The Victims of Discrimination Never Forget, in “The Forgotten Ones”

1 November, 2021
Pho­to from Mizrahim, les oubliés de la Terre Promise/The For­got­ten Ones, France/Israel, 2021, 133 min­utes. Direct­ed by Michale Boganim.

 

TMR reviews a film on dis­crim­i­na­tion in Israel and the orig­i­nal Jews of the Mid­dle East and North Africa. The For­got­ten Ones screened in October’s annu­al CINEMED fes­ti­val in Mont­pel­li­er and screens in the DOC NYC Fest on 11/09 (press screen­ing), 11/14 and 11/15. More info.

Jordan Elgrably

 

You would think, log­i­cal­ly, that peo­ple who have endured racial bias, xeno­pho­bia and per­se­cu­tion would be less like­ly to them­selves become racists, just as you might expect that adults who were abused as chil­dren would not become abusers. But alas, log­ic plays a debat­able role in the dis­cus­sion of both racism and child abuse.

It has been esti­mat­ed that 30% to 40% of peo­ple who are abused as chil­dren go on to become abusers them­selves. And accord­ing to a study by the UK’s Office of Nation­al Sta­tis­tics, up to 51% of adults who were abused as chil­dren expe­ri­ence or per­pe­trate abuse lat­er in life.

While I’ve found no stud­ies that reflect the per­cent­age of racist behav­ior by those who have expe­ri­enced racial bias them­selves, it is clear that being the vic­tims of racism has far more pro­found effects on a group of peo­ple than many of us per­haps real­ize. For instance, an Emory School of Med­i­cine study found that brain scans of Black women who expe­ri­ence racism show trau­ma-like effects, putting them at high­er risk for future health problems.

Recent­ly, Israeli-French film­mak­er Michale Bogan­im asked her­self whether the his­toric Ashke­nazi Jew­ish dis­crim­i­na­tion in Israel against Jews from Arab/Muslim lands con­tin­ued to plague the coun­try. But when Israelis assured Bogan­im that anti-Mizrahi bias was a thing of the past, she decid­ed to go explore the truth for her­self. The result is her third fea­ture-length film, Les Mizrahim, les oubliés de la Terre Promise, or in Eng­lish, The For­got­ten Ones.

Her orig­i­nal inspi­ra­tion for ask­ing this uncom­fort­able question—after all, you would expect that the very peo­ple who suf­fered the Holo­caust would be the last peo­ple on earth to evince racist behavior—was her father, Char­lie Bogan­im, a Moroc­can-born Jew who went to Israel in the 1950s as a youth with his fam­i­ly, and who lat­er became one of the lead­ers of the Black Pan­thers of Israel, a left-wing group of Jews from Arab coun­tries includ­ing Yemen, Iraq, Moroc­co, Alge­ria and Syr­ia, among others.

As Bogan­im tells it, “My father…was shocked by the dif­fer­ence in treat­ment reserved for them. He arrived with the hope that ‘all Jews would be broth­ers in the Promised Land.’ The racial issue and the geo­graph­i­cal dis­crim­i­na­tion affect­ed him a lot after his arrival. But he react­ed to it and refused to be sent to one of the bor­der towns.”

Michale Bogan­im stud­ied phi­los­o­phy at the Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty of Jerusalem and lat­er polit­i­cal sci­ence and anthro­pol­o­gy at the Sor­bonne. She is a grad­u­ate of the Nation­al Film School in Lon­don. Her first fea­ture-length film Odessa Odessa (2005) screened at Sun­dance and more than 50 fes­ti­vals around the world. Her first fic­tion fea­ture was Land of Obliv­ion (La terre out­ragée), which pre­miered at the Venice Film Fes­ti­val in 2011 and also screened at the Toron­to Film Fes­ti­val and over 50 inter­na­tion­al fes­ti­vals to crit­i­cal acclaim. The film stars Olga Kurylenko and empha­sizes the long-term psy­cho­log­i­cal effects of Cher­nobyl on its cit­i­zens, shot part­ly in actu­al loca­tions around Chernobyl.

Char­lie Bogan­im would even­tu­al­ly weary of the fight against inde­cent treat­ment and emi­grate to France with his fam­i­ly in 1984.

Born in Haifa, Michale Bogan­im spent the ear­ly years of her child­hood in Israel. She heard sto­ries from her father about being shunned by the Euro­pean Jews who had arrived in the coun­try before him and held the reigns of pow­er. In the film there are many per­son­al tes­ti­monies that lay bare the truth of dis­crim­i­na­tion. We learn, for instance, that the father of poet Havi­va Pedaya strug­gled for years to get work, until after the June 1967, Six Day War, when he sud­den­ly found him­self in demand as an Ara­bic translator.

Michale Bogan­im went on the road with her cam­era crew and inter­viewed three gen­er­a­tions of Mizrahi or Arab Jews in a num­ber of loca­tions across Israel, par­tic­u­lar­ly dusty devel­op­ment towns in the Negev includ­ing Yeruham, Dimona and Beer­she­va. She also cap­tured inter­views with the great Erez Biton, the blind Alger­ian-born poet of the Black Pan­thers gen­er­a­tion; found­ing Israel Black Pan­thers mem­ber and leader Reuven Abergel; and Neta Elka­yam, a tal­ent­ed Israeli vocal­ist who grew up sur­round­ed by Hebrew and Ara­bic, but sings pri­mar­i­ly in the lat­ter, pay­ing homage to her family’s long his­to­ry in Morocco.

The film­mak­er also inter­views many every­day peo­ple, includ­ing a Moroc­can Israeli who uproot­ed him­self and returned to Moroc­co as an adult, where he pro­claims his hap­pi­ness to be liv­ing in his coun­try of origin.

The first gen­er­a­tion of Jews arriv­ing from Arab lands expe­ri­enced per­haps the most dis­crim­i­na­to­ry treat­ment by Zion­ist author­i­ties. Reset­tled with their fam­i­lies in poor bor­der towns fac­ing Israel’s Pales­tin­ian, Jor­dan­ian, Syr­i­an and Egypt­ian ene­mies, the men were used as cheap, dis­pos­able labor, and shock­ing­ly, some women had their babies snatched from them by author­i­ties. Bogan­im inter­views a num­ber of Jew­ish wives from Yemen and oth­er Mus­lim-dom­i­nant coun­tries whose babies were mys­te­ri­ous­ly dis­ap­peared by hos­pi­tal offi­cials, most nev­er to be found again—a con­spir­a­cy in which poor immi­grants were told their new­borns and infants had died sud­den­ly while in the hospital’s care, and quick­ly buried, but were giv­en to adop­tion agen­cies spe­cial­iz­ing in bar­ren Ashke­nazi Israeli fam­i­lies. Known as the Yemenite Chil­dren Affair, “Accord­ing to low esti­mates, one in eight chil­dren of Yemenite fam­i­lies dis­ap­peared. Hun­dreds of doc­u­ment­ed state­ments made over the years by the par­ents of these infants allege that their chil­dren were removed from them. There have been alle­ga­tions that no death cer­tifi­cates were issued, and that par­ents did not receive any infor­ma­tion from Israeli and Jew­ish orga­ni­za­tions as to what had hap­pened to their infants.”

It was the sec­ond gen­er­a­tion of Arab Jews who began to orga­nize and protest against the uni­ver­sal dis­crim­i­na­tion they expe­ri­enced at the hands of Israel’s rul­ing elite. Mod­el­ing them­selves on the Amer­i­can Black Pan­thers, the Mizrahi social jus­tice move­ment had its hey­day in the ‘70s, with a few of Israel’s Black Pan­thers going into pol­i­tics — Char­lie Biton, for instance, served in the Knes­set rep­re­sent­ing Hadash and the Black Pan­thers from 1977 to 1992. The Black Pan­ther par­ty merged into Hadash, and today pro­gres­sives are orga­nized under the Mizrahi Demo­c­ra­t­ic Rain­bow Coali­tion. One of its found­ing mem­bers, Moroc­can Israeli poet, aca­d­e­m­ic and doc­u­men­tar­i­an Sami Shalom Chetrit, filmed the Black Pan­thers (in Israel) Speak, which came out in 2003.

Pho­to tak­en from The For­got­ten Ones in the devel­op­ment town of Yeruham.

Ashke­nazi prej­u­dice against Sephardic or “ori­en­tal” Jews result­ed large­ly from the former’s unin­formed views about the lives and com­mu­ni­ties of Jews from more than a dozen Arab coun­tries, as well as their coun­ter­parts in Iran and Turkey. Euro­pean Jews har­bored an irra­tional prej­u­dice against Arabs and thus con­sid­ered Ara­bic- and Per­sian-speak­ing Jews to have arrived from hos­tile back­wa­ters, view­ing them as natives of ene­my cul­tures — itself a pre­pos­ter­ous notion, for there are no ene­my cul­tures, no “us and them,” only strangers who have yet to meet and break bread. The fact that Jews from Mus­lim lands shared the same reli­gious tra­di­tion was per­haps the only sav­ing grace for the first gen­er­a­tion brought to Israel by Zion­ist author­i­ties, notwith­stand­ing the fact that most Ashke­naz­im remained sec­u­lar dur­ing Israel’s ear­ly years.

Today, many Sephardic or Arab Jews out­side Israel are in sol­i­dar­i­ty with the Amer­i­can Ashke­nazi and Israeli com­mu­ni­ties, which remain adamant­ly posi­tioned against Pales­tini­ans and oth­er Arabs, despite Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt, Jor­dan and more recent­ly Moroc­co and a few Gulf coun­tries. There is still some dis­com­fort around use of the descrip­tive “Arab Jew,” and it remains less prob­lem­at­ic to call one­self Sephardic, because it’s not a loaded term — the Span­ish Expul­sion hap­pened a long time ago, and mem­o­ry being what it is, Jews moved on, and kept that moniker with­out being trou­bled by it. Mizrahi or eastern/oriental came along much lat­er, in the 20th cen­tu­ry, in Israel, but oth­er­wise, Jews from Iraq, Moroc­co, Yemen and oth­er Mus­lim coun­tries iden­ti­fy as Moroc­can, Yemenite or Iraqi (as this video inter­view reveals). Most Arab Jews left their coun­try very reluc­tant­ly, not know­ing what await­ed them in Israel—rather than the Promised Land and hous­es by the sea, what they got was dusty tran­sit camps or cold bar­racks on the bor­der or in the desert.

While Michale Bogan­im was dis­cour­aged from explor­ing con­tem­po­rary Israeli big­otry against Arab Jews like her father Char­lie, what she found in The For­got­ten Ones is that dis­crim­i­na­tion in employ­ment, edu­ca­tion and even in the Israeli mil­i­tary con­tin­ues to be a reality.

 

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