Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Panama Canal and the Land of Israel

Can you think of a connection between the Panama Canal and Israel (apart, of course, from Israeli ships going through both)? There are actually quite a few.

Two such links emerge from David McCullough's fascinating book The Path between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914 -- via the infamous Dreyfus Affair. (The Dreyfus Affair, for those in need of a refresher, refers to the late 19th century framing of a Jewish French army officer for espionage, which was followed by a long and arduous effort to exonerate him and expose the real spies and fabricators. The anti-Semitism evident throughout the affair had a profound effect on Theodor Herzl--the ideological founder of political Zionism and by extension the Jewish state--and according to some historians inspired him to his Zionist advocacy.)

So how does the Dreyfus story intersect with the Panama Canal? Well, in 1881, Ferdinand de Lesseps, still basking in the glory of the recently completed Suez Canal, decided to try and forge a more ambitious byway--the Panama Canal. After seven years of digging, however, the project collapsed and many French citizens who had purchased shares in the Panama Canal Company lost their money. Into this most sorry state of affairs came a most unsavory creature -- Édouard Adolphe Drumont, the founder and editor of the anti-Semitic newspaper La Libre Parole. Drumont used the Panama scandal to raise his paper's profile and promote his anti-Semitic agenda. Specifically, he claimed that rich Jews connected with the Panama company were the real culprits in the scandal, and that they had stolen the money of many good, honest Frenchmen. McCullough argues that Drumont's articles made anti-Semitic language and vocabulary part of the French public discourse, thereby sowing the seeds for the Dreyfus affair soon after.

The second connection between Panama and Dreyfus can be found in the person of Philippe-Jean Bunau-Varilla, a French officer involved in the Panama venture. As the project floundered, Bunau-Varilla became convinced that only Americans could successfully build the canal, and began a lobbying campaign in the USA toward that end (ably chronicled by McCullough). He succeeded, and the treaty signed in 1904 that transferred the canal to American control was named after him.

Bunau was also one of Alfred Dreyfus's staunchest defenders. After French newspapers published letters purportedly from Dreyfus offering his services as a spy to the German military attaché in Paris, Bunau-Varilla took action. He knew Dreyfus from their joint studies and military service, and did not believe the allegations made against him. Bunau found a letter Dreyfus had written to him and easily discerned that the handwriting differed from that found in the published letters. He sent the letter to his brother Maurice Bunau-Varilla, the publisher of La Matin. The paper published the letters side by side, thus exposing the forgery and aiding the broader efforts to exonerate Dreyfus. (In an ironic twist of history, Maurice later became a pro-Nazi, pro-Vichy collaborationist.)

The final connection between the land of Israel and Panama is found in the equipment used to build the former's first train line in 1892, which was acquired from the French Panama company by Yosef Navon (the grandfather of Israel's fifth President, Yizhak Navon). We published a post on this train line at our  Hebrew blog.

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