He was born Lazare Marcus Manassé Bernard (he later switched his first name and last name) in Nîmes on 15 June 1865, the eldest of four sons of Jonas Bernard and Douce Noémie Rouget. This bourgeois family had introduced the Jacquard loom to Toulouse, and founded one of the first (and very successful) textile mills, producing draperies and passementeries. The family was Jewish, and although not very religious, still celebrated the traditional holidays.
Lazare received his baccalauréat in science, but his passion lay in literature, a passion which he shared with his friend, the poet Ephraïm Mikhaël. It was Mikhaël who, while studying in Paris at the École des Chartes encouraged Bernard to join him and conquer the literary world. Lazare arrived in Paris in 1886, the year in which Édouard Drumont's antisemitic pamphlet Jewish France (La France Juive) was published. Lazare signed up at the École pratique des hautes études (Practical School of Higher Studies). He attended lectures by the abbot Louis Duchesne, for whom the Catholic Institute of Paris created a chair of History of the Church. Lazare's rigour and insistence on precision, his ability to call into question supposedly established facts, had undoubtedly influenced Duchesne, whose History of the Ancient Church (l'Histoire de l'église ancienne) was placed on the Papal index and who reproached Lazare for writing like a "historian" and not a "theologian".
In 1888, together with Ephraïm Mikhaël, Lazare wrote La Fiancée de Corinthe, a mythological drama in three acts, where he first adopted his nom de plume, Bernard Lazare. Two years later Ephraïm Mikhaël died of tuberculosis. It was around this time that Lazare became actively engaged in anarchism. Although he never took "direct action", he always continued to support its ideals and his comrades, whose publications and legal defences he financed.
It was as an anarchist that he became a literary critic and journalist (his articles were later published in several collections). During the Trial of the thirty in 1894, he defended the anarchists Jean Grave and Félix Fénéon (also a painter). He then covered the 1895 miners' revolt in Carmaux for the Écho de Paris. In 1896 he attended the Socialist Congress in London, where he denounced Karl Marx as "a jealous authoritarian, unfaithful to his own ideas, driving the Internationale away from its goals".
From 1892 onwards he was in contact with Achad Ha'am, one of the founders of the Lovers of Zion (Hovevei Tsyion) movement. In the spring of 1894 he published Anti-semitism, its History and Causes (L'Antisémitisme, son histoire et ses causes), an in-depth study and critique of the origins of antisemitism. It was published within a few months of the arrest of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish army officer accused of treason. Having a reputation for combativeness and courage, Bernard Lazare was contacted by Mathieu Dreyfus to help prove his brother's innocence.
Lazare devoted his time exclusively to the case. He published his first paper, The Dreyfus Affair – A Miscarriage of Justice in Belgium in November 1896; it was in effect a complete rewrite of an earlier text which he had written at Mathieu's request in the summer of 1895. Basing it on an article in L'Eclair from the 15 September 1896 edition which revealed the illegality of the trial of 1894, Lazare refuted the accusation point by point and demanded the sentence be overturned. This tactic conformed more to the wishes of the Dreyfus family, as the first version of the text was a savage attack on the accusers, ending with the phrase "J'accuse", later made famous by Émile Zola.
Due to this experience with antisemitism, Lazare became engaged in the struggle for the emancipation of Jews, and was triumphally received at the First Zionist Congress. He travelled with Zionist leader Theodor Herzl, the two men sharing a great respect for each other, but he fell out with Herzl after a disagreement over the project whose "tendencies, processes and actions" he disapproved. In 1899 he wrote to Herzl – and by extension to the Zionist Action Committee, "You are bourgeois in thoughts, bourgeois in your feelings, bourgeois in your ideas, bourgeois in your conception of society." Lazare's Zionism was not nationalist, nor advocated the creation of a state, but was rather an ideal of emancipation and of collective organization of the Jewish proletarians.
He visited Romania in 1900 and 1902, after which he denounced the terrible fate of Romanian Jews in L'Aurore, written in July and August 1900. He also visited Russia where he reported on the dangers facing Jews, but did not have a chance to publish due to illness; and Turkey where he defended the Armenians against persecution. In an 1898 writing in Pro Armenia, he did not hesitate to denounce the "Congrès Sioniste de Bâle" which had publicly honoured sultan Abdülhamid II: "Representatives of the oldest of persecuted peoples, whose history cannot be written, but in blood, send their salutations to the worst of assassins".
Soon Dreyfusardes censored him and he could no longer write for l'Aurore after the Rennes trial. He covered the trial anyway and sent his vitriolic accounts to two American journals, The Chicago Record and The North American Review. At the end of his life, he became close to Charles Péguy, and wrote in the Cahiers de la quinzaine.
He died on 1 September 1903, aged 38, following an operation for colon cancer. He left an unedited Manuscript, Job's Dungheap (Le fumier de Job), and authorised the republication of Anti-semitism, its History and Causes, on the condition that the preface state "my opinions have changed on many points".
L'Antisémitisme, son histoire et ses causes (tr. as Anti-semitism, its History and Causes) (1894)
- Le Miroir des Légendes (Alphonse Lemarre, 1892) (tr. as The Mirror of Legends, 2017)
- Les Porteurs des Torches (1897)
- Les Portes d'ivoire (1898)
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- L'antisémitisme son histoire et ses causes (1894 – Léon Chailley Ed.) Text in English; epub: Lazare, Bernard (1903), Antisemitism, its history and causes., New York: The International library publishing co., LCCN 03015369, OCLC 3055229, OL 7137045M
- Le nationalisme juif (1898)
- L'affaire Dreyfus – Une erreur judiciaire – Edition établie par Ph. Oriol, – Ed. Allia (1993) (Job's Dungheap, edition in English with introduction by Hannah Arendt)
- Le fumier de Job – Texte établi par Ph. Oriol – Ed. Honoré Champion (1998)
- Juifs et antisémites – Edition établie par Ph. Oriol – Ed. Allia (1992)
- Bernard Lazare, Anarchiste et nationaliste juif – Textes réunis par Ph. Oriol – Ed. Honoré Champion (1999)
- Bernard Lazare – de l'anarchiste au prophète – J-D Bredin – Ed. fallois (1992)
- Bernard Lazare – Ph. Oriol – Stock (2003)
- Homage to Bernard Lazare by Mitchell Cohen
- Writings of Lazare at Marxist Internet Archive
- Anti-Semitism, Its History and Its Causes by Bernard Lazare Free online book for download in adobe PDF format 991KB.
- Dreyfus Rehabilitated