Controversy in France Over Separation of Church and State: Part 1

A historical fact that many Americans may not remember from their high school world history course is that France set out on the road of democract not longer after the United States did. The French traveled a different path down history lane than the US, but it has faced many of the same issues, like the separation of church and state, 1that the US has. But it also faces some issues that, while we in America are aware of the issue, we do not have the same historical perspective on them. One of the most provocative issues in France, and in Europe in general, is how to remember the Holocaust.

Some thought-provoking comments by French president Nicholas Sarkosy about the role of religion in French society and his provocative suggestion on teaching ten-year-old French pupils about the Holocaust in a way that would very much personalize the Holocaust for these children have created a storm of controversy in France. I want to talk about Sarkosy’s comments and suggestion today because, at the core, they are linked together and the issues they raise are relevant not only to the French, but to any democracy and, as far as the Holocaust is concerned, to every person and country commited to preventing that history from repeating itself.

Let’s talk about Sarkosy’s suggestion on teaching Holocaust remembrance first. It is the more specific, as opposed to generalized, topic we are addressing here, and I prefer working from specifics first and then moving on to generalities. The discussion of the Holocaust will also help us to focus our discussion of separation of church and state.

Sarkosy wants every French pupil aged ten, that is the equivalent of a fourth-grader here in the USA, to study the Holocaust by researching one specific victim – a child of the same age – who died in the Nazi attempt to exteriminate, not only Jews, but many other non-Aryan populations of Europe in the 1940s. The pupil would learn as much as they can about this child – in other words, to come to know one victim of the Holocaust as a person, someone that perhaps could have been a close friend had the pupil and the victim lived at the same time and the same place.

Now, Sarkosy’s critics on this idea fear that these pupils will identify with the victims and be traumatized by the victim’s final fate. That certainly is a possibility, and in some cases, it is possible that the child may even be traumatized permanently. But, as the father of three as well as someone who has experience as an educator, I applaud this suggestion. Too often, the Holocaust is taught in a way that makes it very impersonal. Children ages ten and up get bored with this impersonal nature of what they are learning in school. Only when you personalize the subject matter do children of that age gropu really respond and really learn. I know this to be true from my own experience home schooling my own children.

Granted, these children may have some issues dealing with the horrors of the Holocaust, but, at least in America if not in France, children of that age have already been exposed to some pretty horrible stuff from watching movies like the Mummy remakes, Van Helsing, and others like that we all know most children that age have seen and generally tend to enjoy. Which is another argument in favor of personalizing the horror of the Holocaust.

With their exposure to movies and computer games with graphic blood and gore, these kids seem to deveop an immunity to hooror and suffering. They lose some humanity, for the lack of a better word. These children might very well shrug off the Holocaust in the same way they shrug off the death of a character in their favorite computer game.

Modern society seems to have a problem with the idea of personalizing death, especially needless and senseless deaths. Yet, death is the most personal experience, other than birth, that any of us will ever experience. Perhaps the reason for so much senseless violence these days, especially incidents involving children as the perpetrator of that violence, is because children have no conception, no real, no personal understanding of death and violence.

I think that President Sarkosy’s suggestion of teaching children about the Holocaust is an excellent idea and should be adopted by the educational systems in every country. Perhaps then our children might learn to look at others, especially those of a different ethnic or religious background, as real people and not some impersonal other. If we can raise a generation of humans that has learned to not depersonalize other people, no matter how different they mat be, then there is real hope for the end of intolerance, bigotry, racism, and hatred. Then there is real hope for humanity and a rea; future for universal brotherhood. Do not all religions, if you look past the spoutings of the fundamentalists, teach that we are all the children of God, that we are all brothers and sisters, irregardless of skin color or religious belief? Maybe it’s time we taught our children that lesson in a way that they will actually learn it.

Tomorrow we will use this discussion to talk about the separation of church and state. I promis it will be interesting, so do come back and read Part Two.

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