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Benjamin Herzberg Headshot

Happy Like a Jew in France

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He was country less and could have stayed on the sideline. But at the early dawn of WWII, my grandfather Leon Wajzer, having recently arrived from fleeing Poland and its pogroms, asked for the French nationality just so he could have the right to fight for his new country. The Blitzkrieg worked so well that in a matter of months, he was captured and went on to survive in Stalag 17, a German prisoner camp he shared for five years with many American POWs.

After the war he returned to Chateauroux, at the heart of France, where he eventually established himself and where part of my family still lives to this day. He had fled countries and walked across Europe to find -- and fight for -- peace. France, to him, was paradise on Earth, a model of friendliness, where a modest entrepreneur like him could make it. In the center of the village square, right in front of the old house he used to spend summertime in, a stone monument stood, dedicated to the villagers who died on the war front as mobilized soldiers, during World War I. The very heavy price they paid had paved the way for my family to have the privilege to enjoy the area. In peace.

He used to say "Un juif est heureux comme Dieu en France" ("A Jew is as happy as God is happy in France"). It is an old Yiddish saying dating from when the Jews got the right to obtain the French nationality, in 1791, right after the French Revolution. In the saying, God is happy in France because religious beliefs can freely be practiced by any group, as guaranteed by all the groups embracing the French humanistic system of Solidarity, Equality and Fraternity, the secular values inscribed under the French flag.

Recent events against the Jewish community in Paris make me wonder if that saying can still be true today and if my grandfather, may he rest in peace, would still feel at home.

I have myself moved around, as a modern nomadic life of sorts gave me the chance to live in six different countries. As I work on international development, I also have worked on all continents in about 30 countries. I have great friends in many of those countries, and have been welcomed as an individual who happens to be a Jew, in the most of heartwarming of manners by friends from and in Bangladesh, Bosnia, Egypt, India, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco, Tajikistan, countless African countries and more.

Everywhere I traveled in countries with Muslim populations like the ones I just mentioned I have felt safe and welcomed and have bonded with open-minded, tolerant and respectful people. I have always met open arms, open hearts, and open tables. So someone tells me something: Why is it that the ONLY country I have not felt safe in during my lifetime is France, my home country? The only country where I have been called a "Dirty Jew" was France.

What I had learned to live with and be accustomed to, I cannot bear any longer.

The anti-Semitic rhetoric has now completely been liberated. My friend working at a major French media outlet has been openly refereed to as "The Jew" by one of his colleagues, publicly and repeatedly for the past month. My sister's friend was just "de-invited" from a birthday party, because she is Jewish (she was told by the host: "Understand, it's for your own good, let's not create complications with my left-wing friends"). Some of the imagery displayed during yesterday's pro-Palestinian march in Paris would have made Goebbels feel quite at home. France has now become the only country where it is OK to see people burning synagogues at the 8 o'clock news (after all, aren't those Jews arrogant, can't they understand the world does not belong to them, can't they leave the Palestinians alone? For every fallen Palestinian, shouldn't a French Jew pay?).

This week, there was a pogrom in Sarcelles, France -- a usually peaceful city. (Ironically, Sarcelles is one of the poorest Jewish communities of France. People barely make it there and many live in poverty. I used to participate to food drives there when I was a kid.)

This pogrom was the second one in a week. Call it a riot. Call it a demonstration turned sour. Call it a few radical extremists and simple-minded people not able to make the difference between a political issue thousands of miles away and the religious beliefs of their fellow citizens. I call it (pardon my French) a freakin' pogrom. They threw fire bombs at the synagogue, broke into shops belonging to Jews, a Kosher supermarket was burnt to the ground.

Jews from the area tried to form a human barrier between the "demonstrators" and the doors of the synagogue. Wondering what to reply to the shouts of "Mort aux Juifs" ("Death to the Jews") they started to sing in unison the only song that came to their minds and meant something to them at this tragic instant. Nothing else than "La Marseillaise." It is the French national anthem. The one for which my grandfather had been ready to die for during WWII.

Let it be a lesson for the bigots. A reminder that attacking someone for his or her religion in France is the equivalent of attacking ALL French people, as the French Prime Minister Manuel Valls finally said after the events.

So to ALL my fellow French citizens, I say: I am not asking much. Please, just treat me and the other French Jews as well (I am not asking for better, as I am not sure that's possible) as I have been treated, considered, and welcomed by my friends from African countries and from Bangladesh, Bosnia, Egypt, India, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco, Tajikistan, and the all other countless tolerant countries of this earth. And I forgot to mention my friends from the West Bank, to whom I have been extremely proud to work with. Please treat me as well as I have been treated by them.

Solving the world's problems is a big task. It won't work by killing each other, that's for sure, regardless of who started what fight. But it's not above humanity's pay grade. It can start right here, right now, and hopefully, writing from Paris, right at home.

I live now happily in the US -- the country which helped free France of hatred during WWII -- and without which my family would not be alive today. I am a firm supporter of America and its values. But I will never "leave" France nonetheless. It is my culture. It is what defines me, together with the other parts of my cosmopolitan identity. While I am shattered by the recent events, I still want to believe in the old saying "Un juif est heureux comme Dieu en France." We should be able to make it together and protect each other's right to be. So yes, I am frustrated. I am even frightened. But there is no way I will let the other side win. I beg my fellow Frenchmen not to abandon France to the extremists and fundamentalists who try to take it hostage of their intolerance. Please don't let my grandfather -- and my children -- down. Let's still stand proud to that little stone monument, at the center of the village square.

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