The DNA from my ancestors

Matthieu Silberstein
6 min readOct 14, 2023

This morning, my wife shared with me a post from one of our town’s Facebook group that — quite accurately — pointed out the unusual silence this week of our community, usually very vocal around social causes and world events.

This is what I responded.

I’ve banned Facebook from my life for a few years now. But this morning my wife shared with me this post. She felt that it captured very clearly some of the things that I’ve mentioned to her throughout this past week. And even though when it comes to the Israelo-Palestinian conflict, outside of the front lines, social media is the worst place to be, today I felt like sharing a story that happened to me yesterday, even if it meant breaking my ban. Small context of who I am: I’m 100% French and 50% Jewish. I’m not religious and by certain laws of Judaism I’m technically not even Jewish at all because only my father is. And yet many men and women in my family tree never made it out of Auschwitz. Which is probably why, when attacks like this happen, every single time, something in my bones resurfaces.

Now for the story: last night I had a ticket to go see a play in Manhattan. I didn’t leave [our town] this week and I watched a lot of news. They made me tremble uncontrollably. They made me cry. They made me scared. And yesterday, after hearing the head of Hezbollah speak, I got really scared. Scared of the world. Scared for the world. Scared for my life and the lives of my children, who carry my last name even with less Jewish “percentage” in them. I almost cancelled my plans. The suburbs, the cushions of my couch within the four walls of my house felt like a safer place to be. Hard to tell in those moments if these fears are legitimate, if your ancestor’s DNA is warning you of something or if you’re just spinning because, after all, you’re not under rocket fire. I ended up shutting up the fearmongering voices in my head and went to the city. I arrived around 5:30p. There was something in the air. Big police presence. Lots of sirens coming from all directions. A helicopter hovering. I felt the need to be very aware of my surroundings. But also, nothing was different. New Yorkers, of all ages and roots, were still walking around faster than anyone else on the planet, excited to go about their Friday night and celebrate the end of their work-week.

After walking for a few minutes, I felt better. I told myself it was good I came, that when you’re scared of the world, you really should go out in the world — it will show you it has a lot more to offer than fear. Then at Herald Square, I saw two cars following each other, brandishing two huge Palestinian flags out of their window. I went to a pretty liberal college in Paris, I’m used to seeing Palestinian flags. And, like many others, I believe this flag must have its place in the world of nations. But the people in the car were dressed like jihadists — military jackets, black and white scarves over their mouth, hiding their faces. Fear kicked back in really quickly. The cars were going toward Times Square, in the same direction as me. I moved to another avenue. I kept walking and saw many more Palestinian flags — on T-Shirts, attached on the back of bikes, on head scarves. Outside of the two cars from Herald Square, nobody looked threatening. I did point out to myself though that outside of the white and blue lighting atop the Empire State Building, I didn’t see a single Israeli flag on my hour long walk uptown. I get it, I know I wouldn’t have felt comfortable carrying one myself, as much as I also support this flag’s need to exist in the world of nations. As if an exterior sign of Judaism on the streets was a very dangerous thing to carry. The DNA from my ancestors.

After the play I walked back to Penn Station. It was a little after 9pm. On 5th avenue, at the level of Central Park, I saw a group of 6 high school kids wandering around the city like I used to do when I was their age, talking loudly, laughing, giving each other shit. Two of them carried signs that read: Free Palestine. I didn’t feel the need to change avenues this time, they didn’t scare me. If anything, they were endearing. They reminded me of being 17 on a warm Friday night in a city. As I walked past their group, one of the kids holding a sign didn’t see me in time to lift it above my head, and very unconsequentially touched me with the bottom corner. “Oh I’m so sorry!” he immediately said. I told him it was no worries at all, and we both went on with our walks. Fear disappeared again. This kid wasn’t my enemy. This kid didn’t want me or my family dead. We could be together on the street. We could maybe even agree on some things. If this kid had posted anything online, it probably would have hurt me. It probably would have expanded my fear that we’re never going to be able to end this, that it was only a matter of time until Jews are persecuted again. And yet somehow, our ephemeral encounter made me feel better.

I have heard the deafening silence your post talks about. I also was like: “hey we didn’t receive an email from the superintendent this morning.” There’s almost no doubt this particular atrocity from the world was met with a different response from social media, newsletters and your usual sterile corporate statements — not from everywhere though, New York’s mayor and President Biden both gave pretty strong speeches this week. It reminded me of when the Paris attack of November 2015 happened. I was already living in the US and nobody at work said anything to me back then, even though I was in shambles and they all knew all too well I was from Paris. I don’t think it’s because they hated Parisians or condoned the shooting of young people at rock concerts. Part of me believes that in most cases, especially when the events don’t happen in the US, the reason for the silence is that people just don’t know what to say, don’t think about saying something or — and in this particular case maybe more than others — are scared to say the wrong thing. We’ve lost some of our basic communication skills on the internet over the years. I do understand why people are scared to say something wrong, to not fully grasp the nuances — but that is exactly why we should talk about these things amongst ourselves at the street and pub levels, once we’re able to find our words again — a stage I’m not yet at, although typing this is helpful. (In case there’s any doubt about my position: Hamas doesn’t deserve any nuances, they deserve to be wiped out.)

There’s always going to be antisemites. There’s always going to be people who talk with certainty about things they don’t know anything about. There’s always going to be people who mix up jihad and Islam, who mix up terrorist organizations with the Palestinian cause — which really is similar to saying that France and the United States were responsible for the Nazis because they humiliated Germany after the first war. It never seemed to me that religious fundamentalism needed any geo-political justification to exist. I believe that the most important thing anyone can do right now is to make sure you tell your Jewish, 50%-Jewish, Arab and Muslim friends or neighbors that you see what’s happening and that if they have a story to tell, you want to hear it.

I hope this very anecdotal story was helpful. I’m still scared. DNA from my ancestors. I don’t understand everything. But I believe that sharing stories is the only way we can learn, whether we’re impacted by these atrocities in our flesh or only in our eyes and ears.

After centuries of wars, Western Europe is at peace today. Once in a while, that thought brings me hope.