A documentary film bearing the title of Salah – Here is Eretz Yisrael (“The Ancestral Sin” in English), was first screened last May, and has been turned into a four-chapter TV documentary, now being broadcast on Channel 13.
The documentary deals with the forced settlement of new immigrants who were brought to Israel in the 1950s from Muslim countries – but primarily from North Africa – in isolated and desolate development towns in the Negev, that were constructed in great haste and had little to offer inhabitants either socially or economically.
The process was accompanied by lies, trickery, condescension and outright racism on the part of the Ashkenazi leadership of the Jewish Agency and the settlement authorities of the Mapai-led State of Israel.
All this was done in the name of the need to disperse the population, and settle areas with a sparse Jewish population, at a time when resources were scarce and the new immigrants from North Africa helpless, clueless and naive.
The parents of one of the three producers of the documentary, and its presenter, David Deri, were among the immigrants who came from Morocco, and were sent off to Yeruham in the Negev, where Deri himself was born in 1975.
Among the various films produced by Mizrahi film makers in recent years that focus on the discriminatory treatment of the immigrants who came to Israel from Muslim countries – a historical fact that continues to affect the Israeli social fabric and its politics to the present day – I found Deri’s film particularly impressive.
While the documentaries produced by Ron Kachlili, another Mizrahi documentary film producer, whose eight-chapter documentary Arsim and Frehoth was first screened in 2014 ,are inclined to create antagonism among Ashkenazi viewers, Deri’s film arouses in Ashkenazim a combination of shock, sympathy and a strong sense of wrong-doing committed in their name, even though the motives for the deeds in question were dictated by valid considerations of the national good, because they were merciless and inhuman.
While Kachlili demands his pound of flesh as pure revenge, without caring about the consequences, Deri wants the old elites to recognize the facts and take stock, but appears to seek reconciliation and closure.
In the film I was deeply impressed by a interview that Deri held with the late Prof.
Elisha Efrat – a geographer who had been involved in the design of Israel’s regional development plans, upon which the policy toward the Mizrahi immigrants was based.
Efrat recognized that many individuals had been wronged, but argued that there was no alternative at the time and refused to apologize, or to retract the view current within the Ashkenazi establishment in the early years of the state that the Mizrahi immigrants were mostly primitive, unsophisticated (some even spoke of “inferior human material”) and unlike other groups of immigrants could be pushed around.
Deri let the octogenarian Efrat speak without interruption, though the pained expression on his face could not be missed, and all he said at the end was, “I have great difficulty with what you have said,” to which Efrat shrugged and answered, “That’s the way it was.” Kachlili would never have considered interviewing Efrat, and if he had, would certainly have interrupted him and poured out his wrath against him and his ilk.
Another impressive feature of Deri’s film is the fact that he chose an Ashkenazi intellectual symbol – media personality Yaron London – to read out the derogatory comments by the participants in Jewish Agency meetings that had dealt with the settlement of Mizrahi immigrants. The harsh words would have sounded much less shocking had they been read out by Deri himself.
However, most impressive is the fact that Deri filmed a group of elderly Mizrahim (including his own parents), whom he exposed to what he had found in his research on their settlement in the Negev, and then recorded their varied reactions and comments, that ranged from absolute rage, a demand that the issue be reviewed by an investigatory commission and those responsible punished (not much chance of that – Efrat was one of the last surviving participants in designing the policy, and he passed away in 2016), to the attitude of what’s done is done, that there is no use in messing around with old sores, even if they have not completely healed, and that what matters is the future.
What I find most baffling is the fact that to the present day the attitude of many Mizrahim towards the Left in general and the Labor Party in particular is still affected much more by past events than by current ideologies and policy proposals, and the positions of current members.
The fact that for the third time the Labor Party elected a Mizrahi leader – Avi Gabbay, who is of Moroccan origin (he was preceded by Amir Perez, who is Moroccan-born, and the late Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who was born in Iraq) – while the Likud has never been led by a Mizrahi, doesn’t seem to have any effect on the Likud’s Mizrahi supporters.
Furthermore, the strange reality is that from various comments and outbursts from the direction of our self-proclaimed First Lady (for example, with regard to Moroccan food and eating habits, and the Moroccan origins of former Sderot mayor Eli Moyal, who “dared” criticize Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during Operation Protective Edge) one may conclude that at least in the vicinity of the prime minister, the old prejudices against the Mizrahim are more prevalent than in the current Labor Party.
Under the circumstances it is very difficult to say what Labor can and ought to do to detach itself from the past portrayed in Deri’s film. We know that a public apology is not the solution – former Labor leader Ehud Barak tried that back in September 1997, and was rebuffed.
A carefully considered change in Labor’s narrative on the early years of the state, which relates to the picture portrayed by David Deri in his documentary, just might start making a difference.