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Biographie de Menechem Begin ( Capture d'écran du Larousse en ligne )
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Terrorism: the Larousse version

The era of internet ubiquity and social media dominance is defined by relativism. When all the information you could ever want is available at a click, anything goes. There is nothing to separate the wheat from the chaff, to set apart what is true from what is false. It is a soil uniquely fertile for the rise of conspiracy theories.

Things being thus, where can a netizen thirsty for knowledge but wary of the pitfalls of the digital media turn? To the good old reference books, remnants of the post-Gutenberg, pre-Zuckerberg era. Or at least to those that have adapted, willy nilly, to the exigencies of our time, while attempting to preserve their reputation for credibility. In other words, we expect to find less editorializing and fewer factual errors on the website of the Encyclopedia Britannica than on Wikipedia.

With this in mind, I recently visited the site of the revered French encyclopedic dictionary Larousse to read through its definition of "terrorism.'' It was simply excellent: clear, crisp, well formulated and, of course, "objective." Yet another item on the page has left me nonplussed.

The site offered the first lines of an entry devoted to the same term on the online version of Larousse. It was illustrated with a photo of former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin against the backdrop of his country's flag.

Thus Larousse, the classic reference book and guarantor of objectivity in the minds of millions of French and Francophone people worldwide, is of the view that there are no better avatars for terrorism than Begin and, to a lesser extent, Israel. Not, for instance, al-Qaida nor the Hamas or Hezbollah, the Italian Red Brigades, the Shining Path of Peru, or the OAS anti-French organization in Algeria.

The Larousse defines terrorism as "acts of violence perpetrated in order to create a climate of insecurity, blackmail a government, or acts motivated by hatred of a community, country or belief system." The list of 20th and 21st century organizations that engage in just those kinds of acts is very long indeed. But the designers of the site of the online encyclopedia felt that Menachem Begin, posing in front of the flag of Israel, is better suited to illustrate the entry for "terrorism." Make of it what you will.

And that wasn't the last of my surprises. Browsing through the entry, I learned that Begin's photo was chosen to illustrate the transformation of a one-time terrorist leader into a statesman. For, according to Larousse, the doyen of the Israeli right was indeed a terrorist leader before his foray into politics, since in the years leading up to the establishment of the Jewish State he headed the ''Stern Gang.'' Must I remind them that Begin had nothing to do with that group, known in Israel as "Lehi"? There was indeed a future Israeli premier among the leaders of this small underground group after the death of its founder, Avraham Stern. But his name was Yitzhak Shamir.

In summary, the hallmark of objectivity and credibility that the Larousse has been so often perceived to be is, on this evidence, guilty of ideological bias and a gross factual error. Some might be tempted to draw a causal relation between the two. One recalls the motto of Larousse, "I sow to all wind''; the idea of diffusion of knowledge has acquired here a new, unwelcome meaning.

Dror Even-Sapir is a program presenter and the political analyst of i24news television in French.

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