Sephardic Film

Films by and about Middle Eastern and North African Jews in Israel

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Israeli society has long seen tensions between its citizens of Eastern European descent, known as Ashkenazim, and those of Middle Eastern and North African, known as Mizrahim or Sephardim. Many of the latter are poorer and less educated than the Ashkenazim, who control most of the country's political and cultural institutions. Though in recent years Mizrahim have increased their political clout, inequities remain. Reprinted with permission fromIndependent Jewish Film: A Resource Guide, published by the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

A major question raised in the current debate over the politics of cultures concerning minorities and marginal communities is who represents whom and who acts for whom. In the context of Middle Eastern and North African Jewish cultures in Israel, the history of Israeli cinema demonstrated that until recently, in most cases, Middle Eastern and North African Jews were either invisible or under-represented. 

In the rare instances where they are represented we find, in addition to a negative portrayal of their culture, a hierarchy enacted in the casting process in which "Ashkenazic Jews have often played Sephardic roles, while Sephardim have often played Arab roles." (Ella Shohat, Israeli Cinema 1988: 7).

The Israeli "Master Narrative"

Since the early 1970s a new Mizrahi consciousness has emerged in Israel that attempts to create a social alternative to the official "master narrative." (The general term "Mizrahi," denoting Middle Eastern and North African Jews, is relatively new and refers to a particular population from Arabic-speaking countries such as Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Iran, Morocco, Tunisia, or Algeria. The term "Sephardic" denotes Jews who were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula and relocated to places like North Africa, the Balkans, and Turkey where they spoke Ladino, a dialect of Spanish. It has been generalized to signify any Jew who is "non-Ashkenazic," that is, not Northern, Central, or Eastern European. While a problematic term, I continue to use "Sephardic" to refer to the pre-1970s Israeli reality, when all non-Ashkenazic Jews were lumped together.)

israeli filmBriefly, this "master narrative" continues to advocate merging east and west, eliminating ethnic differences to create one "Israeli Sabra culture." As time went on, it became clear that "melting pot" was a fantasy that concealed conflicts of power and even went so far as to make entire cultures invisible.

This fantasy articulated the self-understanding of Israel as an enlightened Western state, thereby excluding the Middle Eastern and North African Jews (Mizrahim); their experience, history, language and culture. This occurred in spite of the fact that Mizrahi Jews (until the recent large wave of Russian immigration), although constituting a demographic majority in Israel, were treated as an ethnic minority.

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Ruth Tsoffar

Ruth Tsoffar is an assistant professor of Hebrew Literature, Language, and Culture in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at the University of Michigan.