May 20, 2024
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Je Suis Charlie et Je Suis Juif

My aunt from Israel was in France during the time of the Charlie Hebdo and supermarket shootings. I only found out after she posted on Facebook that thank God, she was all right. I was happy to hear everything was okay, but it rattled me, for obvious reasons.

I hadn’t ever heard of the Charlie Hebdo magazine before the massacre, but it seems like a worthy publication in its own right. I’ve written previously about the idea behind not censoring one’s writing and being able to express oneself freely, but in a way that doesn’t inflame others or step over any lines. From what I can tell, Charlie Hebdo’s work—while maybe not very politically correct—didn’t step over those lines. And no matter what, printed matter does not deserve from anyone the catastrophic reaction that Charlie Hebdo got. I would say this even if the paper came out lambasting Moshe Rabbeinu as some sort of Nazi leader, or some other outlandish parody.

I’m sorry if that sounds provocative, but that’s what satire newspapers do. It’s understandable to protest them if they have objectionable content—it doesn’t seem to be a very “kosher” paper—but they have every right to say what they want and not be silenced. Also, kudos to the surviving staff for getting a new issue out only a week after the events. That is not easy.

I have less to say about the murders at the supermarket, but I do have a stronger connection to it, and the reason I have less to say is that it’s more terrifying and more ordinary, as much as I hate to say so. There’s really no reason the store was targeted other than the fact it was Jewish; I am not buying the media sell that it’s not antisemitic because Muslims shop there too. France itself has always had a bit of a bad reputation when it comes to these things, but this is the last straw.

I’m not going to say that I have any sort of deep connection to France. I’ve always wanted to visit Paris and see the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre, but I’ve only been out of the United States once (to visit Israel) and don’t see myself going to the country in the near future. I chose to learn Spanish in high school, not French (and I’m lousy at pronouncing anything in French anyway). But that doesn’t matter. Human nature gets lambasted all the time for being selfish and uncaring, but I see a side of it that can have immediate sympathy, can immediately be spurred to action or at least to emotion. We instantly feel terrified when we hear about these sorts of events, and then sickened by the terribleness of it all, and then want to help the victims. We need to give ourselves credit for doing so, and to keep that up.

At my school we’ve been trying to find ways to help out however we can. Some students printed cards written in French wishing the community well and giving words of support, then at lunch let people sign them and write their own personal notes. Ms. DeeDee Benel, educational director of student programs and head of many of its chesed programs had a beautiful idea of having the Human Rights club visit the French Consulate General in New York, to bring flowers and some cards to show solidarity. The Consulate General is on Fifth Avenue, at 75th Street and Ramaz is on 78th and Park—only a few blocks away. In other words, it’s extremely close, making it easy and almost an obligation for us to visit and show our unity with France in some way.

I decided to photograph Ramaz students holding a sign saying “Je suis Charlie” (“I am Charlie”), and make a poster to give to the consulate. Right after homeroom on a Thursday, I and the other members of the Human Rights club walked over to the consulate, a beautiful and ornate building.

Outside the door was a makeshift memorial to the victims, filled with flowers, signs, and mementos people had left to honor the cause. Inside, we were told that there wasn’t really anyone we could present the objects to (the members of the consulate were busy with meetings), but we could leave the flowers on a table that had a guestbook where people could write messages of consolation. Ms. Benel wrote a message on behalf of us from Ramaz, and I added the poster to the memorial outside. It was a brief visit, but it was something I won’t forget. I still feel terrible over everything that happened, and that’s not about to change, but I’m glad I was able to do something small, at the very least.

Oren Oppenheim, age 17, is a junior at Ramaz Upper School in Manhattan and lives in Fair Lawn, New Jersey. He spends his free time writing and reading, and hopes to become a published novelist, but currently is drowning in emails from colleges. You can email him at [email protected] and see his photography at facebook.com/orenphotography.

By Oren Oppenheim

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