Magazine article Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought

The 'Forgotten Refugees' Remembered in Film

Magazine article Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought

The 'Forgotten Refugees' Remembered in Film

Article excerpt

"The Forgotten Refugees," a film; executive producer, Ralph Avi Goldwasser; produced and directed by Michael Grynszpan; co-produced and directed by Tommy Schwarcz; written by J.J. Salman; released by Isra TV and The David Project Center for Jewish Leadership, 2006.

It is the striking contrast between the interview with musician Yair Dalal--who identifies himself as Judeo-Arab--and the interview with Yitshak Dvash, survivor of the 1945 Libyan riots, that best encapsulates the film "The Forgotten Refugees," being shown at Jewish film festivals throughout the United States, as well as on several Public Broadcasting System affiliates.

Bedecked in a flowing white garment, positioned with the Mediterranean Sea behind him, and speaking in English, Dalal tells of the prominent place the Jews once held in Iraq's music scene. Born in Israel to parents who were from Iraq, he proudly describes his role in continuing this Iraqi cultural tradition both in Israel and in his performances abroad.

In juxtaposition to this cosmopolitan scene, the elderly, modestly dressed Dvash sits in a synagogue and speaks about the brutality he endured as a Jew who was born and grew up in Libya. "They ran after me, caught me and beat me until they finally got tired," he says, referring to his experience in the 1945 riots. "They wanted to cut off my hands," Dvash continues, as the camera zooms in on his severely disfigured wrists and fingers

Dalal's deep identification with his Middle Eastern roots and Dvash's experience of persecution and suffering are powerful tropes that appear throughout the documentary. Both are revisited through interviews with others who also are Jewish immigrants, or descendents of Jewish immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa. A rich array of rare, original footage is used, as well, alongside narration to tell the stories of these forgotten refugees.

"The Forgotten Refugees" is part of a slowly growing library of books and films that call attention to the modern experiences of Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews. Given that these groups constitute one-quarter of the world's Jewish population, and one-half of Israel's Jewish population, these new works are critical if we are to expand the horizon of Judaic Studies, an academic discipline that has traditionally been Western- and Euro-centric.

Outside of the academy, a growing interest in the Sephardi and Mizrahi experience also has been a welcome development. Until now, the Shoah and the foundation of the State of Israel have been the two most powerful events to shape contemporary perspectives on Jewish identity, whereas the migration of Jews from Muslim lands has been broadly overlooked in public discourse. Yet, it is this chapter that is most critical for making sense out of Jewish-Muslim and Arab-Israeli dynamics, both so central to the contemporary Jewish condition. If for this reason alone, "The Forgotten Refugees" is an important film that deserves widespread recognition. It is in this spirit that I offer a critique of the film, which--despite its significant contribution--suffers from a number of flaws.

The first is that the film's two major themes--as expressed by Dalal and Dvash--do not work comfortably together. No effort is made to reconcile the Jews' strong ties to their Middle Eastern and North African heritage with the persecution they endured in the region. This problem becomes particularly acute in the segments entitled "Dhimmi" and "Judeo-Arab Culture."

In the former, the narrator explains that the Jews' presence in Muslim lands was historically tolerated, as long as they accepted their humiliated and subjugated position of dhimmi. * Dating as far back as the seventh century, when Islam was introduced to the region, Jews' inferior status was marked by numerous restrictions.

Fast-forwarding from the distant past to recent history, a number of the interviewees testify to the persecution they faced as dhimmi. …

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