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Documentary brings to light injustices suffered by Israel's 'Arab' Jews

Jews from Arab and North African countries suffered systematic discrimination when they arrived in Israel as a new documentary Salah – Here is Eretz Yisrael by David Deri explores

I recently watched the film Salah – Here is Eretz Yisrael (The Ancestral Sin) and spoke with director David Deri. The documentary was shown with modifications and additions as a series of four episodes on Channel 13. Work on the film, which was co-produced by Ruth Yuval and Doron Galezer, took six continuous years. 

Since the film and series were broadcast, not a day has passed without an article published that either supports, opposes, justifies, or presents a composite picture of aspects of the documentary, such as the decision of Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked to open secret archives.

The film deals with the migration of Mizrahi, or eastern, Jews from Arab and North African countries into Israel in the 1950s and 1960s - or their forced migration at the hands of the Zionist movement - and their distribution and resettlement to prevent the return of Palestinian refugees. They were housed in so-called "development towns", which amounted to 26 towns selected by the army to form a first "line of human defence".

Contempt for Mizrahi Jews

Deri focuses on the town of Yeruham near the Bedouin village of Rahma in the Negev, and tells the story of the people who were forced to live there, suffering abuse, racism and violence. Ashkenazi Jews used police, blackmail, arrogance and deceit against the Mizrahi Jews immigrating from North African Muslim countries, where they had previously lived in safety and dignity.

The director juxtaposes stories from his parents and people he knew against testimonies from academics and experts.

Despite its strength, the film neither surprised me nor added much to my knowledge on the topic, as I have come across many eastern Jews in my life who have challenged the dominant Israeli narrative, such as the founders of the Eastern Democratic Rainbow.

But what is new about the film is that it is based on documents from the Jewish Agency and information revealed by the Immigration Ministry for the first time after a period of secrecy.

Moving, shocking and sad, the film reveals a systematic and organised mechanism to mislead and deceive immigrants from the moment they left their North African villages until their arrival and resettlement in Israel

Newly released minutes of meetings clearly demonstrate racism, discrimination, arrogance and contempt for eastern Jews, who were dismissed as primitives, fools and idiots. Israeli officials wanted to prime them to become servants and workers. They were housed in barracks and then in public housing, rather than private properties, to restrict their freedom of movement, while immigrants from Eastern Europe were treated in a civilised manner, settled in central locations in housing that they were entitled to sell. 

It is worth mentioning that those who perpetrated these acts against eastern Jews were aware of what they were doing, and were later recognised for their actions; hospitals, streets and public facilities were named after them, and they received prizes.

Harsh life in exile

Moving, shocking and sad, the film reveals a systematic and organised mechanism to mislead and deceive immigrants from the moment they left their North African villages until their arrival and resettlement in Israel. As time goes on and more archival documents become available, new facts will emerge about what has been done against Palestinians and others, including eastern Jews.

As I watched, I thought about two other Palestinian groups: those who remained in their homeland under unjust military rule until 1966, and the refugees who - as the Zionist movement executed its plans for population distribution - were bitterly distressed by their expulsion and abuse.

Now, 70 years later, although the discrimination still stands to a certain extent against eastern Jews, they have been able to settle down and merge. Palestinian refugees, meanwhile, remain in exile, enduring extremely harsh conditions and great suffering. 

Many eastern Jews have challenged the dominant Israeli narrative (The Ancestral Sin)
I do not underestimate the importance of the voice of eastern Jews, their suffering and their challenge to the Ashkenazi hegemony - but the most important truth that all Israeli society should know is the Palestinian narrative.

I understand, of course, eastern Jews' hatred of the historic Mapai party and its leaders, who persecuted them. I understand their later support for Menachem Begin, who attempted to Judaise the Galilee.

But I do not understand their satisfaction, submission and support for Ashkenazi leaders such as Benjamin Netanyahu and politicians such as Miri Regev, Oren Hazan, David Bitan and others who push racist bills and hateful statements against Arabs - other than that the victim wants to imitate the executioner.

At the forefront of persecuting Palestinians

Even worse, the eastern Jews who were oppressed by the Zionist movement and the state exercised the very same methods - even the more ghastly ones - and were at the forefront of persecuting Palestinians in all locations, especially during Israel’s military rule and ongoing occupation.

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Eastern Jews must realise that their Arabic language and culture has been erased, and they have been disconnected from their natural Arab surroundings.

There has been a process of hybridisation and a change of consciousness that has worked for the vast majority. For example, Sderot mayor Eli Moyal claimed, after the film's presentation, that if eastern Jews had migrated first, it would have been just “another Arab kingdom”.

Deri's film is very important, motivating viewers to reflect, compare and develop insights and reflections on the past and present. It motivates them to envision the future and opens windows to discuss public policies, identities, injustice, oppression and repression. It also reflects on the engineering of human beings, falsification of history and fabrication of events.

- Ali Haider is a lawyer and social and political activist. He founded several civil society organisations and writes op-eds in Arab and Hebrew newspapers.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: A picture taken on 20 March 2018 shows Israeli flags fluttering in Jerusalem (AFP)

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