that fell under the Nazi spell. France has the third-highest number of citizens designated by the State of Israel as being among “the Righteous Among the Nations”—non-Jews who, for purely altruistic reasons, risked their own lives to save Jews from extermination during the Holocaust. Perhaps the words of Zola and the memory of the injustice foisted upon Dreyfus a generation earlier saved hundreds of thousands of lives.
It is also worth noting that the very notion of Zionism and the eventual establishment of the State of Israel was spawned in large part by L’Affaire Dreyfus. Under France’s revered principle of Laïcité (secularism), Jews were thoroughly integrated into French society—until the Dreyfus Affair turned them overnight into outsiders. This insanity spread outward from France, all over Europe. Any sense of safety and normality for European Jews was obliterated and the world pointed toward the barren satrapies of the Ottoman Levant as a place where Jews ought to go.
It is for all these reasons that you should read Bari Weiss’s speech in its entirety, and then read Émile Zola’s letter in its entirety, and then listen to the video of Bari Weiss’s speech for the ages. It is then, maybe only then, that you will begin to realize just what a dark world we have entered into and what you—you personally—must do to restore the light.
Perhaps most importantly, if your children are among those celebrating Hamas and Osama bin Laden in the streets or on TikTok, you may wish to consider how posterity will view your success and failure at parenting; perhaps, with advice from Zola and Weiss, you need to have a long talk with your children.
PERSONAL NOTE: While I’ve never met or communicated with Bari Weiss, it is a great source of pride for me that our biographies share one item in common. She was the recipient of the Reason Foundation’s Bastiat Prize for Journalism in 2018, and I was the Bastiat recipient in 2014. (Hence the title of this newsletter.) I am humbled to find myself on a list that includes her name.
The Life of Emile Zola
William Dieterle’s 1937 film, The Life of Emile Zola, portrays Émile Zola’s crusade to free Alfred Dreyfus, a wrongly accused French military officer. In the above clip, Zola (Paul Muni) is on trial for criminal libel. Following are three quotes from the video that echo in Weiss’s speech and in the disturbing events playing out on the streets of America and of the world:
“I’m only a free writer, who has given his life to work, and who will resume it tomorrow.”
“Pick up that challenge! Save the Army! And save France! But do it by letting truth conquer. Not only is an innocent man crying out for justice. But more … much more. A great nation is in desperate danger of forfeiting her honor. Do not take upon yourselves a fault, the burden of which you will forever bear in history.”
“At this solemn moment, in the presence of this tribunal, which is the representative of human justice, before you gentlemen of the jury, before France, before the whole world, I swear that Dreyfus is innocent! By my forty years of work, by all that I have won, by all that I have written, to spread the spirit of France, I swear that Dreyfus is innocent. May all that melt away; may my name perish if Dreyfus be not innocent. He is innocent.”
Zola said of the Dreyfus Affair:
“The truth is on the march, and nothing shall stop it."
It is an open question as to whether that is or shall be true of today’s world gone mad.