A New Film Chronicles the Discrimination Faced by Mizrahi Jews

"The Forgotten Ones" shows the struggles Jews from Arab lands faced upon arriving in Israel.

Michale Boganim is not afraid to push the envelope. The Israeli-French filmmaker is known for her meditations on language, culture, and identity in Israel and the Jewish diaspora, and has made both documentary and narrative features. Her debut feature, “Odessa, Odessa,” chronicled the life of both the Ukrainian city and its Jewish inhabitants as it traced them to the “Little Odessas” of Brooklyn and Ashdod on the Mediterranean coast. Onscreen, Boganim’s cities are characters of their own, their personalities shining through broken windows. Her new documentary, “The Forgotten Ones,” expands on the themes and images that define her life and work.

Boganim’s coming-of-age in Haifa and the suburbs of Paris was tinted by the sting of exclusion. The daughter of an Ashkenazi mother and a father who emigrated to Israel from Morocco in 1965, Boganim’s life developed on the fringes of societies — first Israel, then France — that didn’t know what to make of her or her family: Jewish but from an Arab culture, immigrants in a promised land, ill at ease in three nations that she clamored to call home. “We were always cold,” she says in “The Forgotten Ones,” which deals, in part, with her family’s adjustment to France when they moved there in the 1980s. “We would always be cold.”

“The Forgotten Ones,” which premiered at this year’s Venice Film Festival and plays DOC NYC this month, outlines the struggles that Mizrahi Jews have faced in Israel since its founding, using Boganim’s family to frame a story both personal and political. She addresses her daughter, Maayane, as if writing her a letter as she shows her the different cities and towns that make up the peripheria, the periphery of Israel, once just the dots of transit camps for newly-arrived migrants from Morocco, Algeria, Iraq, and Yemen.

Though emigrants longed to live in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, most Mizrahim, along with Middle Eastern and North African Sephardim, were instead relegated to smaller, isolated places like Ra’anana or Elyakhin, or to the burgeoning, desolate Negev towns of Dimona and Yeruham. One Mizrahi man who grew up in Yeruham tells Boganim of his childhood, “My mother told [new migrants], ‘Don’t get off the truck or you’ll never leave again.’”

The resettlement of Jews from Arab lands in unpopulated areas was not accidental, but part of a governmental campaign to both populate the sparse desert areas of the new country and to ensure that Israel had enough laborers to build these new cities. Boganim, who names the government and the Jewish Agency as actors in this plot of disenfranchisement, did not receive funding from the Israeli Film Commission for “The Forgotten Ones” because of her forthrightness.

“I was supported by France to do the film in the beginning,” she says of the production process, adding that her team eventually received post-production funding from Israel. She’s not the only Mizrahi artist or activist telling these stories for wider audiences, and doesn’t think that Israel will be able to wish away the attention the stories receive any longer. “The film opened in Venice, so they cannot deny that [the story] is important.”

While the stories in the film are part of the fabric of Israeli society, they’re often drowned out by a popular culture dominated by Ashkenazi stories or stories of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Discrimination against Mizrahi, Sephardic, Ethiopian, or Indian Jews may be watered down in mainstream stories, such as in the popular TV series “Shtisel,” when an Ashkenazi character’s courtship with an Algerian girl causes friction that’s summarized as the family liking “their fish a bit spicier than we do.”

But other stories of systemic inequity may not reverberate beyond the Israeli press. Yoav Laloum, a Haredi Moroccan-Algerian lawyer featured in Boganim’s film, has been fighting ethnic discrimination in religious schools since he faced it himself as a child. When his father tried to enroll him in second grade, the principal told both of them, “‘I have one place left, but it’s not for a black [sic].’” Now, Laloum focuses on discrimination in Orthodox schools for girls, describing scenarios that echo twentieth-century American school segregation. At one Bais Yaakov school, Laloum describes the forced isolation between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi classmates that tore apart friendships and psychologically scarred the students: “They created two entrances, with a barrier in the yard.” (“The Forgotten Ones” does not mention that the town where this conflict erupted, Immanuel, is an illegal settlement in the West Bank.) Like Boganim, Laloum shines a light on these discriminatory instances in the hopes that his own children will not have to shoulder the same burdens.

Throughout the film, Boganim frames her subjects on the periphery of their surroundings, emphasizing the disconnect between people and the places in which they live. As they tell the stories of their lives, Boganim focuses on their shadows, their hands, the backs of their heads. “I wanted to film one character in one city, and to frame the person within the environment,” Boganim says.

A reprieve from this style comes when we meet Shlomi Hatuka, a Yemenite Jewish activist from Elyakhin who coaxes confessional stories out of elderly Yemenite women whose children or siblings have been lost for generations. Women in post-1948 transit camps found their infants and toddlers stolen from them under the guise of medical treatment and were later told that they had died; many were instead put up for adoption for Ashkenazi families in what is now known as the Yemenite Children Affair. This section of the film features Yemenite women addressing the camera head-on as they recall the stories of their lost children and their hesitancy to discuss their pain over the years. “With these women, they were not characters within a city,” Boganim says of the distinction. “I wanted to be really close to them, to be like a confidante. They are framed differently because I wanted to get close to them and to get close with their story.”

Boganim exposes these stories in her work not only to draw further attention to pieces of lost history, but also to understand the framework of her own family and culture. She’s not worried about backlash from the mainstream film culture in Israel — her next feature, a narrative about the Israeli-Lebanese war, was filmed in Cyprus for that very reason — and hopes that her work can help frame Israel’s internal issues as part of a worldwide conversation on welcoming the stranger.

“I think that there are mistakes that have been done with immigrants in Israel, like in every country. It’s not something different, in a way,” Boganim says. “It’s a universal subject, specific to immigration in general. It’s quite universal.”

The Forgotten Ones is streaming online through DOC NYC Nov. 15-28.

Mia J Merrill

Amelia Merrill (she/her) is a New York-based journalist and theatre artist originally from Baltimore, Maryland. She is a contributing writer at AwardsWatch.com and is a graduate of Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. Her work has appeared in American Theatre magazine, Shondaland, Bitch Media, Bright Wall/Dark Room, Narratively, and Screen Queens, among others.

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