With thanks: Elder of Ziyon
Kamal Hachkar is an unusual man who set himself an unusual task.
A Muslim Berber, he was born in the town of Tinghir in the Atlas mountains of Morocco, although brought up in France. Judeo-Berber communities go back to ancient history, and pre-date the Arab invasion by centuries. Jews dominated commercial life in the town – all but three shops in the market were owned by Jews. All left in the late 1950s and early 1960s for Israel.
Hachkar decided to search out his family’s former Jewish neighbours and record his journey on film. The upshot was a French-language documentary shown at the New York Sephardic Film Festival, Les Echos des Mellah. Here is a 5-minute snippet with English subtitles. Hachkar wants to follow it up with another film, taking his family’s Jewish neighbours back to Tinghir.
The film has been hailed as an essay in Jewish-Muslim coexistence. It is a valiant attempt to educate Moroccan Muslims who didn’t know that Jews lived among them, let alone for milennia. Hachkar brings together Jews and Muslims who knew each other by name, who worked together, who cried when the time came to leave.
It is touching that Hachkar made the effort to learn Hebrew in order to greet Moroccan Jews in Israel like long-lost friends. The conflict between Jews and Arabs in Palestine seems like an abstraction, a product of the inexorable sweep of forces beyond their control. The conflict is independent of the affection and harmony reigning between fellow Chleurs (Berbers).
We are told that Berber Jews and Muslims supported each other against common enemies in Morocco. (No mention of the fact that Berber tribes also could, and did, attack and loot Jewish Mellahs). “There was no antisemitism”, says one Israeli Moroccan (no mention that the most fanatical Muslims of all were the Berber Almohades in the Middle Ages). An old Jewess could not stop repeating, as she kissed her fingers in Hachkar’s direction: “Muslims are good people!”
So if life was so harmonious – why did they leave? One woman admits that relationships changed with the neighbours after Israel won the 1948 war. “They didn’t say good morning to us any more,” she said. But such cracks as appeared in the good neighbourly relations are papered over by tearful encounters between Hachkar and nostalgic Tinghir Jews, whose rusty Berber tongue has by now became peppered with Hebrew words.
But there is more to this film than meets the eye. The credits reveal that the documentary was sponsored by the “Fondation Hassan II pour les Marocains residant a l’Etranger”. The message is that Jewish Berbers living in impersonal Israeli apartment blocks in Yavne are ‘in exile’ from their real homeland. Their place is really in Morocco.
Hachkar acknowledges that Judeo-Berber life is no more, “mais quand il y a un autre on peut savoir qui l’on est.” This is a re-statement of the Sartrian idea that Jewish existence is defined by the Other. Take away the Other, and Jewish identity collapses. The implication is that Jewish life in Israel is hollow, lonely and unfulfilling without the Muslim neighbour.
In the end, however, Hachkar is on a hiding to nothing, trapped in a timewarp of generational nostalgia. Only the elderly immigrants in Israel – those with least to offer and to gain from their new country – still feel attached to Tinghir. The hovels they lived in, the poverty and disease, are beyond romanticisation. The younger generation no longer speak Berber or remember the folk songs. Apart from anything else, young Israelis of Moroccan origin will not exchange their washing machines for a hard existence only a little less primitive than it was in their parents’ day.
Hachkar is a brave man to try and mend the deep and affectionate historic ties between Berber Jews and Muslims, but even he is becoming a victim of the inexorable sweep of historical forces outside his control. Already he is being accused of‘normalisation’ *with Israel. Coexistence is not a question of good interpersonal relationships, it is ultimately all about politics.