Two Films Expose Anti-Sephardi and Anti-Mizrahi Racism in Israel

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The New York premier of “The Women’s Balcony” was at the NY Jewish Film Festival in January, and the film was also
screened as part of the New York Sephardic Film Festival at the American Sephardi Federation in April. The JCC Manhattan will show the film this Sunday, May 21 and it will officially open in Manhattan on May 26 at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema and The Quad.

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Dimona Twist and The Women’s Balcony (both 2016 releases) are two fine new films grappling with the status of Sephardim and Mizrahim in Israeli society. Screened at the New York Sephardic Jewish Film Festival at the American Sephardi Federation in April, they both seek to uncover the obliteration of Oriental Jews in Israel since the creation of the State. Both discredit long-established stereotypes while puncturing the myth of a Jewish homeland equally welcoming to Jews of all ethnic backgrounds.

Michal Aviad’s revelatory Dimona Twist is a documentary focusing specifically on women of Moroccan and Tunisian descent who immigrated to Israel in the 1950s and 1960s. It is the companion piece to The Women Pioneers (2013), which elucidated the trajectory of Jewish women from Eastern Europe to Mandate Palestine in pursuit of a utopian society. In both films, Aviad excels at capturing the experience of immigration from a female perspective. She strikes a pitch-perfect note when speaking of the disillusionment experienced by these women upon arrival at the Promised Land. Her latest documentary also comes in the wake of a new wave of films, such as Kamal Hashkar’s From Tinghir to Jerusalem (2013), that strive to challenge the official Israeli narrative regarding North African Jews, who were often portrayed by Zionist propaganda as victims of Arab enmity in order to encourage them to emigrate to Israel.

Aviad’s film uses interviews and archival footage to sketch the complex and tenderly humane portrait of six women of middle-class background from North Africa (Solange Saraga, Alice Saraga and Ilana Nahmani from Morocco; Sonia Allali, Esther Ohayon and Huguette Amanou from Tunisia; and Hannah Levenstein from Poland, who serves as a foil to the 6 others.) Currently in their 70s, they each tell their stories, from immigration to older age, and their faces, delicately furrowed by time and apprehended with sympathetic warmth in Aviad’s close-ups, are muted testimonies to their struggles and joys, their victories and regrets.

They first reminisce about their departures. They left in the 1950s and the 1960s and had enjoyed modern, prosperous life in Morocco and Tunisia. They’d listened to American records, The Platters and Elvis Presley, and danced The Twist. Why did they leave? Was there a tide of rising Islamism caused by contemporary Pan-Arab movements of the 1950s? There was unease, assuredly. But the answers remain somewhat imprecise. It was “trendy” to go to Israel, says Solange, the sunny seamstress who always sees the glass half full.

A powerful episode epitomizing dislocation is related by Ilana, who hails from the town of Sefrou in Morocco, at the feet of the Middle Atlas Mountains. The site is famous for its beautiful orchards. On the eve of her family’s departure in 1956, Ilana, 7, requested a last farewell to her beloved trees: “Goodbye, orange tree. So long, clementine tree,” she recalls saying, as though they were a metaphor of the roots she was leaving behind.

Equally well-portrayed are the hardships of their harrowing immigration: their arrival in Israel after a long boat journey, the subpar conditions of the trip by bus, where they were stacked like cattle for endless hours, the surreal and arbitrary choice of their final destination—Dimona, a development town created in the 1950s in the Negev desert. It was populated mainly with North African immigrants, and later viewed as a “second-class Israel.” Recorded here are the heart-wrenching–and often preventable–losses of lives, like Ilana’s baby brother, a six-month-old infant who became dehydrated on the bus journey and died, unable to receive medical treatment for want of a doctor or a hospital. Dimona’s stark barrenness took the six women by surprise, as some had come from vibrant, modern cities like Tunis or Casablanca.

Sonia’s story of children with ringworm is no less alarming. “The nurses would not even touch their heads, God forbid,” she recalls, visibly distressed by the coarse treatment inflicted to her brother, who was one of them. Without a word to his parents, he was later whisked away in a vehicle with other diseased children to receive treatment in Haifa. Radiation was administered, and the film’s footage captures the ominous beeping of the machine encircling their heads- a dark sign of things to come. Many suffered from cancer later in life.

As documented in Shlomo Swirski’s germinal study Israel: The Oriental Majority (1989), the mistreatment of newly arrived North African Jews was common, though not broadly known. Their accounts were frequently dismissed, perhaps even covered up by a government oftentimes too preoccupied with the construction of a new nation to address these injustices. Aviad is correct in pointing out the racial prejudice against those who were regarded by an Ashkenazi elite as “mangy Oriental Jews.” Speaking of them, Hannah exposes her parents’ brisk pronouncement shortly after their arrival in Dimona: “There are no Jews here, no one speaks Yiddish.” The filmmaker sheds a jarring light on everyday, minute injustices discreetly endured, stoically suffered by North African Jews.

We also learn chances were not equal for all. If one was a member of the Mapai party, like most Ashkenazi Jews, one received a “little red book” granting work. The situation was harder for Mizrahim—most of whom adhered to the Ahdut Ha’avodah party—and often lived off menial jobs. For instance, Sonia’s father, who had never before worked with his hands, was forced to take up grueling labor as an iron welder.

If Aviad’s documentary probes the dirty secrets of a silenced discrimination, it nonetheless declines to dwell in rancor. Instead, it emphasizes how the women soared above adversity while highlighting their feminism. It also counteracts deep-rooted clichés about “shallow” Sephardim against “serious” Ashkenazim. Take Solange, the seamstress, who divorced and, as a single mother, provided for her children (“So what?” she explains matter-of-factly “this is instinct for women.”) Or Sonia who got a fresh start in Tel-Aviv after he cruel ex-husband denied her alimony. Alice, the tough head of the worker’s committee at the Kitan factory, is another example of resilience. She negotiated with bosses by day and danced The Twist by night. Huguette left her first spouse because he forbade her to keep the position she so cherished in a lab. Even Hannah, whose role in the film is to embody the Ashkenazi side, is portrayed in a congenial light (“I married an Ashkenazi”, she explains, but hastens to add half-jokingly “he didn’t look like one.”)

Despite their struggles, there is no acrimony in any of these women. Rather, there is magnanimity, even grandeur. “We could see nothing wrong in the Land of Israel,” says Huguette. “Limhok, effacer” stresses Solange referring to their trials, for emphasis using both the Hebrew and French word for “to erase.” In this thoughtful, delicate film woven like a tapestry, Aviad powerfully restores all that what was blotted out.

The Women’s Balcony, a comedy of manners written by Shlomit Nehama and directed by Emil Ben-Simon, is also about erasure, namely of one religious tradition by another. A box-office hit in Israel, the movie is a universal fable decrying the excesses of religious zealotry. But under its lighthearted guise, it is also an acerbic critique of Haredim, as an avatar of Ashkenazi tradition. A bit of a polemical, it specifically chastises the ways Orthodox Jews of Eastern European descent have sought to usurp Sephardi observance in Israel. Nehama based the movie on her own experience growing up in an Orthodox community like the Bukharan one depicted in the movie. In her view, shared by many Sephardim and Mizrahim, these Jewish communities partake in a tradition of religious moderation averse to “an all-or-nothing approach” that often encapsulates Ashkenazi practice.

The movie opens with the bar-mitzvah of Osher, the grandson of Ettie (played by the splendid Evelin Hagoel, who was born in Casablanca) and Zion (Igal Naor) Yazdi, whose surname marks them as Mizrahi. It is the Sabbath, and they are merrily gathered for the ceremony with other members of their close-knit congregation- the Musayef synagogue. Their observance is faithful to Jewish law, but also adaptable, easygoing. This is best captured in one of the opening sequences: when a young boy inadvertently turns off the power switch in a hot water urn designed to prevent electrical use on the Sabbath, Tikva, one of the women in the congregation, scolds him for breaking the sanctity of the holy day. But soon realizing she would thereon be unable to prepare tea, she attempts to coax him into rectifying his mistake by pressing the switch again. Terrified by the thought of a double crime, the boy declines to oblige. As soon as the young sinner leaves the room, Tikva turns it back on herself.

That hiccup notwithstanding, the morning proceeds in generalized good humor, until it takes a darker, more unfortunate turn: the women’s balcony, the section reserved for women in Orthodox synagogues, collapses, gravely injuring the Rabbi’s wife, and straining the Rabbi’s mental sanity. Lacking an officiating rabbi, the congregation’s men start looking for a temporary replacement, stumbling by chance on Rabbi David, whose long black overcoat and hat signal him as a Hasidic Jew. Bringing his students to fill in for the quorum of ten necessary for prayers in Judaism, and eagerly volunteering to take over Musayef’s renovations, including a new women’s balcony, he appears at first like a savior.

But as he attempts to change the ways of the Musayef congregation, we soon realize he has his own agenda. In the vein of 18th-century moralists unmasking hypocrisy, Nehama’s screenplay presents a caustic indictment of him: he is a smooth talker, a religious casuist. Paradoxically, he justifies the women’s exclusion from the synagogue to a different building by referring to their “sanctity” when it is clearly segregation and argues that women are exempt from Bible studies because of their inherent “perfection.” Blaming the unfortunate accident on the women’s lack of modesty, he even coaxes them, with specious arguments, into covering their hair. And when the women rebel against him, demanding a new women’s section while he seeks a new Torah scroll instead, he uses the biblical story of Jacob and Leah to extol the virtues of deception, a deception he is in fact practicing himself.

In a scene that mirrors the power-switch mishap of the opening scenes, the lights go out suddenly as Rabbi David is conducting a Passover Seder at the Yazdi’s house. Ettie immediately seeks out help from the “Shabbat goy” as her father, a pious man, would have done, so as not to desecrate the holiday, but Rabbi David promptly objects, confronting Ettie’s customs, which he regards as unorthodox. Nehama neatly juxtaposes this episode with the one involving Tikva and the young boy earlier on, highlighting the diverging responses—Tikva’s pliability against the rabbi’s intransigence.

As in Dimona Twist, the women’s resourcefulness proves redeeming. Far from submissive housewives, Ettie and her friends declare war on the Rabbi, and walk out on their husbands. The scene of Ettie and her friend Margalit negotiating the price of a new women’s section with a contractor is a succulent exemplar of Levantine haggling, and provides delightful comic relief. When Margalit brings a check with the raised money to Ettie and her niece Yaffa, Ettie declares, demoralized: “The men are waiting for God to send Michael and Gabriel to build the women’s section”. “Well”, retorts Margalit, fiercely: “Here come Gavriela, Michaela, and Yafaella!” Through their feminist empowerment, the women turn out to be the real keepers of tradition.

As in Shakespearean comedies, this gratifying movie ends with a marriage, which happily bridges the two sides, and restores cosmic harmony. But the dark subtext covered by the general mirth is perhaps one we ought to heed.

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