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A French family feels the 'firstness' of experiencing Israel's Independence Day

Israel Independence Day
Trading France for Israel, the Amiels feel they can now openly practice Judaism and a sense of belonging

On the eve of this year’s Israeli Independence Day, Dr. Alexandra Amiel, a 44-year-old neuro-oncologist, her husband, Laurent, (a communications engineer) and their two children aged 9 and 11, will watch for the first time, the lighting of the torches on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, marking the collective transition from grief to festive ceremony. For the first time they will join her parents in their apartment on the beach of Ashdod to celebrate, or even participate in the festivities organized by their municipality. For the first time they will fly a big Israeli flag (and another smaller one) on the balcony of their new rented apartment. But most important and moving of all to her, is the fact that her son will - for the first time in his life - sing one of those Hebrew songs young schoolchildren sing on the Day of Remembrance for the fallen soldiers. Everything that is routine for most Israelis is “first” for the Amiel family.

They moved to Israel last July. The "firstness” of this experience makes a whole world of difference. None of the cynical approach veteran Israelis have adopted over the years has even touched them; none of the controversies that give birth to endless number of ‘alternative ceremonies,” both on Remembrance and Independence days, are of interest to them. The lack of consensus that tarnished the once almost naïve collective experience has not stained their overwhelming sentiment of togetherness on their first Independence Day in Israel. The independence of their homeland is at one with their own sense of homecoming and belonging.

The very notion of celebrating the Independence Day of Israel is not totally new to Amiel as she grew up in a secular Zionist family in Toulouse, France, where her physician father served as the president of the local Zionist movement of the large Jewish community. Every year her parents would organize an Independence Day party for the local community and host the mayor and all city’s dignitaries.

“Months before the event we were all busy sending invitations and preparing the program,” she tells i24NEWS in perfect 9-months-old Hebrew. We conduct this bittersweet discussion sitting in the Neurology Department of Ichilov Medical Center in Tel Aviv where she has started the absorption process offered to a select group of new immigrant physicians.

But over the past years, something changed dramatically. The clouds over Toulouse became darker and darker. Independence Day parties grew smaller and smaller, and the mayor and the dignitaries stopped attending. Amiel assumes the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, by “people like Melenchon” and the big, once-friendly, Muslim community in Toulouse intimated them. Even local Jews sometimes chose to stay away from this public event which sadly turned clandestine. “Once I sensed no conflict being a French Jew,” says Amiel “but that changed. Suddenly too many topics became too sensitive to discuss with local friends - both Christian and Muslim. This is not a way to live nor to raise children”.

That nagging recognition turned into harsh reality after the terrorist attack on the Jewish school in Toulouse five years ago. One of the children killed in the attack was a peer and a good friend of the Amiel children. Fear took over. ‘Shopping for Hannukah gifts became an ordeal for the children, who were terrified of being identified as Jews,” explains Amiel. “What was really scary was the fact that the Muslim kids in their school refused to observe the one minute of silence for those killed, claiming it’s not their business. But it was not just them. I sensed a lack of solidarity with us in French society. I felt alone.”

Yet the omen came some time later. Amiel says she was deeply offended by the deep emotional collective reaction to the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack three years later. She recalls the mass demonstrations following the horrible attack, the “Je Suis Charlie” stickers of empathy. For her, the contrast was striking - the warm embrace of solidarity for the “French” terrorist attack and the loneliness of the Jewish community after the attack on the Jewish children. The sentiment of loneliness was replaced by a profound sense of betrayal. Then came the first thought of going to Israel.

“Many religious French Jews leave for Israel so they can practice their religion openly,” says Amiel. “That was not our story. I just sensed that France is no longer the place for the ‘other’, including me. Israel is that place. I lost the sense of belonging, and I regained it here.”

Talking to i24NEWS Amiel is very much aware that Israel is far from being the safe haven for all Jews it aspired to be. Still, she does not feel that she is exchanging one insecure place for another stricken by terrorism. “There is terror everywhere,” she remarks. “What remains different and important is how you live before it happens.” She believes they made the right choice, despite the challenges the children experience, and the problems of Israeli democracy she is aware of and of the Israeli politics she does not agree with.

“The children still sometimes miss the house with the swimming pool in Toulouse we left behind,” she smiles. “But seeing my son taking part in an Independence Day ceremony at school here, makes me proud. I feel we accomplished something. They are part of something bigger. So are we. The last years in France – I felt like an observing outsider; now I belong.”

The outcome of the first round of presidential elections in France has just strengthened the feeling. Amiel could not vote for technical reasons, but would have voted for the right-wing Fillon. However there is one thing she is sure of: “France with 40 percent of its people voting for the extremes - Le Pen or Melenchon - is no place for Jews. Israel is.”

Lily Galili is a feature writer, analyst of Israeli society and expert on immigration from the former Soviet Union. She is the co-author of "The Million that Changed the Middle East."

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