When the Zionist project was first mooted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was largely spearheaded by European Jews, the Ashkenazi, who were less successful in generating support from their Ottoman coreligionists. It is not so surprising, given that the Jews of the MENA region, known as Mizrahim in Hebrew, felt as much a part of the Arab world as their Muslim and Christian neighbours. After the state of Israel was founded however, many Arab governments used the Nakba to turn their own Jews into convenient scapegoats, assisted by Zionist propaganda trumpeting that the only place Jews would ever be safe was within their borders.
Yet once they got to Israel in mass exoduses of the 1950s through 1980s, many of these Mizrahim were shocked to be confronted by deep-seated racism. On arrival they were put in inadequate transit camps and then shipped off to the most inhospitable parts of the country, settled in the ruined homes of Palestinians forced to flee their land or housed in shoddily constructed dwellings in the desert. Men who’d been prominent members of their communities in Morocco, Yemen, Iraq and other countries were consigned to manual labor and struggled for the remainder of their lives with their loss of status, frequently passing on that trauma to their children. This is the subject of The Forgotten Ones: From the Promised Land to Oblivion, Michale Boganim’s documentary premiering at the Venice Film Festival, in the Giornate degli Autori sidebar.
The film looks at the history of Israel’s marginalization of Jews from Arab countries while also serving as a memoir: Boganim’s parents came from Morocco, expecting to find an egalitarian society (at least for Jews). Instead, her father Charles was shocked to discover he was considered less worthy than his European counterparts, his white-collar credentials ignored together with complaints of discrimination. He became one of the founders of the Israeli Black Panthers, an activist group loudly protesting anti-Mizrahim bias, but with the 1973 Arab–Israeli War and the government’s efforts to disparage critical voices, he moved his family to France. There too they were relegated to the outskirts like so many Arab immigrants, so after years frustrated by inequality, Charles Boganim returned to Israel where he died in 2017.
I asked the director where she thought her father felt was home. “Where is home when you are an immigrant?” she wondered aloud. “Morocco is a very welcoming place now for Jews and Israelis, and I think my father wanted to go back there. Maybe there was something he didn’t completely achieve in Israel. But there are places where you cannot go back.” Only one of the people she interviews in the film returned to the land of their parents, to Morocco, but many express a longing for countries they knew as children or only through the stories of the previous generation. People like philosopher and poet Haviva Pedaya, born in Jerusalem of Iraqi parents, who clearly would jump at the chance of leading a life like her family once had in a now vastly different Baghdad. The film mentions the great Moroccan singer Zoha Al Fassiya, the darling of Moroccan high society including King Mohammed V, whose prestige was erased once she got to Israel where Arabic music was actively discouraged.
Many of the stories of discrimination in The Forgotten Ones are deeply troubling, but given the high visibility of a number of prominent ministers from Mizrahim backgrounds (most of whom are hardline conservatives known for their anti-Palestinian biases), I wondered whether their prominent positions have helped to equalize the situation. People like the deeply polarizing former Minister of Culture, Miri Regev, at whose name the director bristled. “She was not accepted in the culture world at all, and she was very violently rejected. She took a position of being almost anti-culture, so her being Minister of Culture didn’t change anything, and all the places of culture remain European driven.”
Boganim makes a parallel with the United States, and how Barack Obama’s presidency didn’t reduce rampant American racism. “There are always examples of people who will stand up, but that doesn’t mean the main issue is solved. The difference is that artists are starting to be heard. You have this younger generation that you see in the film, poets, writers, activists, singers –- there’s this one young woman who sings in Arabic, and this is something new. Before, people would hear Arabic radio at home, but you never had a show or something. So I think things are starting to change with the new generation, at least a little bit in terms of culture, but the institutions remain the same.”
We spoke a bit about some of the reasons for Mizrahim marginalization, and how the concept of the “strong man,” especially after the Holocaust, took hold of Israeli society, together with a push to create a new, tougher culture that wasn’t tied to traditional societies viewed as either weak or backward. “They look at Arab culture in general –- not only the Mizrahim but Arab culture in general –- in a very bad way. They didn’t see anything valuable in Arabic culture. Historically, if the creators of Israel understood that with this large Mizrahim population they could construct a bridge with the Arab world, we would have a completely different country. We as Mizrahim could be this bridge between Egypt, Lebanon, etc. Instead they put us on the periphery and they separated us, classifying the Arabs as terrorists and the Mizrahim as having a low culture. They didn’t encourage this bicultural society to create links, and I think it’s a big mistake. They wanted to create a very European county, and they forgot that Israel is in the Middle East.”