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Viewers gather in the rare books room of the Van Pelt Library at the opening of the Dreyfus Affair exhibit, which will run through Dec. 3. [Darcy Richie/The Daily Pennsylvanian]

With Sept. 11 on the minds of everyone present, University President Judith Rodin connected America's current situation to the Dreyfus Affair of the late 19th century at the opening of the Annenberg Rare Book & Manuscript Library's newest exhibit, "Zola and the Dreyfus Affair: Intellectuals and the Struggle for Social Justice."

What is now known as the Dreyfus Affair started when Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish captain in the French military, was falsely convicted of treason in 1894. The false accusation was attributed to prevalent anti-Semitism.

Four years later, author Emile Zola published "J'Accuse," a famous letter accusing the French military and civil authorities of lying to frame Dreyfus. A public outcry ensued, eventually leading to Dreyfus' exoneration.

About 100 Jewish community members, professors and friends of Lorraine Beitler -- who has been assembling the collection over the past 12 years -- attended the exhibit's opening.

"The Zola and Dreyfus affair exhibit offers us such a reminder, and I am so pleased that during this most teachable of moments in our nation's history, this exhibit has come to Penn," Rodin said, emphasizing that we must not make Arabs and Muslims scapegoats like Dreyfus.

The exhibit, which will be on display in the Rosenwald Gallery of the Van Pelt Library until Dec. 3, is on loan from the Lorraine Beitler Collection. The opening was timed to coincide with a conference sponsored by the French Institute at Penn which will focus on Zola and Naturalism.

Only a small portion of the collection is represented in the 12 display panels, but the texts, political cartoons, newspaper clippings and posters summarize the Dreyfus Affair and the public outcry surrounding it.

"Our mission is to try to provide insight on what it takes to have a democracy, " Beitler said. The collection has toured internationally, having been to such places as the French Senate and the Belgium Royal Library.

Romance Language Professor Maurice Samuels plans to incorporate the documents into his class, "Jewish Identity and French Culture."

It's a "wonderful opportunity to use primary texts to study the role of anti-Semitism," Samuels said.

And 1938 Wharton graduate Marvin Weiner, with his wife Sibyl, used the occasion to announce an undergraduate essay contest focusing on how the lessons of the Dreyfus affair still apply today.

"The importance of the exhibit is to get students to think about them. What better way is there do to that?" Weiner said.

Other speakers included Martine Le Blond-Zola, great-granddaughter of Emile Zola and Martin Beitler, who read a letter written for the occasion by Simone Perl, granddaughter of Dreyfus.

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