Sephardic Film

Films by and about Middle Eastern and North African Jews in Israel

Israeli society has long seen tensions between its citizens of Eastern European descent, known as Ashkenazim, and those of Middle Eastern and North African, known as Mizrahim or Sephardim. Many of the latter are poorer and less educated than the Ashkenazim, who control most of the country’s political and cultural institutions. Though in recent years Mizrahim have increased their political clout, inequities remain. Reprinted with permission fromIndependent Jewish Film: A Resource Guide, published by the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

A major question raised in the current debate over the politics of cultures concerning minorities and marginal communities is who represents whom and who acts for whom. In the context of Middle Eastern and North African Jewish cultures in Israel, the history of Israeli cinema demonstrated that until recently, in most cases, Middle Eastern and North African Jews were either invisible or under-represented. 

In the rare instances where they are represented we find, in addition to a negative portrayal of their culture, a hierarchy enacted in the casting process in which “Ashkenazic Jews have often played Sephardic roles, while Sephardim have often played Arab roles.” (Ella Shohat, Israeli Cinema 1988: 7).

The Israeli “Master Narrative”

Since the early 1970s a new Mizrahi consciousness has emerged in Israel that attempts to create a social alternative to the official “master narrative.” (The general term “Mizrahi,” denoting Middle Eastern and North African Jews, is relatively new and refers to a particular population from Arabic-speaking countries such as Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Iran, Morocco, Tunisia, or Algeria. The term “Sephardic” denotes Jews who were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula and relocated to places like North Africa, the Balkans, and Turkey where they spoke Ladino, a dialect of Spanish. It has been generalized to signify any Jew who is “non-Ashkenazic,” that is, not Northern, Central, or Eastern European. While a problematic term, I continue to use “Sephardic” to refer to the pre-1970s Israeli reality, when all non-Ashkenazic Jews were lumped together.)

israeli filmBriefly, this “master narrative” continues to advocate merging east and west, eliminating ethnic differences to create one “Israeli Sabra culture.” As time went on, it became clear that “melting pot” was a fantasy that concealed conflicts of power and even went so far as to make entire cultures invisible.

This fantasy articulated the self-understanding of Israel as an enlightened Western state, thereby excluding the Middle Eastern and North African Jews (Mizrahim); their experience, history, language and culture. This occurred in spite of the fact that Mizrahi Jews (until the recent large wave of Russian immigration), although constituting a demographic majority in Israel, were treated as an ethnic minority.

Increasing Mizrahi Cultural Consciousness

Throughout the 1970s, after years of silence, assimilation or attempts to assimilate, Israelis of Middle Eastern and North African origin, began to address through various art forms, issues of collective and individual memory, language, and identity; ethnic, national, and religious. The increasing volume of creative works, in and out of Israel, include literature, art, theater, film, and even newly-invented ritual practices related to religion and beliefs.

Currently, in the relatively more open climate for diversity in Israel, with the increased power that Mizrahim have gained, ethnicity itself is gaining more legitimacy. However, folklore and traditionality still remain associated with this non-Western “ethnicity,” while “culture” remains associated with the dominant European culture.

Not surprising, one of the new developments reflected in films by and about Middle Eastern and North African Jews is the active role that they themselves play in the different stages of production.

One of the major changes these four films highlight is a new representation of Mizrahim which tends to move away from the limited paradigm of the past. In this paradigm Sepharadim and Ashkenazim are set up as binary oppositions. Sephardic culture is the counter image of what is perceived as Israeli Sabra culture.

Earlier Films

The simple, anonymous, depersonalized Sephardic characters we find in previous films such as Sallah Shabati (Ephraim Kishon, 1964), and Beyond the Walls (Uri Barbash, 1984) are now replaced with complex, personalized, particular personas. The narrative opens up to include the perspectives of children, old people, the intimate life of women, the distinctive music, food, body gestures, and forgotten history and geography in which Jews lived in co-existence with Arabs.

This direction in films is not totally new. Earlier films such as The House on Chelouche Street (Moshe Mizrahi, 1975), Pillar of Salt (Haim Shiran, 1980); documentaries such as Routes of Exile: A Moroccan Jewish Odyssey (Eugene Rosow, 1982); ethnographies such as The Last Marranos (Frederic Brenner and Stan Neumann, 1990), I Miss the Sun (Mary Halawani 1984) or Trees Cry for Rain (Bonnie Burt, 1989) were all important milestones along the way which did not get enough public attention and, as in the case of Moshe Mizrahi’s films, were not really understood by film reviewers of the time.

Recent Films

Most noticeable in recent films by and about Mizrahim is the search for home, a theme that recurs explicitly or implicitly and in different levels of abstraction throughout. For all Jews and for all Israelis, “place” is a problematic and complex concept. Israel as place stands for a geographical territory over which wars are fought. It is also a concept synonymous with God itself, “makom” in Hebrew; philosophically, it is an object of yearning–like the Messiah and the Holy Grail–a place that will never be reached, a concept that evokes the painful dialectic of exile and homeland.

The question is: How much more problematic is that “place” for Mizrahim who dreamed of the promised land but in reality are excluded and thus further exiled? Barbara Johnson, a leading American cultural critic, suggests that ethnicity itself can be understood as being Home. To be Home, accordingly, is associated with the comfort generated by speaking in one’s own language and operating within one’s own history.

This is in opposition to being at another’s home, which Johnson compares to tourism. If, until the present, Sephardic Israelis remained “tourists” in their own country–incidental to the narratives and experience of European Jews–at last there is a shift to a new space from which to articulate Home.

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