Jewish Political Studies Review 18:1-2 (Spring 2006)
This book deals only marginally with matters directly concerning Judaism and Israel. Yet it provides profound insights into the French national mindset, which over the past decades has been critical of Israeli policy. Yehuda Blum, former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, noted: “At the UN the French positions during my ambassadorship were the worst among Europeans. We counted them in the Arab camp.” 1 In recent years the French attitude, which initially ignored violent anti-Semitism, including its major Muslim component, has been a source of trouble for many French Jews as well.
This book analyzes a number of textbooks for French high schools and their teachings about contemporary affairs. One author, Barbara Lefebvre, earlier contributed to a book by Emmanuel Brenner that exposed the multiple expressions of anti-Semitism, racism, and sexism in French schools. 2
Nowadays there is considerable teaching of current affairs in French high schools. This book shows that providing pupils more information may cause them to be misinformed.
Of direct Jewish interest is mainly the Holocaust, which is a substantial subject in these textbooks. Until fifteen years ago it was almost entirely ignored, whereas the French resistance against the Germans received heavy emphasis (p. 342). The authors note that Judaism is treated as a religion of immigrants, even though the institutions representing French Jewry go back many generations (p. 239ff.).
One important conclusion of the authors is that in many textbooks the Taliban and terrorists are only very moderately criticized. When discussing the events of 11 September 2001, with one exception, the textbooks remain silent about the aims of the Arab hijackers of the planes, namely, their desire to install a worldwide Islamic rule (p. 35). Most textbooks treat terrorism as a symptom rather than as a structured strategy of war, and they hardly refer to the terrorism of the extreme Left in the 1970s (p. 92).
Palestinian terrorism is barely mentioned, “despite its contribution to shaping contemporary terrorism.” The authors ask: “Does not limiting Palestinian terrorism only to the course concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, reveal a desire to turn it into something different [from general terrorism]?” (p. 91).
Another of the book’s key conclusions is that by opposing the United States, the French national community creates the illusion that it cements itself (p. 348). Lefebvre and Bonnivard note: “Instead of seeking solutions for its problems, France has an awkward tendency to look for a scapegoat, in this specific case the United States, which it holds directly or indirectly responsible for the entire world disorder.”
The problem of biased French teaching goes back many decades. Until 1970, under Marxist influence, textbooks offered a negative view of the United States. The Soviet Union, however, was treated mildly (p. 95).
The authors conclude that: “France doesn’t know anymore how to define itself other than by being anti-American. Thus many of the textbook authors have sympathy for the other America; that of Michael Moore and other American alternatives” (p. 348).
At the same time, French specialists on antiterrorism, meeting in May 2005, reached the conclusion that as far as the West is concerned, “Islamist terrorism is the main threat for at least the coming 25 years” (p. 350). That gives additional perspective on how distorted the textbooks are in presenting the United States as the antithesis of France.
By writing this important book, the authors have posed the questions of how the systematically distorted teaching in the French educational system may influence future national attitudes, and what will be the consequences of this policy for the democratic Western world.
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1. Manfred Gerstenfeld, “European Politics: Double Standards toward Israel,” Jewish Political Studies Review, Vol. 17, Nos. 3 & 4 (Fall 2005), p. 31.
2. Emmanuel Brenner, Les territories perdus de la République (Paris: Mille et une nuits, 2004) (French). For a book review, see the Jewish Political Studies Review, Vol. 17, Nos. 3 & 4 (Fall 2005), p. 189.