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The Portrayal of Jews in Arab Movies from Cinema’s Beginning to “Um Haroun”

Nasri Hajjaj
Palestinian Cinematographer
May 9, 2020
Controversy rages over “Um Haroun”, the Jewish character in one of the Ramadan series. Here is an attempt to analyze the portrayal of Jews in Arab productions since the inception of films in the early 20th century.
Director Elia Suleiman

After premiering at Carthage Film Festival, Palestinian director Elia Suleiman’s “Chronicle of a Disappearance” caused a stir in the audience, especially the final scene where the director’s parents are shown sleeping on a couch in their living room in Nazareth, with the TV on, the Israeli national anthem playing to a fluttering Israeli flag, until the scene dissolved to white.

The outraged audience booed the director and accused him of Zionism. Suleiman left Tunisia disappointed after the jury completely ignored his film.  

Ten years before the premiere of “Chronicle of a Disappearance”, Tunisian director Nouri Bouzaid launched his fantastic movie “Man of Ashes”. The movie created a stir among Arab audiences especially Egyptians and Palestinians, due to the portrayal of an old Tunisian Jewish man as a main character.   

The stir was not so much about the Jewish character than the positive light in which he is conveyed, without the negative stereotypes of Jews that Arab audiences have been accustomed to since the 1950s. Jews have been portrayed as cunning, anti-Arab misers and pimps. 

Palestinian Jews

In the mid-2000s, I began research on a documentary that I intended to film about Palestinian Jews who lived in Palestine and abroad. By “Palestinian Jews” I mean those who were born and lived in Palestine before the existence of Israel, and were considered as Palestinian citizens of the future Palestinian state and a natural part of the Palestinian people, according to the Palestinian National Covenant that was approved by the Palestine Liberation Organization since its establishment. Those Jews consider themselves Palestinians.   

President Yasser Arafat appointed Rabbi Moshe Hirsch of the Neteuri Karta group, as Minister of Jewish affairs in the Palestinian government he formed after the Oslo Accords. The president also appointed Priest Sallum, one of the Jewish Samaritans of Nablus, as a member of the first Palestinian Legislative Council (Parliament).    

The project disappeared with other documents at the Palestinian Ministry of Culture after I got approval from the former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to finance the project. Also, in a grant competition in which I participated at the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture when its headquarters was in Amman, a well-known Arab critic in the Jury, a Lebanese communist, voted against the project.   

My late Tunisian communist friend, George Adda, who fought against French colonialism and, post-independence, the oppression of Bourguiba, was imprisoned during both periods because of his activism on international platforms and his writings at the newspaper of the Tunisian General Labour Union “Al Shaab” which were against Zionism and upheld the Palestinian cause.   He inherently belonged to Judaism, a fact he repeatedly reiterated. I told Adda that I was working on a movie about Jewish Palestinians and he corrected me: we call them Palestinian Jews and Egyptian Jews.   

The National identity comes before the religious one, which we do not choose, but rather acquire at birth.   I intended to dedicate this movie to my friend George Adda who always spoke the truth out loud.

Alexandria…Why?

In his film “Alexandria, why?” Youssef Chahine introduced positive Egyptian Jewish characters inspired by the multiple social, religious, cultural origins of the Alexandrian reality in the 1940s, where the star Naglaa Fathy played Sarah, the Jewish lady who was in love with Ibrahim, the Egyptian Muslim communist, whose role was played by Ahmed Zaki. Also, Youssef Wahby played the role of the intellectual aristocratic Egyptian Jew who is Sarah’s father.  

No accusations of normalization with Israel will be found in the film reviews, although it was produced in 1979, two years after President Anwar Al Sadat visited Al-Quds and one year after the Camp David Accords were signed between Egypt and Israel in 1978, which means it premiered at a critical political phase that would have been a disaster for the Trump Peace Plan, which is now the talk of the critics who oppose “Um-Haroun” TV series.   Before discussing “Um-Haroun”, the Gulf series that was the cause of much debate, attacks, and accusations even before its premiere on the first day of Ramadan, let’s try to take a look at the portrayal of Jews in the Arab visual production, since the beginning of film production in the early twentieth century.

Togo Mizrahi

Jews Playing the Heroes

In the 1930s and 1940s, Egyptian cinema saw a number of films produced and directed by Jewish and non-Jewish Egyptians. Jewish characters most often played the lead. This was before the occupation of Palestine in 1948, and before the revolution of the Egyptian officers against the Monarchy in 1952.  

Egypt has been, and continues to be, the most productive Arab country in cinema. Egyptian Christians, Muslims and Jews were among its pioneers in the 1930s.   

Togo Mizrahi, the actor, producer and director who made dozens of feature films was the most well- known among them. Togo Mizrahi created the first Egyptian Jewish character and gave him the lead role in a set of films he made with actor Shalom, whose real name is Liu Angel. It is worthy to mention that these films were produced under Shalom’s name. In the same context, Ismail Yassin presented a number of films that came to carry his signature. In Ismail’s films was a comic frame about Shalom, as Egyptian-Jewish tramp, supported by a Muslim hero named Abdo.

It was Togo Mizrahi who discovered Leila Murad’s talent and introduced her to the screen; he directed her first films and also persuaded Um-Kulthum to give acting a try in the movie named “Sallama”, in 1945. Mizrahi directed and produced that film whose events take place during the Umayyad era.

Mizrahi was instrumental in founding the Egyptian film industry from the thirties until the end of the forties, when the state of Israel was established after the occupation of Palestine. Mizrahi and other Egyptian Jews were part of the Egyptian society. They stood against both the State of Israel and the Zionist movement; also they were proud of being Egyptians. Yet, they were exposed to groundless accusations, which forced Mizrahi to emigrate to Italy, where he stayed until he died and was buried in 1986.

Our Stereotypes

Stereotypes abound, not only in the Egyptian and Arab cinema, but in all the cinemas around the world, where they are shaped according to the country’s culture. These stereotypes became an integral part of the collective consciousness, whether they were directed toward women, professions, religions and those who embrace them, or class. Additionally, there were always stereotype details presented in clothing, profession, speech, social behavior, movement, or outward appearance.   

These stereotypes were susceptible to change, amendment or addition, depending on the politics of the country of production, and its reflection upon the social and psychological characteristics and the vision in which the characters of the film are presented.   

Therefore, we have witnessed some differences regarding the image of Jews in movies before the prevalence of television dramas.   

Jews, as individuals and as a group, were considered a part of the society in the forties just like any other citizens. Nothing distinguishes  the Jews from others in strengths and weaknesses,  other than the dramatic role which he or she  is playing.  For instance, the Jewish woman in Egyptian films, played the role of a music teacher, a seamstress, or a ballet instructor. The Jewish man a member of the middle class who spoke foreign languages who was gracious, or a funny tramp or a lover who was not committed to his family, just like any other actor belonging to a different religion. This non-discriminatory image continued beyond Israel’s occupation of Palestine.  

It was at that point that the Jews’ conditions changed in all Arab countries at all levels; some of them were forced to emigrate to Israel, others emigrated to Europe and the minority among them remained in their native homeland, such as Tunisia, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq.  In movies, the Jews were no longer portrayed as normal citizens but as strangers and co-conspirators with Israel who raised suspicion and distrust.   

New Jewish stereotypes then appeared; it is rare to find a Jew presented in a positive light in Egyptian cinema or any other Arab cinema during that period, despite Jewish Arab citizens remaining  loyal to their native homelands in Tunisia, Morocco, Lebanon or Syria and refusing to join Israel. They viewed Israel as a colonial power whose disastrous effects were felt in their normal lives in their countries, and disfigured their image in the eyes of the rest of society, and destroyed their past and future as Arabs.   

That is why reactions to the Tunisian film by Nuri Bouzid, “Man of Ashes,” were not so strange. This film in particular represented a leap in awareness about the Tunisian Jewish community. It caused a cultural shock for others, especially because it came out three years after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the deportation of Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) offices to Tunisia.

Images After 1956

The main milestones for film and television adaptations were later tied to the feelings of collective confidence prevalent in the production countries in their conflict with Israel, and to the trends set by official censorship systems regarding production, prior to film release. Thus, there have been radical changes in post-1956 images, different from those that followed the 1967 defeat and after that the 1973 war, but it is clear that, during these years, no positive Jewish figure has been presented. Even Charles Samhoun, who gave his name to the Egyptian spy Ra’fat al-Haggan, was highly cultured and had broad horizons, and hoped that al-Haggan would not go to Israel, but rather emigrate to France with him, remained trapped in the framework of the Egyptian Jew, who decided to leave Egypt instead of staying there.

Um Haroun

Today we are going through a heated debate about a Gulf TV series, with an Egyptian director, Bahraini writers, and Kuwaiti, Saudi, Emirati and Egyptian actors, which presents for the first time in the Gulf countries a story about Jews there. Although the series did not tell us in what country events were taking place, angry spectators accused Kuwait once, then Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates at other times. The story tells us nothing except that it is taking place in the Gulf region in the late 1940s and early 1950s when it was subject to the British military presence.Arabs, especially the cultural and political elite, approach the Gulf region and its peoples with conceited stereotypes and consider it void of any cultural progress or any modernism. They see Gulf people as only backward Bedouins, who have nothing to do with civilization. Arabs believe that all Gulf peoples have is oil, which supplies them with the wealth that makes their lives comfortable and luxurious, leaving them having nothing to do with the concerns and causes of the rest of the Arab peoples, in particular the Palestinian issue.Many Arabs are proud to have contributed to the construction of the Gulf countries with their experience and competence in the early 1950s, saying that they arrived in an arid desert where there was no knowledge or progress, and that these people were living in tents, and riding camels until the oil boom polluted their minds and characters, making them look down upon those who offered them their experience, assistance, and knowledge. That reflects that all parties suffer inferiority or superiority complexes.

 Is it strange or dangerous for the nation to include a good Jewish woman, who used to recite the Quran, who loved the people of her village, city or country, who does not support Israel’s occupation of Palestine and opposes those who do?  

It was always easy to attack and criticize Gulf countries for their wealth, and we rarely find among the Arabs someone who has adequate knowledge of the social, cultural and political reality of the Gulf countries. Therefore, as soon as a mistake is committed in the Gulf against an Arab nation or cause, whether by an individual or a state, criticism rises in the entire region along with accusations of interacting with Israel, normalizing and establishing political relations with it.

Unfortunately for the TV drama “Um Haroun”, a few days prior to its airing, a Kuwaiti actress, Hayat al-Fahd, called for ridding the country of foreign workers accusing them of bringing on the coronavirus. Meanwhile, in Lebanon, the authorities refused to let the Palestinian-Lebanese return from the United Arab Emirates to Lebanon, the country that issued their travel documents. Yet we did not hear any voices condemning the Lebanese government’s decision.

Critics blamed Hayat al-Fahd’s statement about Coronavirus to the TV drama, which had not yet been aired, just because it was featuring the lives of the Jews in the Gulf. They escalated their campaign against al-Fahd and the drama crew, and accused them of normalization with the Israelis, while al-Fahd’s statement about the measures to combat Coronavirus became a part of an Israeli plan against the Palestinian cause.

In the episodes that have been aired so far, and I hope that the disapprovers have seen them all so that their judgment on the TV drama is based on an objective view and not political and racial issues, ignorance, and preconceptions about the Gulf and the Jewish Arabs who disapproved of Israel, and supported the Palestinians’ rights as Arab citizens, I found no justification for this uproar about normalization which was fueled by Al-Mayadeen channel, known for being financed by Iran, and to the so-called “Axis of Resistance” who adopted a flawed nationalism.  

In the first episode, we can say that there was a mistake in the news broadcast on the radio about the announcement of the state of Israel from Tel Aviv on Israeli territory, which is not only a political mistake, but a cognitive error that reflects poor research and writing, a thing that may occur in the world’s most important films.   

There was another mistake that did not attract the attention of angry people, which was the statement of one of the figures, the mosque’s imam, who said that the Jews occupied Bayt al-Maqdis, in reference to Al-Aqsa Mosque that was not occupied in 1948 but later in 1967.  

Apart from these shortcomings that indicate the authors’ political ignorance, Um-Harun, despite the naivety of writing and directing, has presented subjects that no Arab visual work has ever tackled before; such as the demonstration condemning the declaration of the State of Israel led by an imam, a priest and a rabbi together against the occupation of Palestine.

Nor did any Arab drama or fiction film propose that Jewish Zionists were the ones who bombed the Jews’ homes and institutions in Arab countries to motivate them to emigrate to Palestine, in support of the emerging State of Israel, as we saw when Ezra, his wife Ra’fqa, the daughter of the chief rabbi, and others, who bombed the house of Isaac the Jew, who opposes the Zionist project, and how the Chief Rabbi, angry at his son-in-law Ezra, asserted that he was born here and lived here and that this is the only country where he wants to live and die, rejecting Ezra’s invitation to travel to Israel.

Then we saw how an English Zionist offered Ezra with any help he needed, and how Ezra stole the money and gold savings of his father-in-law, the chief rabbi, to send them to Israel in support of the state. Um-Haroun is a Jewish Gulf lady, who embraced Islam, married a Muslim, and remained in her country, helping people as a doctor, loved by everyone. She was their confidante, and the only authorized midwife available at every moment to solve their problems.

The drama is crowded with emotional relationships, including the rabbi’s daughter love story with a Muslim young man, who tried to elope, after her father refused their marriage. When they escaped, they were arrested by the British police; she was returned to her family and her fiance Mohammad was detained. There is also a story of a Christian woman who loved a Muslim but married his uncle, after the approval of the priest, hoping to attract the husband’s family to Christianity.  

Where is normalization in all this? Is it strange or dangerous for the nation to include a good Jewish woman, who used to recite the Quran, who loved the people of her village, city or country, who does not support Israel’s occupation of Palestine and opposes those who do?    

Of course, this will not make me forget that the channel which produced the TV drama did so, or so it seems, encouraged by a Gulf political decision to open up to Israel without applying parallel pressure to provide a just solution for the Palestinian issue, while some groups and sects in the Gulf region are still facing discrimination and do not enjoy full citizenship rights.   

But this fact will not eliminate our need to approach the issue of Arab Jews, as well as all other sects and groups in our culture, in a totally new way.   Um-Haroun reminded me of Um-Alabd, or Sara Cohen, who fell in love with a Palestinian young man in Jaffa in 1947 and married him, despite her family’s objection, and after Nakba, they were displaced to Lebanon and lived in Tel Za’tar. She died a few years ago in Qasqas area.There’s also, Um-Muhammad, a Palestinian Jew, who lived her whole life in Lebanon with her Palestinian Muslim husband, although she had relatives in Israel.    These two ladies were some of the characters of my film about Palestinian Jews.

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