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An Interview with Joelle Lezmi, president of WIZO France

As far as I remember, WIZO has always been part of my surroundings. When I was a little girl, I looked at my mother with admiration whilst she was getting ready to attend the superb ball that was organized every year by the WIZO "EIN GEDI" branch in CREIL, the small town near Paris where I grew up.

January 19, 2015
An Interview with Joelle Lezmi, president of WIZO France

How did you come to WIZO?

As far as I remember, WIZO has always been part of my surroundings. When I was a little girl, I looked at my mother with admiration whilst she was getting ready to attend the superb ball that was organized every year by the WIZO "EIN GEDI" branch in CREIL, the small town near Paris where I grew up.

Time went by and when I was 14 years old, and in charge of the local Jewish scouts group, I had the opportunity to help the chairperson of WIZO Creil

The EIF (Jewish Scouts of France) helped the WIZO branch of Creil to organize its various activities. We sold oranges from Israel, prepared baskets for Hanuka and were in charge of the cloakrooms at all WIZO gala evenings.

Bajla ZYZER was a true lady. She was a Holocaust survivor and promoted WIZO's cause throughout her life. She was chairperson of the WIZO branch in Creil for more than 20 years. When I was only 20 years old, she offered me my first membership card. WIZO has been an integral part of my life for more than 40 years…

Since when have you been President of WIZO France ?

I have been President of the French Federation for 7 years, after having been chairperson of the WIZO EIN GEDI branch in Creteil for 6 years.

Can you describe your work ?

It is difficult for me to describe my job with precision. My position is more than work, it is a task. For me, this job is an honor and gives me immense satisfaction, but also gives me a lot of stress and sleepless nights!

Nevertheless, I am going to summarize in a few words my daily work in my capacity of President of WIZO France. My team (some volunteers and 3 workers) and I are working on every front to ensure the good functioning of the Federation. I am the one who decides the course of action and I try to coordinate it with all the branch chairpersons throughout France.

WIZO France has 40 branches and 3000 members. We also have a database with 10.000 supporters. As President, I have to be available, reachable and present for everyone.

I have a lot of telephone calls during the day, and a large number of emails concerning bank problems of certain branches or for maintaining contact and good relationship with our sponsors.

I also have to meet all the people who wish to submit a project to WIZO; it can be a show or an exhibition which we might include in our yearly activities. I must also meet all potential supporters. The list goes on and on!

At the same time, WIZO must maintain its relationship with all the other entities (Jewish and non-Jewish). This is another aspect of my work that requires me to represent the organization and which is very time consuming.

A large part of my work consists of REMOTIVATING my members. For, if on the paper the number of members is significant, the number of real activists is not so important. That is why we face true and worrying fundraising problems.

I am at the office every day from 10h00 to 18h00. The role of the President is undoubtedly to succeed the best she can in the fundraising field.

But, I think that it is true to say that to be President of a WIZO Federation, is more than a simple job, it is a way of life, a way of thinking. WIZO is always on my mind, every minute of the day.

Besides, in my eyes, as President of a womens organization, and moreover of a Zionist organization, I have to initiate a process of reflection and action at two levels:

First of all: regarding the work that has to be done to reach equality between men and women.

Secondly: the President must arouse Zionist behavior and promote the work of the Hasbara Department, especially with the French institutions and within the Jewish community as well. A WIZO President is somehow a representative of Israel in her country, an ambassador who can and should contribute to promote Israel's image within the non-Jewish community.

Could you give us a brief review on WIZO France history?

WIZO France's history is intimately linked to the history of the country. Founded in 1935, a few years later the organization faced war and anti-Semitism. WIZO worked underground and took part in the Resistance. WIZO rescued lives of Jewish children by organizing their transit into the free zone. 

Since then, WIZO France has always been part of the French social landscape. WIZO France contributed to women's emancipation, for example promoting their right to vote.

Years later, WIZO France fought for the right of women to have abortions. For many years, Simone Veil has been sponsoring WIZO France and she initiated a wonderful project regarding abortion rights. The 'Veil Law' is an essential step toward the progress of the status of women.

I want to believe that Simone Veil was not a WIZO member by accident. WIZO's values, all the ideals that Rebecca Sieff stood for, were not strange to her.

Moreover, WIZO France initiated the first SOS telephone helpline for Jewish battered women. The NOA association (Naming, Daring, Acting) filled an important void in this field.

Which women do you admire in particular?

For me, all women are worthy of admiration. I feel a deep empathy for all women: those African or Syrian women, who go through circumcision, who are raped, and wear veils or burkas up to their eyes: all these women for whom, to breathe freely is even a struggle.

I am amazed by the energy of a mother who smiles and is always available when she comes to pick up her children after 10 hours of work and commuting. These women work a double day !

I am thunderstruck by the determination of all women activists, who fight for equality and fundamental rights for their sisters.

I applaud those who have had the courage to fight against sexual abuse and harassment at work and in their daily life.

Yes for me women are worthy of admiration, whether they are in darkness or light. A Simone Veil, a Marie Curie or a Golda Meir are indeed monuments but…… all women are amazing.

What is your relationship with Israel?

The feeling that I have for Israel is visceral.

First of all, a large part of my family lives in Israel; that is why I see the country with different eyes. I look at it with more attention, with more concern. Israel is another part of me, it is not only a nice place for vacation, it is a country where one can live. My relationship with the country is complex.

Being a Jew from North Africa, since my early childhood Israel has always been a presence in my life. My grand-mother, on my father's side, often  spoke to us about Palestine. She was not referring to the Palestine of today but about the land where all Jews should live together one day.

Her message to us was : Palestine is the place for Jews.

I became Zionist when I was an adolescent. My relationship with Eretz Israel became more intellectual, more political, more emotional. At that time, I thought of Zionism as a concept which was linked more to the defense of the fundamental law of return rather than to making Aliya.

Today, my relationship with Israel is something else : it is a true relationship, almost a carnal and physical relationship. A few times a year I need to know that I will stay in Israel for some period of time. I miss the light of Jerusalem, like the air of the see, the sunset in Cesaree, and the Shuk Hacarmel shouting and perfumes.  …Today and in spite of all the love that I have for France, it happens to me of thinking about Aliya.

What is the motto guiding your work?

Among the numerous sentences that are used or simply heard, one has become my motto: WIZO AND EVERYTHING IS POSSIBLE. For me, it means the fierce desire of doing, but it also means hope.

In your capacity as President of WIZO France, did you experience a strong moment in your work, a moment of which you were very proud?

Thinking of the work which we have done, I recall many wonderful moments. First of all, the inauguration of the Day Care Centre, Casa  Mathilda, that completed the work started by Nathalie Cohen Beizermann and then the publication of the "Get" booklet.

But, I cannot forget all the pride that I feel when we light the Hanuka candles at the Hotel de Ville in Paris, a place which symbolizes all the values of the French Republic. Each time we are there, the Mayor of Paris or his first deputy congratulates and encourages us for our work, saying: "this wonderful organization of ZIONIST women".

 I am very proud of our work.

In addition, the celebration of WIZO's 90th anniversary at the Blancs Manteaux Hall was for me an event that I won't ever forget. More than 1,000  people attended in the heart of Paris, in a  neighborhood which commemorates the Jewish presence in this city. What a beautiful memory ! For me, it was truly a great moment!

What were the main events organized by WIZO France in  2014?

The year 2014 was marked by two significant events :

1. The exhibition "Women and the Olive Tree – from symbol to art". This function will be a first achievement for WIZO as an event that will be organized all over Europe.  The exhibition that shows the work of more than 30 women on the symbolic theme of the olive tree - tree of life - the tree of peace – today the subject of dispute and friction - was a true challenge. When these artists, who are Israeli, Palestinian, Jewish, Moslem and Christian, took up the challenge, it became a crazy bet. But WIZO did it and I am terribly proud of it and so happy !

This exhibition opens hopeful horizons. In the present situation, it is a wonderful accomplishment that contributes to "our basic work and makes small steps toward PEACE"

For me it is the culmination of a dream: doing something together to change the world.

2. The second event, which is also very meaningful, was the lighting of the third candle of Hanuka at the Hotel de Ville together with the children of the WIZO Nachlat Yehuda Youth Village. It was a magnificent performance, so emotional !

That evening will remain engraved in the memory of the 250 guests who attended the function. It was so emotional and moving to be in the Hotel de Ville, a place symbolizing the history of the French Republic, and to see the performance of 35 children from Israel. No one remained indifferent when at the end of the evening, we sang the Hatikva.

Many personalities attended this event and showed their support for WIZO's work and values.

Mrs. Anne Hidalgo, Mayor of Paris, was represented by her deputy, Mr. Klugman, in charge of International Relations. M. Joel Mergui, President of the Consistoire, though he was in mourning, came to show his support to WIZO France. Mr. Meir Habib, deputy representing French citizens living abroad, was there to light the Hanuka candles, symbolizing the resistance and the miracle of the Jewish People. Baronne Ariane de Rothschild also attended. Like everyone, she was literally charmed by the performance of these gifted youngsters, full of life and energy.

I must express my sincere thanks to Prof. Rivka Lazovsky, Chairperson of the World WIZO Executive, who honored us by coming to the event and for being the kingpin of our remarkable organization.

France and Anti-Semitism

Is this old saying regarding French Jews: "Jews are happy like God in France" indeed so far away and belonging to the past?

But there were the attacks at Toulouse and the Hypercacher at the Porte of Vincennes.

What do we have to think? Do we have to be scared? Do we have to think of leaving the country which is not anymore "the Sweet France"?

For me, I am not that concerned ... I am determined, I refuse to be scared and I won't leave!

It is true that, in some cities of France, to be Jewish has become difficult.  It is true, that we, as French Jewish women, are facing rising fears. We are scared to leave our children in the school of the Republic, where they are not allowed to wear a kippa, where they will have to hide their Star of David and where they cannot talk about their Judaism. We are also scared to send our children to Jewish schools since they can be targeted!

It is unbearable to be constantly forced to explain that the word "Jewish" is not a "dirty word, an insult", that Zionism is not like barbarism. The inadequate work of some media and some teachers is terrible and dangerous. They practice shortcuts, short-sightedness, unfinished analysis of a "problem" of which they, too often, ignore the complexity.

And here is the problem, in the eyes of some others. For them, the citizen disappears behind the Jew. Yet, for years, I did not have to think about my inner link to Israel. I did not have to justify my behavior in the city. I was elected in my municipality, in the Republic, and never thought or had to think that I was Jewish, fulfilling my responsibilities toward my city.  I have always acted as a citizen and even more in my capacity as President of a Zionist organization. What frightens me today is that it seems that this has become a problem. In the value that I have fought for, that I continue to consider as fundamental values of democracy and of the French Republic, there is SECULARISM. This state of mind enabled me to practice my Judaism, to share its values with others. That is what I would like to fight for, that is what I can fight for,  that is what French Jewish citizens have the duty to fight for.

WIZO can and must contribute in defending these values. As women, we can convey, explain, discuss and fight! Yes, we can truly fight for the respect of people (which is a basic value of Judaism) so that this value becomes a reality, at our door, in our protests, in our meetings.

It is a fact that the feeling of insecurity is justified and that alas, we can see it in the media. Must we run away because of that? Is it conceivable to encourage an Aliya of fear?

If we have to be careful, for me, it seems unthinkable to give up, ever! And above all, we must support this evidence:  France is not racist, France is not anti-Semitic.

Institutions, politicians, except from the nationalistic parties, are not racist. It is crucial to emphasize this. We must absolutely refuse dangerous shortcuts that rely on a recent and painful past of the history of our democracy in order to fuel the fears and generate anxiety.

We have to remember that France considers anti-Semitism as a crime and has provided legal tools to fight this plague. We have to use these tools, not to let anything slip through, be responsive and always be "on our guard" !

But, and this is our responsibility, and we must be able to do it: we have to remain active and vigilant and not allow any racist drift. This struggle is very important and we must not and cannot lose it.