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France bestows high honor on NJ scholar
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France bestows high honor on NJ scholar

Michael Curtis — now a knight in the French Legion of Honor — delivering a talk at the Princeton Public Library marking his 90th birthday, September 2013.
Michael Curtis — now a knight in the French Legion of Honor — delivering a talk at the Princeton Public Library marking his 90th birthday, September 2013.

In a singular honor for someone not a citizen of France, Michael Curtis, distinguished professor emeritus of political science at Rutgers University, has been appointed to the rank of chevalier, or knight, in the French Legion of Honor.

French president François Hollande conferred the honor on Curtis for his contributions to the history of the politics of France in the 19th through 21st centuries. 

The nomination came out of the blue, but Curtis suspects that it may have come from François Delattre, France’s ambassador to the United States. Curtis got to know Delattre when he was French consul general in the United States and then ambassador to Canada. “He has read my stuff and sometimes commented about it, with praise,” said Curtis.

That “stuff” includes his book Verdict on Vichy, which, he said, offers a severe criticism of French authorities and personnel who collaborated with the Nazi-sympathizing Vichy government during World War II. “It took a long time for the French authorities to acknowledge what they have done,” he said. “Now they very much express their regrets for it.” 

Vichy deals with institutions,” Curtis continued, “including a difficult chapter to write and read, on the acquisition of Jewish property and the large number of people involved in that and who knew directly what was happening to Jews during the war.”

According to a website of the French embassy in Ottawa, Canada, the Legion of Honor was established by Napoleon in 1802. A recipient must have accomplished 20 years of public service or professional activities that “contributed to the defence and the prosperity of France.” 

“It is a very exclusive group of people who are awarded it, and it is a very distinct honor,” said Curtis.

Although Curtis’s own family, residing in London during the war, was not directly affected by the Holocaust, it did have a personal impact on him during his military service. “I did see the camps after the war, as a soldier, at Bergen-Belsen,” he said. “It left indelible memories. The recognition of the persistence of anti-Semitism has always been a motivating factor, as well as the assault on democratic institutions.”

Another of Curtis’s books, Three Against the Third Republic, is about three French writers, Georges Sorel, Maurice Barrès, and Charles Maurras, and their involvement in the rise of anti-democratic and anti-Semitic ideology after the Dreyfus affair. “The two go together,” said Curtis. “If you find anti-democracy, you find anti-Semitism.” 

Curtis has also written extensively on the French political philosopher Raymond Aron, who joined the Free French forces of General Charles de Gaulle and edited their newspapers. In his book Orientalism and Islam, Curtis explored the role French political philosophers played in creating the field of Oriental studies. 

France today, said Curtis, presents a confusing picture. “There is a good deal of anti-Semitism, primarily by Muslims,” said Curtis, adding that there have been hundreds of attacks “of one kind or another this year.” 

“On the other hand, Alain Finkelkraut” — a philosopher and essayist often attacked for pro-Israel views — “has been admitted to the French Academy; he was honored at the same time anti-Semitic outbreaks were taking place.” 

He noted that thus far in 2014 about 1,500 French Jews have left for Israel, and the Jewish Agency for Israel and Israel’s Ministry of Immigrant Absorption estimate that more than 5,000 French Jews will immigrate to Israel in 2014. 

“I don’t know how serious the menace of Muslims is,” he said. “My calculation is that there are between 8 and 9 million Muslims and about 500,000 Jews, who do express anxiety and fear now. The Jewish community is cautious because of the outbreaks; they don’t come from the right wing, but are almost entirely from the Muslim community.”

Curtis, who writes regularly for “The American Thinker,” is the author of approximately 30 books, among them Should Israel Exist?: A Sovereign Nation Under Attack by the International Community (2012) and Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East (2013).

For many years, Curtis was president of American Professors for Peace in the Middle East and editor of the Middle East Review. He is a member of the American Jewish Committee New Jersey Middle East Task Force.

In addition to his 37 years at Rutgers — he retired in 2000 — Curtis has taught at Yale University, The Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University, and University of Bologna and given lectures at hundreds of institutions. Originally from London, he lives in Princeton and is a member of The Jewish Center there.

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