Issue 04 /
November 2012 Focus

The Memory of North African Jews in the Diaspora

DOI : 10.48248/issn.2037-741X/796

In the following contribution, I will approach in three steps the construction of memory by North-African Jews in the Diaspora. I will first trace the history and historiography of Jews in Arab countries and point out their characteristics. This will lead me to look more precisely at the concept of “Sephardic Jews,” its meaning and application as a key-notion in the memory building for Jews from Arab countries in the Diaspora nowadays. As literature and filmmaking hold a crucial role in the perception and transmission of memory,1 I will then present the works of two Jewish women artists, one living in France and the other living in Quebec, both with North African origins. I will try to show how they use the past for identity (de-)construction and compare their approaches. I choose the two examples because they illustrate two extremely opposed positions concerning the role of cultural identity. Standing in the intersection of history and literary studies, my interdisciplinary work considers literary and film as memory archives and subjective representations of the past not as historical sources. In referring to Jews in Arab countries this means in my article more precisely to look at the North-African Jews. That is why my article treats the following aspects:

1. Jews in Arab lands. A Historiographical Overview

2. A Special Case: “Sephardic Jews”

3. Jews from Arab Lands in the Diaspora

4. Conclusion

1. Jews in Arab Lands. A Historiographical Overview

In 1975, the Tunisian writer Albert Memmi asked the rhetorical question: “What is an Arab Jew?” He answered himself with a clear rejection of an overly idealistic vision of Jews and Arabs living in close proximity: 

Ah, what a lovely term! It even made us secretly nostalgic; yes, of course we were Arab Jews, or Jewish Arabs, in our customs, our culture, our music, our cooking … I have said so often enough in writing, but must one remain an Arab Jew if that means having to tremble for one’s life and the future of one’s children? If it means being denied any existence of one’s own? (…) All right, I can see I’ll have to put it more bluntly: the supposedly “idyllic” life led by Jews in Arab countries is all a myth! The truth – since I am being forced to say it – is that we were, first of all, a minority in hostile surroundings and, as such, we had all the fears and anxieties of the overly weak, their constant feeling of precariousness.2

In a footnote to his text, Memmi points out that the term “Jewish Arabs” or “Arab Jews” is wrong, in so far as it supposes the simultaneous existence of the Jews in one country with a mainly homogeneous Arab population. But Jews were in these countries long before the Arab invasion. The term Arab is no more accurate, applied to such a diverse population, including those who call themselves, and believe themselves to be, Arabs.

One can distinguish different periods concerning Jewish presence and existence in the part of the world now under Arab and Muslim influence. Before the existence of Islam, Jews already lived in the Mediterranean area and in North Africa. The exact dating of their first presence in North Africa is unclear, but we find traces of Jews living there under Roman domination, as evidenced by Hebrew funeral inscriptions on stones among the ruins of Volubilis, near Meknès, in Morocco.

The historiography of Jews in Arab lands was first chronicled by French historians and it reflected Western cultural perceptions and ideology. As an example: in order to find the real roots of the Berber-Arab conflict, French historians stressed the myth of the Berber-Jewish princess Kahena who successfully resisted Arab invaders over a long period. “While it is not at all certain that al-Kahina was actually Jewish, this story plays an important role in shaping the historical experience of the Jews of the Maghreb in modern times,” because it “granted legitimacy to the feeling of alienation felt by many Jews of the colonial period toward the Arab population – an attitude that accorded with the anti-Arab orientation of French colonial policy and historiography.”3 From the Muslim conquest onward, the vast majority of Oriental Jews lived under Islam, which was established at one time or another in almost all Arab countries.

As Michel Abitbol shows in his overview of the historiography of Jews in Arab lands, not all European studies written about Jews during French colonisation were inspired by extraneous or non-professional considerations. Among them were French Jewish as well as non-Jewish scholars. In general, it appears that the non-Jewish scholars of the Maghreb were most interested in Moroccan Jewry. The quality of these works is uneven. In 1965, Hayim Zeev Hirschberg published his comprehensive two-volume historical study of North African Jewry. But it was first published in Hebrew and therefore had only a limited audience before it was translated into English.4

Since then, an increasing number of scholars from English-speaking countries, Israel, and the Maghreb have been attracted to the historical study of North Africa in general, and Jewry in particular. But as Abitbol resumes in his article, contemporary Israeli scholars and some of their colleagues abroad, both Jews and non-Jews have differed sharply:

non-Israeli scholars tend to paint Jewish-Muslim relations in terms of ‘coexistence’ or a ‘symbiosis’, some of them going so far as to attribute all of the anti-Jewish outbursts occurring in the Maghreb over the past hundred years to external factors such as imperialism, colonialism, and Zionism. Israeli scholars, for their part (even those not diametrically opposed to that view), emphasize the fact that during the modern period, the Jews, for a variety of political and cultural reasons, ceased to regard themselves as an integral part of the history of the lands in which they had lived for centuries. Thus, in their view, in not participating in their home countries’ struggle for independence, the Jews distanced themselves from the fate of the North African peoples and, subsequently, willingly departed from the Maghreb along with the colonial powers that had ruled the region since 1830.5

As Abitbol also points out, historians in western countries and in Israel today focus on issues that colonial historiography has played down or ignored, such as the Algerian Jews’ lack of enthusiasm for French citizenship, for example. On the other hand, the Arab historiography of the Jewish history in Arab lands is also quite obviously influenced by historical context, when it was written, and the author’s ideological visions. That is the reason why 

the rise of Zionism and the emergence of the state of Israel, the modern and contemporary era is by far the most thoroughly discussed topic among Arab historians of Judaism. […] the Jews are depicted as the deus ex machina of a vast global plot, a people who, since the end of the 18th century, have sought to destroy Islamic civilization by any and all means, whether on their own or in collusion with the Christians.6


2. A Special Case: “Sephardic Jews”

Abitbol’s article shows very clearly the mechanism which rules the construction of historiography on each side, be it reconstructed by non-Jews, Jews or Muslims. Events are explained through the mirror of self interest and perception frames. This also concerns the way Jewish Diaspora is represented. For Mark Cohen, the “World Jewry can be divided into two parts, “the Jews of Islam” and “the Jews of Christendom,” or to Jews living ‘under the crescent’ and Jews living ‘under the cross.’ As he himself remarks, this distinction overlooks that the Sephardic Jews of Spain are historically related to the Jews of Christendom, since they descend from those expelled from Catholic Spain in 1492. That is why Mark Cohen considers that, “In terms of the crescent-cross scheme, the Sephardim constitute a third entity, bearing similarities to both the Jews under the crescent and the Jews under the cross.”7

Shmuel Trigano opposes the Sephardic world to the Ashkenazi world because of the different context in which the Jews lived.8 For Shmuel Trigano, Jewish civilization has been marked most strongly during the Sephardic period. This influence transformed the Sephardic identity and opened it to the European North. When they where persecuted, some decided to emigrate to the north, to Western Europe (Holland and England, but also to Germany), while others went to the Ottoman Empire.

In order to find distinguishing elements that characterize the “Sefarad,” Trigano comes to a contradictory result. If it is true that each exile situation transformed and marked the exiled, we can no longer refer to ‘a Jewish identity’ which is culturally or religiously homogeneous. It is more accurate to refer to each situation and look at the differences instead of stressing a homogeneity that does not exist. Behind the vision of a unit “la civilisation sépharade” stands a concept of cultural identity which creates a sharp contrast to the Ashkenazi Jews. By comparing, one creates a hierarchy and the differences in historical experiences are taken as absolute. But in the same way that Jews who were expelled from Spain and then settled in Greece were transformed by their experience, others who went through different experiences were transformed in another way.

The notion of “Sephardic identity” suggests the idea of unity, of resemblance within an ethnic group. Even if we distinguish a religious and cultural existence and say that it is the religious aspect (let us call it the specific Sephardic Jewishness) which remained stable during the Diaspora, the reality is much more complicated, as Peter Medding observes:

For example, prior to their immigration, were Sephardic Jews in the Asian-African countries religiously and culturally Jewish? Or were they religiously Jewish and culturally something else, be it Moroccan and/or French and/or western, as the case may be? Or indeed, were they, as some would argue, religiously Jewish and culturally Arab? And subsequent to their settlement in Israel, were they religiously and culturally Jewish? Or where they religiously Jewish and culturally something else, be it Israeli and/or Moroccan and/or Arab? Or indeed, were they religiously and culturally, something else, say, humanistic, secular, and democratic?9

As these questions demonstrate, the Diaspora is characterized by a complex process as a result of migration and the specific historical situation leading to religious and cultural transcultural modification and hybridism. That does not mean that there are no resemblances in the differences and no hierarchies, but they are the result of concrete historical and socio-economic situations that can be described and analysed in a critical spirit. For example: 

In general, it is admitted, that Jews in Arab lands enjoyed greater security and a higher level of political and cultural integration than Jews living under the cross did. […] The living under the crescent in the Arab-Muslim world, notably in Muslim Spain, was strikingly different from that of the Jews under the cross. In the Arab-Muslim world of the Middle Ages, German-Jewish historians found tolerance, acceptance of Jews as peers…10

It was the modern academic discipline of Judaic studies in nineteenth-century Germany, the Wissenschaft des Judentums movement, with their founding fathers – Leopold Zunz, Moritz Steinschneider, Abraham Geiger, Salomon Munk, and Heinrich Graetz – who created the notion of “the Golden Age of Spain,” because “they were particularly impressed by the rich and original literature in poetry and philosophy produced by Andalusian Jews. They were also struck by the Sephardim’s high degree of cultural assimilation.”11

As Ruth Tolédano-Attias shows us in her article about how Jewish historians in the 19th century perceived the “Sefarad,” this understanding of the past was largely influenced by the 19th century concept of an imagined union of ideological forces which in fact were divided. Or to quote Toledano-Attias : “in order to encourage the emancipation and regeneration of the German and Occidental Judaism, the European Jews invoked the Sephardic cultural heritage in order to reconnect the European Judaism to the history of the Sephardic Jews in the middle ages in a moment when the two groups in fact had no real contact.”12

This movement has to be seen in the 19th century context: in order to form arguments in favour of their integration into society, as well as their emancipation and also in reaction to the spread of anti-Semitic and nationalist ideology in that time, German Jewish intellectuals used the Sephardic paradigm to prove that they are part of a people which has shown, in the past, that it was able to integrate and assimilate very well and, what’s more, that it could contribute to the scientific and cultural revival of the society in which they lived. Therefore, the parallel the German Jews made between themselves and Sephardic Jews aimed to promote a fruitful exchange between Jews and Germans. The mystification of the past has inherent reasons linked to the concrete situation of German Jews, who were in fact not fully interested in the real situation of “Oriental” Jews. Looking at the German historiography of that time, Tolédano-Attias remarks that in the first book presenting Jewish history, written by Issak Jost, one finds only ten pages about “Die Sefardim,” which refers only to Spanish Jews. African and Oriental Jews are ignored.13 This dominant interest for the “Golden Age,” the period of the so-called medieval “convivencia” and the lack of interest in all other periods of Jews and Arabs living together characterizes German Jewish historiography up to today. This can partially be explained by the dominance of Shoah studies, but is also has to do with a certain lack of interest outside of Europe in Sephardic history.

The same process of using the past to stimulate interest is at work in the creation of the “myth of Sephardic supremacy” used by Sephardic Jews. According to this view, the most admirable Jews in history were those living first in Arab, and then in Christian, Spain. Rational and cultured, these Jews were integrated into Gentile society. They were superior to the irrational, ultra-religious, insular Ashkenazi, or Yiddish-speaking Jews of Eastern Europe. This historiographical construct corresponds to the self-perception of some Sephardic Jews even today. Let us therefore have a look at France.


3. Jews from Arab Lands in the Diaspora 

Literature as “lieu de mémoire”14 of Sephardic identity in France

In a very clear analysis of the recently observed process of Sephardic Jewish identity construction in France, Solange M. Guénoun points out that there is a tendency of Jews who left Muslim countries after the end of colonisation and came to Western countries to auto-define themselves as “Sephardic Jews.” She is right to characterize this as a very complex, strange and surprising process which needs to be looked at more precisely. The notion or concept of “sepharadité” denominates, on the one hand, Jews from the Iberian Peninsula who settled in the Ottoman and Balkan regions after their expulsion from Spain. On the other hand, she refers to a wider community, a sépharade world which goes back to ancient times and covers very different exile experiences. 

Guénoun shows that the so-called Sephardic Jews living in the French Diaspora (and this is the same for the francophone Québec), realize that, in order to know more about their own history and “identity,” they have to go through historical, sociological, and ethno-anthropological works written in Israel and in Hebrew. This means relying on translations and mediators such as Esther Benbassa and Shmuel Trigano. Following Guénon, their works are not free of ideological orientations. She criticizes the tendency to highlight the differences between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, as well as between Jews with Spanish origins who lived in the Balkans to those who lived on the other side of the Mediterranean in Arab lands.15 And she complains that no serious study on Sephardic Jews in France exists. And finally there is the conflict between the Arab and Jewish descendants of postcolonial migration from the Maghreb, regardless of whether or not they have the experience of French colonization in common. What makes it difficult for the Maghreb Jews and Muslims to share a common history is the fact of their mutual humiliation. On the one hand, Jews have been dominated by the Muslim majority and treated as “dhimmi” throughout the centuries but, on the other hand, their status changed with French colonization at the end of the 19th century. The French Jews created a network of schools, and the Alliance Israélite Universelle beginning in Tétouan in Morocco in 1860, aimed at improving their situation through education and the French language. That gave them a better status and supported their economic and political influence, such that the relation between the two groups was transformed. With the idea of Jewish emancipation and political integration as it was practised in Europe, the former “dhimmis” could profit by adopting the French language and culture. Victims of racism and discrimination by the French colonial system, their Muslim neighbours went through experiences Jews had known in the past. But the experience of what it means to be dominated did not necessarily contribute to more solidarity.

Instead of being aware of their shared historical experience as subjects of French colonial politics, they have perceived each other as enemies. Whereas the second or third generation of Muslim immigrants claim the status of victims and this is reflected through literature, films and other media, the specific Jewish experience is not yet visible in the same way. For the Ashkenazi Jews who immigrated to France, Sephardic Jews are “Oriental” and uncivilized, coming from a barely civilized region of the south.

The postcolonial designation ‘sépharade’ has two significations depending on how you look at it. This denotation evokes two bodies which are separated but also united: on the one hand the Maghrebian Jew who is not really Sephardic (in the classical meaning of being of Spanish origin), and the Sephardic Jew who is not really ‘Maghrebian’ (which means immigrant with Arab-Muslim origins). In both cases this reflects a genealogical and hierarchical, neo-colonial view of the ‘European’ Jew, looking down on the Arab-Jews (or oriental, ‘Masrahi’ in Hebrew), who never left Africa or the Middle East, or on the Africans and Arabs in general, who missed a revolution, an emancipation.16

On the other hand, and partly in reaction to that negative image, there exists a self-perception of the Sephardic Jews as being the original, real and true Jews. The novel “Sépharade” from the French writer Eliette Abécassis is the most evident illustration of a literary attempt to re-construct Sephardic identity and an elitist vision of Moroccan Jews living in France today.17 

The example of Eliette Abécassis novel “Sépharade”

Published in 2009, it is a family saga in which Esther Vital, a young woman born in France and living in Strasbourg, pursues her identity. This is embedded in the story of different generations of Moroccan Jews from Meknes, Fes and Mogador, all representing different aspects of Moroccan Jewish history and life. The novel is divided into two parts and several books (thereby imitating the structure of holy texts). The first book introduces the plot: we witness Esther Vitals family, her sentimental life, and as she prepares for marriage. The second part of the book evokes, in an artificial and constructed way, the history of Sephardic life as experienced by different family members, as well as in the personal experiences of Esther Vital. The narrator combines individual and collective history, going back to when the Jews lived in Spain during the so-called “Golden Age.” As Esther Vital gets married with Charles Toledano in Tel Aviv, this is an occasion for family members to meet and reveal many hidden family stories. This narrative construction frames the plot. In the second part of the novel, each chapter presents another family member whose story is linked to the general story of Sephardic Jews and to the rest of the family. We learn hereby that there is a magical familial bond: during the night preceding the wedding of both Esther’s mother and grandmother, some dramatic event causes the cancellation of the marriage. By introducing this superstitious and irrational element in the novel, the author refers to cultural elements which are specific to Moroccan Jewish culture. The belief in witches and demonic forces such as “djinns” and the “sad eye,” both still frequent in Morocco, are remnants of archaic practices still shared by Jews and Arabs.

In some respect, the description of Esther Vital’s family confirms all the stereotypes about Sephardic Moroccan Jews, such as the burden of tradition and of patriarchal structures. The family-clan’s interference in her life is another obstacle for Esther as she searches for an autonomous life, or her “identity,” as she calls it. Trying to find an appropriate partner, Esther meets various men. Artificial literary creatures, these characters have no other value in the novel than to illustrate their being far from the remarkable exclusivity of Sephardic Judaism; it is impossible for Esther to have a relationship with any of them. There is (in the order of their appearance): a French Ashkenazi Jew from Alsace, who sings much too loud and expressively on Shabbat; a French secularized Jew who rejects religion; a left-wing Israeli; a much too German “Yekke;” and a French Orthodox Jew who tries in vain to radicalize her. Before meeting Charles Toledano (the right one, as he is Sephardic), she passes through other love affairs no less burlesque, including one with Paul Sebbag, who turns out to have a non-Jewish mother and is therefore no longer a contender for her heart and another one with a “goy,” who is unacceptable because he criticizes Israeli politics. Her last experience with an American Ashkenaze from New York, reported in a whole chapter entitled “Ashkenaze,” also ends in drama and reveals to her that the differences between Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews are simply too great. Over two pages, Esther gives a detailed list of the differences that divide them, using a couple of stereotypes to disadvantage the Ashkenazi Jews: 

She told herself that Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews could never understand each other. They did not have the same conception of life. […] The Ashkenazi Jews could hardly express and even feel their emotions. They were intellectual, cold and rational. The Sephardic Jews were very emotional and switched constantly from laughter to tears, from tenderness to drama, if not psychodrama. The Ashkenazi Jews were not affectionate, the Sephardic, melted in feelings and sensations like oriental sweets under the sun and everything was an argument for sentimental confessions. The Ashkenazi did not like to eat […] they were avaricious […] solitary…18 

The striking exaggerated generalization, including even the anti-Semitic cliché that Jews are avaricious demonstrates the central failing of the novel. It becomes obvious that the author follows the idea that there is something to be proved: the superiority of Sephardic Jews. Furthermore, the text shifts from chatty passages obviously based on historical research to more fictional but no less redundant stories. During a trip to Spain, in Toledo, Esther meets Pedro Alvarez, a Spanish scholar specialized in Spanish Jewish history. He identifies her spontaneously and only by looking at her as a descendant of the Spanish Jews. Her physical appearance proves her Spanish Jewish origin. Referring to her name, he tells her the story of the biblical Queen Esther who - in order to save the Jews - revealed to her husband, the Persian King Assuerus, that she was herself a Jew. For Esther Vital, this confrontation with the historical Esther’s story is crucial. The story of hidden identity and the definite positioning on the side of the persecuted both echo her own difficulty of knowing where she belongs. In the novel’s prologue, her father Moïse Vital meditates on identity and its multiple aspects. For him, identity is the result of historical and geographical factors; it exists through transmission and is determined by tradition. It is also in this way that Esther Vital interprets the story of Queen Esther. She stands for the founding myth of the Jewish people, and is the incarnation of Jewish faith. Bearing the same name, Esther takes this concordance as a sign from destiny and views it too as legacy:

Esther is the ancestor of all Jews to come, between mask and truth, between life and death, between the proud of belonging to this nation and being ashamed, between assimilation and faithfulness. That was the destiny her parents had chosen for her more or less consciously by naming her Esther.19 

Pedro Alvarez also tells the story of persecution and forced conversions, the existence of crypto-Jews and their migration throughout Europe. Among their descendants, there were luminaries as Montaigne, Spinoza and Therese d’Avila, who all contributed to European culture. They are presented in the novel as origins of European identity: “Because the genius of the “Marranos” inspired the European identity; the Marranic movement has been in the beginning of the universal and humanistic thinking of Montaigne. […] You are ‘Marranos’ until today, said Pedro Alvarez, Spanish without homeland.”20

For Esther, everything seems determined through her origins and is influenced by destiny and other invisible forces. At the end of the novel, she rejects marriage to Charles Toledano. The significance of this spectacular turn in the novel is unclear. The incredible story of her sexual relationship to Noam Bouzaglo - a cousin who turns out to be her brother – in the night before her wedding, is far-fetched. The end is quite as fabulous and dramatic, evoking the imminent demise of the Sephardic world and is spoken in the voice of Esther’s grandmother: “Today we are in danger …. We are all threatened of losing ourselves. This is the moment of the end of our world, the end of our culture. Everybody is responsible, we especially. We are the last one, Moïse, we are the last Sephardic!”21

Behind this vision we find a very old-fashioned but nevertheless much en vogue concept of identity. It is looked at as something stable and which will persist. But the Jews living in Spain added new elements to their former identity and they were thereby transformed. In the same way, Jews who found exile in Morocco after 1492 added other elements to their identity (take the example of the “haketia,” a linguistic transformation of the Judeo-Spanish into a new and specific Moroccan language). All this contributed to a rich cultural diversity. Why then claim to fix a certain moment in history (now) and freeze identity, pretending that this final status must be preserved? In a world characterized by migration and cultures intermingling, identities are constantly in flux, creating new forms and new identities.

The nostalgic lament for a lost “paradise” of well-defined identity can be found in many texts of Sephardic francophone writers, be it in France, Israel or in Québec. There is a striking difference between them and the older generation, such as the Tunisian author Albert Memmi or the Moroccan Edmon El Maleh, who seem to be much more aware of identity’s complexity and the interconnection of Arab and Jewish culture. This evolution can be partially explained by the conflict between Arabs and Israel in the Middle East, which seems to affect and radicalize literature. That could explain the tendency in many novels written by Jews in Diaspora to prove through the evocation of historical events and myths the legitimacy of the existence of the State of Israel. This is the country of all hopes, desires and projections. For Esther Vital, in search of identity, it is the final destination: “In France she felt weightless. In Israel she was in her place in some way. Her roots were in Europe, in Africa, in Morocco, but it had been the vicissitudes of life that had brought her to her veritable origin, Israel, land of the ancestors, her ancestors. In Israel she felt at home.”22

During her stay in Israel, she visits the archeological site of Massada, the most important symbol for Jewish revolt against Roman occupation. The story of the courageous resistance of a minority of Jewish rebels against an overwhelming majority of Roman soldiers constitutes one of the basic myths of the modern Israeli state: “Massada was the symbol of Israel, country fortress, besieged of all parts by those who waited only for its fall – or its collective suicide.”23 Here, as in the rest of the novel, Eliette Abécassis insists on the conflicts and the differences. It seems evident that there is no possible dialogue or understanding between members of different groups. There is no discussion about opposed views; Arabs do not even appear in her novel.

Identity trouble in Québec : Michka Saäl’s film “L’arbre qui dort rêve à ses racines” (1992)

Among the approximately 300,000 Jews who lived in Morocco in the first half of the 20th century, the majority went to Israel after 1948. The exile movement corresponded to different historical periods and events, such as the creation of the state of Israel in 1948; the independence of Morocco in 1956; and the Israeli-Arab wars in the 1960s. In Israel, Moroccan Jews were generally considered a backward people by the dominant Ashkenazi Jews. The process of stigmatisation recalls partially what we already observed within the French context. They were labelled “Mizraḥi,” or Oriental Jews, which reflects the general negative stereotype perception of them resembling to the Arabs they had left behind. Their social and economic situation was poor and they often were victims of discrimination and exploitation, causing many to leave Israel for a second exile. Whereas the Algerian Jews were treated as French citizens and therefore could leave Algeria (following independence) and settle in France in the same way French “pied-noir” did, Moroccan Jews did not have this option. As the aliyah to the Holy Land turned out to be a nightmare for many of them, the first generation of Moroccan immigrants in Israel radicalized both politically and religiously.

About 100,000 Jews live today in Québec, the francophone province of Canada which counts 7 million inhabitants. The majority of these Jews are Anglophone and Ashkenazi (like the Jews in the rest of Canada); the Sephardic minority has about 20,000 French-speaking citizens. Eighty per cent are of Moroccan origin, and the rest come from Egypt, Lebanon, Iran and other Middle Eastern countries. In the last twenty years, the Moroccan Jewish community began to develop a particular self-image emphasizing their unique heritage in contrast to other minorities as well as to the Quebecers’ of French origins.

To understand the specific nature of Québec, we have to consider its particular status as a francophone “island” in the Anglophone Canadian “Ocean.” As a result of the wars between France and Great Britain in North America, Québec is the only state in the Canadian federation where French is the official language and with Catholicism as the corresponding official state religion. In order to avoid being swallowed by Anglophone Protestant Canada, Québec’s government welcomes and encourages immigration from other French-speaking nations in order to increase their numbers. That’s why the francophone Maghreb Jewish minority is valued by political leaders. Because of this political impact, the Moroccan Jews chose the French camp and not the English. Paradoxically, this means that they relate to the colonial part of their linguistic and cultural heritage and neglect the more complex Arab, Berber and Spanish origins and influences. They use the term “Sefarad” above all to distinguish themselves from other Jews, the Ashkenazi. As to the Spanish influence in their Moroccan past, there is only a small community of Moroccan Jews in Québec who try to maintain cultural elements such as the Haketia, the Judeo-Spanish language transformed through Moroccan influence and a particular literary form, the romancero.24

Nevertheless, adopting French culture and thereby embracing the idea of emancipation, modernisation and integration means a certain schizophrenia for the Moroccan Jewish Community, as it was the French Vichy-Regime which failed these principles by persecuting them. But as we have already seen, self perception and identity construction is linked to external factors and it corresponds more to how a group wants to be perceived and how it perceives itself rather than to reality.

By going in exile, cultural patterns and customs can be transformed and a new identity can be developed. But in the case of Moroccan Jews in Québec, who live mostly in Montréal, we observe the tendency of fossilisation and “folklorisation” of their culture, instead of a transformation. They try to find affirmation in an identity which is nothing other than a projection into the past. And this past is discovered or imagined once in exile as the writer Bob Oré Abitbol shows in his novel Le goût des confitures:

Naturally, there were similarities between us, a very oriental way to see things, to feel them. But we were not really Moroccans; we became Moroccans later, in other countries, under other skies. There we had to assume an identity which had never been ours. At home we had been Jews of Morocco. In Québec we became Moroccan Jews, des ‘sépharadistes.’25 

This quotation illustrates very well that our identity is always the result of a relationship to others and that one eternal identity does not exist. In looking back to the past, we define life and reconstruct our identity in a certain way. We use memory in order to confirm our vision.

But this is not written in stone, as the process can also be an opportunity to be aware of errors, to correct our perception and to transform our beliefs. That demands that we see, understand and respect other positions. In the context of what interests us here, the memory of Jews in Arab lands, it means to understand the historical context which determined the Arab-Jewish relationship today. There are some artists of Sephardic origin in Québec who practice this approach, in contrast to the mainly nostalgic tendency. Among them, we find a Tunisian Jewish filmmaker, Michka Saäl, whose film “L’arbre qui dort rêve à ses racines” (1992)26 stands out among the artistic works of North African Jews living in Québec. Her film is outstanding in so far as she perceives and describes a shared Arab-Jewish past.

It is difficult to find more details on the life and work of this film director. Born in Tunisia in 1949, Michka Saäl arrived in Québec in 1979. There, she studied filmmaking at the University of Montreál. In 1992, she made her first documentary “L’arbre qui dort rêve à ses raciness,” produced by the Office National du Film (ONF) and presented at several festivals in Europe and in the Middle East. In the standard work on Québec’s cinema, Janis L. Pallister presents it as a film about Jewish life and “notably as a film of unusual beauty by a new guard, neo-Canadian woman director.”27

Her first film “La position de l’escargot”, a co-production with France, was shown in Québec and in France before being presented in Europe and Asia. There are some recurring themes which link the films of Michka Saäl: travelling in space and time, between the present country and the memory of the past. Her documentary, “Zero tolerance” (2004) deals with the relationship between Montréal’s police and young male immigrants – the film director tries to treat the different cultures in Québec society “from a feminist, pacifist, and humanistic viewpoint.”28 Her last film “Prisonniers de Beckett” (2006), a French-Canadian co-production was selected by the independent cinema association in 2007 for the Cannes festival and received the “Gemini Award” from Anglophone Canadian television.

“L’Arbre qui dort rêve à ses racines” shows the difficulties of two young immigrant women in Québec: Nadine Ltaif, a poet of Lebanese origin and Michka Saäl, the Tunisian film director. Their friendship is explored here in terms of how one can transcend the insurmountable conflicts between Jews and Arabs. The film begins with an epilogue: the story of the origins of the two people as it is told in the Old Testament. Abraham had two sons: Ismail with Agar, the Arab servant of his wife Sarah, and then Isaac with Sarah, who first seemed infertile. The film tells the story of immigration to Québec through individual examples. The filmmaker presents her own painful experiences. She is the main character of her film and appears in front of the camera, talking directly to the audience. She relates how she was interviewed by an immigration service agent. In doing so, she creates a very personal and intimate atmosphere as she speaks to the viewer as a friend.29

The film’s main subject is the experience of migration and the relation to the others. The shock provoked by migration is illustrated by the contrast between images of the filmmaker’s peaceful childhood in Tunisia among family members and the winter in Québec with mountains of snow on the Mont-Royal in Montréal. Michka Saäl presents immigrants from different origins: she shows interviews with a German woman, a Tunisian Arab, a couple of North African Jews, all men and women from the first and second generation, who tell stories of identity, integration, assimilation and cultural difference. This kaleidoscope of witnesses is supplemented by very poetic images which demonstrate the cultural diversity of Québec’s society without neglecting complex issues, namely the traumatic experience of migration and the loss of evidence and identity. These questions are treated very concretely and poetically in interviews using a special aesthetic form and particular images. There are no simple answers. Immigrant relations in Québec among immigrants are portrayed in all their complexity.

The main focus of the film concerns the relationship between Michka Saäl and Nadine Ltaif and their situation as immigrant women. At first, we see them looking at personal documents and photos. Whereas Michka Saäl remembers her happy childhood on the Tunisian seaside, for Nadine Ltaif looking back means remembering war in Lebanon. We see the traumatic consequences of the past, and the panic they suffer. It seems that their friendship and their connection to the past and present (they are women artists who deal with their life through their work) can spark the possibility for cohabitation. The tree with its silent power, “l’arbre qui rêve à ses racines, même s’il dort,” becomes the symbol of their friendship and their new life in Québec. At the end of the film, the two women sitting at the bottom of a tall tree confess to one another how they had grown up amid the hatred of an imagined enemy: for Michka Saäl it was the Arab, for Nadine Ltaif it had been the Jew. It was only by emigrating that they could transgress this mutual hatred and discover one another without prejudice. The last image of the film refers to the epilogue but gives it another significance: the two branches mentioned in the Book of Genesis, the sons of Abraham, are transformed and represented now by the two women who reconcile the past in a third space,30 which is the exile. Living in the diaspora (exile) gives them the opportunity to discover and to accept the other in its diversity and cultural difference.


4. Conclusion

As we have seen in this contribution, the way historiographers and artists present and comment the coexistence of Jews living in Arab lands depends on the historical and political context and it is always related to their ideological visions and positions. I therefore tried first to “deconstruct” the reasons for the differences in the historiography on each side: be it Jews or Arabs, Western historians or other. As I showed, the idealization of the coexistence of Jews and Muslims living together in “Al Andalus” served for example in the 19th century to push the European project of Jewish assimilation. The same process of using the past for ideological purpose is at work in the nowadays creation of the “myth of Sephardic supremacy” by Jews in the French Diaspora. According to that view, the most admirable Jews in history were those living first in Arab, and then in Christian, Spain. This self-perception of “Sephardic Jews” as being the original, real and true Jews is largely developed in the novel “Sépharade” by the French writer Eliette Abécassis that I analyzed. The novel is a literary attempt to re-construct “Sephardic” identity and gives an elitist vision of Moroccan Jews living in France today. There is no possible dialogue or understanding between members of different groups, especially between Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews. Arabs do not even appear in the novel. Esther Vital, the main character of the novel, finally links her identity with the history of Israel. The nostalgic vision of a lost paradise and its literary reconstruction can be found in many texts of “Sephardic” Francophone writers, be it in France, Israel or in Québec. There are only few examples where the coexistence of Jews and Arabs is treated in all its complexity that means in its historical context. This is the case in the film “L’arbre qui dort rêve à ses racines” of the Tunisian filmmaker Michka Saäl, that I therefore choose to present. The film describes the shared Arab-Jewish past through the metaphor of a tree which is the symbol of their common origin. Reconciliation and a new vision of the Arab-Jewish past seem possible in the third space of exile.


[1] As to the theoretical background and the relation of history, memory and literature, see Aleida Assmann, Cultural memory and Western Civilization. Arts of Memory (Cambridge, 2011).
[2] Albert Memmi, Jews and Arabs, (Chicago: O’Hara, 1975), 20.
[3] Michel Abitbol, “Jews of Muslim Lands in the Modern Period: History and Historiography”, in Sephardic Jewry and Mizrahi Jews, ed. Peter Y. Medding (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 52. See also for this topic, Daniel Schroeter, “La découverte des juifs berbères”, in Relations judéo-musulmanes au Maroc, perceptions et réalités, ed. Michel Abitbol (Paris: Stavit, 1997), 169-187.
[4] Hayim Zeev Hirschberg, A history of the Jews in North-Africa, (Leiden: Brill, 1974).
[5] Abitbol, “Jews of Muslim Lands,” 55.
[6] Ibid., 57.
[7] Mark R. Cohen, “The Origins of Sephardic Jewry in the Medieval Arab World”, in Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewry. From the Golden Age of Spain to Modern Times, ed. Zion Zohar (New York: New York University Press, 2005), 24.
[8] I refer to the article of Shmuel Trigano, “Introduction. Faire l’histoire du monde sépharade”, Le monde sépharade I, Histoire, (Paris: Seuil, 2006), 13.
[9] Medding, Sephardic Jewry and Mizrahi Jews, x.
[10] Cohen, “The Origins of Sephardic Jewry,” 25.
[11] New Horizons in Sephardic Studies, eds. Yedida K Stillman and Georges K. Zucker, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993), 1.
[12] “Dans leur lutte pour l’émancipation et la régénération du judaïsme allemande et occidental, le patrimoine culturel sépharade a été invoqué par les intellectuels juifs européens pour ‘redorer le blason’ du judaïsme européen et l’amarrer à l’histoire du judaïsme sépharade du Moyen Age au moment même où les deux fractions du judaïsme n’avaient pas de contact conséquent.” Ruth Tolédano-Attias, “Les Sépharades dans le regard des historiens juifs européens du XIXe siècle”, in Shmuel Trigano, Le monde sépharade II, Civilisation, (Paris: Seuil, 2006), 671.
[13] Tolédano-Attias, “Les Sépharades dans le regard des historiens juifs,” 679.
[14]  “Lieu de mémoire” refers to Pierre Nora’s multivolume series “Les lieux de mémoire” (Paris: Gallimard, 1984-1992), which consists of essays by prominent historians and cultural commentators which take, as their points of departure, Lieux de memoire, a site of memory used to order, concentrate, and secure notions of France's past.
[15] Solange M. Guénoun, “Accueils et écueils identitaires-communautaires en France Post-coloniale: ‘Ils disent que je suis sépharade…’”, Contemporary French and Francophone Studies 11/2 (2007): 219.
[16] “L’habit sémantique ‘Sépharade’ postcolonial fonctionne ainsi de deux manières, selon le regard que l’on pose sur lui. Sous cette parure sémantique unique, on hallucine en effet deux corps à la fois séparés et unis : celui du Juif maghrébin qui n’est pas vraiment sépharade (au sens ancien d’Espagnol), et celui du Juif sépharade qui n’est pas vraiment ‘maghrébin’ (c’est-à-dire immigré arabo-musulman). Mais dans les deux cas toujours sous l’effet d’un même regard néo-colonial, généalogique et hiérarchique, de Juif ‘européen’, posé sur les Juifs-arabes (ou orientaux, ‘Masrahi’ en hébreux), censés n’avoir jamais quitté l’Afrique ou le Moyen Orient, ou sur les Africains et les Arabes, tous bien entendu en retard d’une révolution, d’une émancipation.” Ibid., 221.
[17] Eliette Abécassis, Sépharade, (Paris: Albin Michel, 2009).
[18] “Elle se dit que les ashkénazes et les sépharades ne pourraient jamais s’entendre. Ils n’avaient pas la même conception de la vie. […] Les ashkénazes avaient du mal à exprimer leurs émotions et parfois même à les ressentir. Ils étaient intellectuels, froids et rationnels. Les sépharades au contraire étaient émotifs, et passaient sans cesse du rire aux larmes, de la tendresse au drame, voire au psychodrame. Les ashkénazes n’étaient pas tendres, les sépharades, tels les loukums sous un soleil brûlant, dégoulinaient de sentiments et de sensations, et tout était pour eux prétexte à épanchement. Les ashkénazes n’aimaient pas manger [ …]  étaient avares […] étaient solitaires….”, Abécasssis, Sépharade, 274 sq.
[19] “Esther est l’ancêtre de tous les juifs à venir, entre masque et vérité, entre la vie et la mort, entre la fierté d’appartenir à ce peuple et la honte, l’assimilation et la fidélité. Telle était la destinée à laquelle ses parents avaient, plus ou moins consciemment, consacré Esther en la nommant ainsi.” Ibid., 290, sq.
[20] “Car l’âme marrane est la source de l’identité européenne; le marranisme, en se laïcisant, a été à l’origine de l’universalisme et de l’humanisme chez Montaigne. […] Jusqu’à aujourd’hui, dit Pedro Alvarez, même si vous l’ignorez, vous êtes des marranes, des Espagnols sans patrie.” Ibid., 307.
[21] “Aujourd’hui, nous sommes en danger… Tous ici, nous sommes en danger de nous perdre. Ce temps est celui de la fin de notre monde millénaire, la fin de notre culture. Chacun en est responsable. Et nous, en particulier. Nous sommes les derniers, Moïse, nous sommes les derniers sépharades!” Ibid., 456.
[22] “En France, elle était en apesanteur. En Israël, d’une certaine façon elle était à sa place. Ses racines étaient en Europe, en Afrique, au Maroc, mais c’étaient des vicissitudes de l’existence qui devaient l’amener vers sa véritable origine, Israël, terre des ancêtres, de ses ancêtres. En Israël elle était chez elle.” Ibid., 154.
[23] “Massada était le symbole d’Israël, pays forteresse, assiégée de toutes parts par ceux qui n’attendaient que sa chute – ou son suicide collectif.” Ibid., 158.
[24] See for more information: Mechtild Gilzmer, “La mémoire de la vie juive méditerranéenne au Québec”, in Neue Romania 40. Judenspanisch – Judéo-espagnol XIII, eds. Ulrich Reich and Margarete Zimmermann, (Berlin: Institut für Romanische Philologie der Freien Universität Berlin, 2011), 77-93.
[25] “Il y avait bien sûr entre nous des affinités, une manière bien orientale de voir les choses, de les ressentir. Mais nous n’étions pas vraiment Marocains. Nous le sommes devenus bien plus tard, dans d’autres pays, sous d’autres cieux. Ailleurs, nous avons dû assumer une identité qui n’avait jamais vraiment été la nôtre. Là-bas, nous étions des Juifs marocains. Ici nous sommes devenus des Marocains juifs, des Québécois ‘sépharadistes.” Quoted according to Najib Redouane, “L’aventure collective des voix littéraires sépharades au Canada”, International Journal of Francophone Studies 7/1-2 (2004): 57. The expression “sépharadistes” is an ironical allusion to the Québecer independantists, the “separatists”.
[26] One can see the film on the website of the Office National du film Canadian (ONF):  htttp://
[27] Janis L. Pallister, The Cinéma of Québec. Masters in Their Own House, (Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1995), 414-415.
[28] Johanne Larue, Séquences, 158, (June 1992): 47-48.
[30] See for the notion of “third space” Homi Bhabha, The location of culture, (London and New York: Routledge, 1994).

Mechtild Gilzmer is Professor for French and Francophone literature at the TU-Berlin (2002 – 2011), she worked on French and Francophone contemporary literature and history, especially on the relation of history and memory in literature, monuments and film. She published several articles about sephardic authors living in Québec.

How to quote this article:
Mechtild Gilzmer,
The Memory of North African Jews in the Diaspora
Memory and Forgetting among Jews from the Arab-Muslim Countries. Contested Narratives of a Shared Past,
ed. Emanuela Trevisan and Piera Rossetto,
Quest. Issues in Contemporary Jewish History. Journal of the Fondazione CDEC,
n. 04,
November 2012
DOI: 10.48248/issn.2037-741X/796