In this exhaustive and exhausting 255-minute docu, David Benchetrit chronicles half a century of Israeli racism and injustice toward the “Mizrahim,” Jews from Arab countries. Newsreels, official speeches and archival clips bear witness to social oppression and a fundamental schism between Ashkenazi (European) and Sephardic (Mid-Eastern) Jews in the struggle for Israeli national identity. Unwieldy in its current mammoth form, shorter European version might find cable play and limited theatrical release outside the fest circuit. Film should spark a certain amount of controversy Stateside with its sharp critique of Israeli domestic policy.
Intensive interviews with six prominent Mizrahi activists intercut throughout the docu paint a grim picture. In the 1950s, Jews in Morocco and other Arab nations were recruited for resettlement in Israel only to find there was a selection process which “temporarily” excluded the elderly and infirm and forced families to leave some children behind.
Treated as bearers of vermin and diseases, Arab Jews were subject to extreme health measures that included shaving and waxing the heads of children. Sent to border settlements to serve as human shields against hostile Arab neighbors, Mizrahim were also the recipients of a second-rate, vocational track education in line with their perceived intellectual inferiority, thus creating, in the words of one interviewee, a “permanent underclass” of manual laborers. Those who were deemed intelligent enough to be bused out of their neighborhoods were encouraged to repress all signs of ethnic otherness.
This standard pattern of economic and educational discrimination produces equally familiar results: an extremely high incidence of crime and drug use, which in turn can be blamed on inherent racial deficiencies, creating a vicious cycle. Add to the equation a strong measure of self-hatred due to constant denigration, and it’s little wonder resistance in the ’70s took the form of an Israeli Black Panthers movement.
A founding member of the Israeli Black Panthers is among docu’s six interviewees, which also include a housing activist, a poet, a member of the Knesset, a former secretary of one of the border towns, and the leader of Shas, a powerful Sephardic political party.
Articulate and impassioned, the six men speak movingly of their experience, and of their activism.
The fact the film is consciously constructed around the relationship of sons and fathers — biological fathers and political and cultural fathers — to a certain extent answers the question of why women are given no voice in this four-plus hour saga. Benchetrit is quick to point out in interviews that he has made films on feminist subjects. Yet the absence of women skews the film in subtle ways.
Tech credits are fine; Benchetrit’s use of archival footage contrasts color idylls of the land of milk and honey with black-and-white records of a very different reality.