California Calling: Jewish Writer Documents Racism in Israeli Films

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California Calling: Jewish Writer Documents Racism in Israeli Films

By Pat and Samir Twair

"Palestinians make up about 20 percent of the Israeli population, Jews from the Middle East another 50 percent. If you include the West Bank and Gaza, the figure reaches 90 percent--yet they are forced to view advertising, the media and films from the perspective of the minority Western Jews."

No, these weren't the words of a disgruntled Palestinian, but of Prof. Ella Habiba Shohat, an Iraqi-Jewish Israeli who teaches at City University of New York in Manhattan.

In 1992 when her book, Israeli Cinema: East/West and the Politics of Representation, was translated into Hebrew, her arguments shook the Israeli establishment with a national controversy that's still rumbling in the media.

Shohat isn't about to be silenced by right-wing nationalists, however, and her reasoned arguments make sense to all but the most devoted followers of Benyamin Netanyahu, who seem unable even to comprehend that all of Palestine once was the home of Muslim and Christian Palestinians.

In an interview with the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Shohat said her entire family emigrated from Baghdad in the 1950s.

"I was robbed of my cultural origins," she stated. "The first marker of one's identity is your name, yet when my relatives arrived in Israel, their Arabic names were immediately Hebraized. My grandmother's name was Masouda, but it was changed to Sara. My mother had wanted to name me for my great-grandmother, habiba, who died shortly after the family arrived in Israel. But the authorities frowned on Israeli children having Arabic names and they were, after all, helping us shed our `backward' ways. The whole idea was that anything Western was good and anything Middle Eastern was bad."

This, Shohat explains in her book, is the schizoid nature of the Israeli ethos: it is a nation in the Middle East, with a majority population of Middle Easterners, that denies any ties to the East.

Shohat attributes this to European Jews who established the Zionist state and then promoted and propagandized their Yishuv (settlement) years in films and the media as a struggle of blond, blue-eyed idealistic pioneers under constant attack by mean-spirited, inferior Arabs.

In this initial period of Israeli filmmaking, which she terms "the Heroic-Nationalist stage," Shohat argues that there were obvious analogies between American and Israeli films. Israelis were portrayed as brave settlers while the Arabs were portrayed as savages, just as American Indians were portrayed in early American Westerns. Oriental Jews were portrayed as unskilled laborers in Israeli films, not unlike past American portrayals of African Americans.

"Growing up an Oriental Jew in the '50s and '60s wasn't easy," she recalled. "Any ads we saw idealized blond children--the notion of beauty was a European ideal. It was tough to assert your Middle Eastern origins and so we internalized our shame and felt uncomfortable over our visible links with the East."

She says that at home her family spoke a Baghdadi-Iraqi colloquial Arabic. Even the Hebrew spoken by the Sephardim, the Oriental Jews, was an Arabized version different in syntax, words and accent from the Hebrew spoken by Western Jews.

"It was taboo to speak Arabic in school and whenever teachers wanted to chastise us, they would refer to us as `you Moroccan' or `you Iraqi' or `you Yemeni,'" Shohat recalled. "Jews from the Middle East were expected to abandon their Middle Eastern traits, so we grew up without studying our history or culture. It was all the more tragic for palestinian Israelis, who couldn't even read about Arab history in textbooks."

Shohat says that, in general, Oriental Jews must reach the Ph.D. level before they learn about their Middle Eastern heritage.

"Our history is different from that of European Jews," she continued. "For example, we only heard briefly about Maimonides (Musa ibn Maymun, court physician to Salahuddin and a 12th century philosopher who expounded Jewish law in Arabic). …