In Israel, Sometimes 'The Moroccan Repairman' Went to the Sorbonne

An interviewee in a new documentary series about Mizrahi Jews tells Haaretz about life’s challenges both in France and the old-new country

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Nissim Slama in the 2017 documentary series 'Tzarfoka'im.'
Nissim Slama in the 2017 documentary series 'Tzarfoka'im.'
Itay Stern
Itay Stern

The Hebrew title of a new Israeli TV documentary series may sound strange to someone not yet expert in the nuances of Hebrew. It’s “Tzarfoka’im,” an amalgamation of the words for “French” and “Moroccan” – a derogatory term for Jews of North African descent who have moved to Israel from France.

As with his other television shows, this series by director and Haaretz columnist Ron Chachlili addresses ethnicity and Israeli racism against Mizrahim, Jews of Middle Eastern and North African origin.

One of the interviewees in the series is Nissim Slama, 34, who immigrated to Israel in 2003 after studying law at the Sorbonne. Despite his age, he joined the army and served for five years, an extra two as a career officer.

In recent years he has been accompanying new immigrants from France in Jerusalem, where he lives with his family. He’s a proud Likud voter who immigrated because he really wanted to become part of Israeli society. His elder brother is an anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox Jew who lives with his family in Israel, while his sisters remain in Paris.

“Tzarfoka’im" is a derogatory term, he says. “First, I’m not a Moroccan, I’m a Tunisian, and calling everybody by the same name is like saying everything is the ‘same shit.’ It’s a result of this stupid melting pot. Beyond that, the term expresses contempt for the glorious Moroccan culture. It pisses me off that they take such a beautiful, expansive culture and dwarf it.”

“And I don’t like this term because it dismisses my French identity,” he says. “I grew up in France. I read Balzac as a child, and now I read poems in French to my daughter. I’m not French in nationality, but I certainly am culturally. While you were having trouble reading a synopsis of Molière in broken Hebrew, I read it in sixth grade in French. So who do you think you are lording it over me?”

His confidence could be seen as arrogance, but he’s charismatic and charming and has trouble saying the word “racism,” even when it’s aimed at him and all the other immigrants from France.

“I don’t identify as Mizrahi. If anything, I could say I was Mughrabi,” he says, referring to the Maghreb countries of North Africa. “Tunis is in the West. My brother, for example, likes to identify with the Mizrahim as the oppressed. I think you can’t talk about ‘oppression’ as Ron defines it, but about social gaps following the discrimination generated by the strong Mapai party apparatus,” he adds, referring to the predecessor to the Labor Party.

“It’s true that when I send out my résumé twice – one with my last name and one with my wife’s last name, which is Ashkenazi – the one with my name won’t get any response, while the one with my wife’s will. But I don’t think the person who doesn’t get back to me is a racist and wants to oppress Mizrahim. To him, subconsciously, Nissim Slama is the name of an air-conditioner repairman.”

Blaming it on the left

So why isn’t that racist?

“It’s natural. Racism is a process stemming from awareness. When Mizrahim hear a Mizrahi name they also fall into these generalizations and stereotypes.”

A still from the 2017 documentary series 'Tzarfoka'im.'

Many Jews who remained in France prospered, compared to the Jews who were put in housing projects and development towns in Israel.

“That’s right, because it was Mapai’s institutionalized discrimination. In France there was no such discrimination. When my grandfather and grandmother came to France, nobody came to help them and nobody gave them public housing anywhere. They were thrown into the deep end, and because of that they succeeded. The institutionalized discrimination worked in three different ways to screw the immigrants – in the state’s centralist rule, in the socialist view that you have to help the needy, and in the colonial Orientalist approach.”

France too is a socialist country.

“Yes, but it isn’t socialist only for the Jews, France is socialist for everyone. It didn’t send anyone to Marseilles just because he was a Jew. Socialism is bad in itself, but it’s even worse when you distinguish between one community and the other. I’m not a capitalist but I’m a liberal. That’s also why I support Likud.”

You come from a wealthy family, you studied law at the Sorbonne. What made you come to Israel?

“I had a good life in France but I felt I’d reached a dead end. As long as I was in a Jewish school, I felt completely French, but the moment I got out and studied at university I realized how un-French I was. There’s a glass ceiling in France for Jews. Granted, there are Jewish ministers and Jews in senior positions in the economy, but are they really Jews? They may be Jews genetically, but is their collective identity Jewish? If you ask them they’ll say they’re French.”

In your view Jews who don’t maintain a religious-Zionist way of life aren’t Jews?

“I didn’t say that, but your Judaism needs to hold onto something beyond the fact that you’re Jewish. It can stem from a national approach and it can be a collective feeling. In France you can do well as a Jew, but that means you have to give up your Jewish identity. You can’t have two identities together.

“That’s the difference between me and my sisters and parents. Frenchness is something that excludes belonging to another collective. Frenchness has become a religion in which you can’t really do what you want. For example, there’s a commandment to drink wine or take your bra off on the beach. But if you want to wear a burkini you’re not allowed. What kind of liberalism is that?”

Unsafe France

In the France of 2017 is there no place for an identity discussion?

“There’s recognition of the separate identities in France, but the French identity is on top of all the rest. The most fundamental political argument in France is about this issue. Today in France it’s no longer okay to be a French Jew and support Israel openly. It’s not that someone will grab your ear and tell you to decide who you are, but at the end of the day that’s what I experienced.”

Give me an example.

“My parents and brothers and sisters grew up in a world where you can be both a Talmud teacher and a member of a students’ group fighting racism against Arabs. I went to university and couldn’t find myself. I realized there was a glass ceiling that determined you had to give up your Judaism to break it. I had an exam that was set for Shavuot. The second date, for people who couldn’t make the first, was set for Yom Kippur, and the lecturer was Jewish. It was to show that you have to choose one or the other.”

Many people assume that France’s Jews are coming to Israel because of clashes with Arabs who “have taken France over.”

“I had good relations with Arabs who lived on the same street, but after I moved to another neighborhood they didn’t know me anymore. Israelis think the French come to Israel because of clashes with Arabs in France. That’s nonsense. What, there are no Arabs here? No terror attacks? No terror? They come to Israel because of the white French people. Because of the elites who were apathetic amid the institutionalized anti-Semitism.

“The Jew won’t come because of the Arabs but because the government doesn’t care about the Jews. If you leave the Jews with no security protection then it’s terribly easy to hurt them, and a firebomb will be thrown at a synagogue. If they receive special protection people immediately say the Jews are privileged. That creates anti-Semitism. I want the police to be mine. I want to have Jewish sovereignty.”

Most of the Jews from France are considered rightists. What do you think of that?

“It’s true there’s a right-wing majority among the immigrants from France. They’re not stupid. It’s not that leftists are stupid, but when you choose an ideological course, sociology plays a very important role. Today in Israel the left – beyond its ideological facet – is first and foremost an undiversified tribe. On the right you’ll find, for example secular, observant and religious people. Among the ultra-Orthodox you’ll find Ashkenazim and Mizrahim.

“The left is the least socially diversified camp. The immigrants from France don’t belong to that tribe and aren’t wanted in it. Also, statistically, the more religious someone is, the more right-wing his vote will be. The immigrants from France are more religious, so they vote further to the right.”

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