The Muslim Moroccan Director Trying to Crack the Mystery of the Jews Who Left His Homeland

After making a documentary about why the Jews left his own hometown, Kamal Hachkar is closing a circle with a new film about two Israeli musicians with Moroccan roots. Hachkar, who speaks Hebrew and is well-versed in Israeli politics, explains why he’s drawn to such stories

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Director Hachkar, in Tinghir’s former Jewish quarter.
Director Hachkar, in Tinghir’s former Jewish quarter.Credit: FADEL SENNA / AFP
Khen Elmaleh
Khen Elmaleh
Khen Elmaleh
Khen Elmaleh

When Moroccan film director Kamal Hachkar was a half-year old, he immigrated with his family to France, where he spent much of his life moving frequently from one city to another in the wake of his father’s job in the nuclear industry. “He wasn’t an engineer or anything, you know, just an ordinary technician, like your Mordechai Vanunu” (Israel’s nuclear whistleblower), Hachkar, 43, tells me jokingly over the phone, from his home, in Morocco. Here, and throughout our interview, he reveals an extraordinary knowledge of Israel.

Nor is it by chance that Hachkar, who is a Muslim, is so well-versed in the intricacies of Israeli politics and society. In fact, he also speaks a pretty good Hebrew, certainly for someone who acquired the language as an adult, in an intensive course. He’s also been able to hone his proficiency in the language during many visits here after making his first film, which turned out to be a life-changer for him. Probably he himself didn’t even grasp the full implications that movie would have. It was because of that 2013 effort – “Tinghir-Jerusalem: Echoes from the Mellah” – that I became acquainted with the director, when he attended a screening in a packed hall in Ashkelon upon its release here.

The film, which was a considerable success and was screened in festivals worldwide, is about the former Jewish community in the town of Tinghir, in the Todra Gorge in the eastern part of the Atlas Mountains, where Hachkar was born, and lives today. He shot the film in Morocco and in Israel. One lingering question takes him on his intercontinental journey: Why did the Jews leave? How is that a community thousands of years old, numbering a quarter of a million, left en masse over a period of just a few years, for a permanent new home,

“My father left Tinghir in 1968, a few years after the last Jews left the city,” Hachkar tells me. “Unlike them, he returned on visits, stayed in constant touch and married a local woman. After I was born, we all moved to France. We always went back for summer vacation.”

On one such vacation, Hachkar’s grandfather told him an anecdote that he found very moving. It concerned a specific case of a shared fate, under the French protectorate regime in Morocco (which ended in 1956), involving two friends with the names David and Moshe.

“As far as I was concerned, until then, all Moroccans were Muslims. I learned about Jews in high-school history lessons in the context of World War II and the Holocaust, and afterward at the Sorbonne. I studied history and philosophy and became acquainted with figures such as Walter Benjamin and Freud. By the way,” Hachkar continues, “I was always intrigued by the universal aspects of their theories, precisely because of the fact that they were Jewish intellectuals. My aspiration was always to produce some sort of creative work based on my identity as an Amazigh [a descendant of pre-Arab ethnic communities, indigenous to North Africa], and to connect it with the universal, or at least with additional elements relating to the way of life of a person who grew up on the seamline between countries and cultures.”

So what was it like to discover, thanks to your grandfather, that not all Jews are Sigmund Freud, Walter Benjamin or originally from Europe?

Hachkar: “What surprised me most was to discover something new about Morocco: that there is another Moroccan identity, which is Jewish.”

It’s important to understand something in this context: the perception that Moroccan Jewry is “another Moroccan identity” says something about the attitude of Moroccan society toward the country’s various ethnic and religious identities. Be they Arabs, Amazighs, Muslims, Christians or Jews, they’re all Moroccan. It’s part of an organic way of life extending across thousands of years. The manifestations of this outlook in real life can be seen in the authorities’ approach to the Jewish story, in the budgeting of centers for the preservation of Jewish heritage and museums, in a project launched in 2016 to restore synagogues, in cultural and musical connections that find expression in festivals and in performances of traditional Moroccan music – all deriving from recognition of the part played by the Jews in Moroccan history.

“The next thing I asked,” Hachkar adds, “is why they left. And why they don’t they come back, or at least visit and take an interest in the life they left behind? It comes from a place of empathy, of identification – after all, I also left home for another country, and I myself experienced a feeling of not belonging and of alienation – elements that are inherent in the immigrant experience – but unlike them I always knew I had a home in Tinghir, in Morocco, and that I could return to it whenever I wish.”

I decided to meet the Jews who had left Tinghir and try to understand what their lives looked like alongside Muslim Berber Moroccans – but above all, to understand why they left.

Hachkar

And, wondering about that, you drop everything and come to Israel to look for answers?

“The turning point came in 2008. I was then a history teacher and a lecturer in France, and I wasn’t even thinking about cinema. At the same time, I started to learn Hebrew in the framework of the Shalom organization, which promotes dialogue between Arabs and Jews by means of learning the two languages. At one point they organized a tour of Israel in which the participants met people who were building bridges between Palestinians and Israelis. We visited Sakhnin [an Arab town in Galilee], Ramallah, Haifa and other places. Our guide was Yossi Amar, from Nahariya. He and I were the only Moroccan-born people in the group.

“We immediately hit it off like brothers, we spoke in Darija [Moroccan Arabic], and he was very pleased, you know, because he was born in Casablanca but left at a young age, and for him to meet a young Moroccan Muslim in Israel was a major surprise. During the tour we stopped in Peki’in [a Druze town in Upper Galilee, where Jews have lived for 2,000 years], and this Yossi Amar suddenly meets another Yossi, an army buddy whom he hadn’t seen since the [1973] Yom Kippur War, who happened to be in a café there. Right away he called to him: ‘Come over here, I want you to meet Kamal – he’s from Morocco, too.’

“Now get this: This Yossi, a lawyer from Or Akiva, tells me his parents were also born in Morocco. So I ask him: Where in Morocco? In the Atlas [Mountains], he says. And I ask him, where in the Atlas? Near Ouarzazate, he says. And I ask, where near Ouarzazate? Tinghir, he answers. Shuf hada al maktub! [This was written from above!] It was the first time I’d seen a Jew from my own city for real, not just in pictures.

Tinghir, an oasis in the Todra Gorge, Hachkar’s hometown and the subject of his first film.
Tinghir, an oasis in the Todra Gorge, Hachkar’s hometown and the subject of his first film.Credit: Leonid Andronov / Shutterstock.com

“It was like a dream, I had wanted so much to meet a Jew from my town. He invited me to his home, but because of the tour’s busy itinerary, I didn’t get there. I returned to Israel again after a time, and I went to visit him and his family, and there I had a sudden mental switch: I decided to leave my job and put my doctoral thesis on hold – and make this film.”

Why a film?

“Because I was so touched by the response of the people. They were so happy to meet someone from the place they were from. And it gave me a push. I decided to bring it to the general public, to meet the Jews who had left Tinghir and try to understand what their lives looked like alongside Muslim Berber Moroccans, especially in the light of the conflict with the Palestinians in Israel – but above all, to understand why they left.”

On the blacklist

“Tinghir-Jerusalem: Voices from the Mellah” was screened in 2013 on Channel 2M, Morocco’s most popular television channel. It sparked a range of reactions and a lively political dialogue within Moroccan society, which reached the country’s parliament and even led to discussions there of the issues of boycott and normalization with Israel. (The two countries have never had formal diplomatic relations, but do have tourism, trade and intelligence ties.)

Considering the responses, one might have thought that this was the first time Moroccan Jews from Israel had been seen on the screen there.

“Four million people watched the film when it was screened in prime time on Moroccan television. I’d been invited to take part in a panel discussion before the screening. After the broadcast, I received a great many responses and interview requests. Two or three days later, Islamist and pan-Arab voices began to be heard, accusing me of having made a pro-Zionist movie and calling for the boycott of the channel that broadcast it.”

And that channel, like every public body in Morocco, belongs to the kingdom and in a certain sense constitutes a mouthpiece for the government and its messages – so indirectly, the film had a state seal of approval.

“Certainly. They liked the film and adopted it, because all in all I showed a beautiful side of Morocco, of openness and multiculturalism, which also served them. At the same time, extremist groups in the country blacklisted me and called me ‘traitor.’ Before that, the Jewish issue was only talked about in parlor conversations and in academia. I was the first person to put these subjects on the screen, and until then I didn’t really grasp the full scope of what I’d done.

“Only afterward, when I met researchers, anthropologists and sociologists, who told me I had touched on themes that were taboo in Moroccan society, did I grasp that for many Moroccans it was highly unusual to see a Muslim touring Israel without any problems, speaking Hebrew, documenting the ancient ties between the Jews and the Amazighs. Because the only media coverage we get of Israel here deals exclusively with the conflict between Israel and Palestine, the wars in Gaza and so forth. We have never seen the streets of Israel other than in the context of struggle and combat, and certainly not Jews speaking Tashelhit [a Berber dialect]. It opened the eyes of a lot of people here.”

Extremist groups in the country blacklisted me and called me ‘traitor.’ I was the first person to put these subjects on the screen.

Hachkar

Every society has its extremists and fundamentalists, and the attacks on Hachkar should not have been a surprise, certainly in light of the political forces and the inherently fragile diplomatic situation between states. But there is a moment in the film that made me think about us, too – about Israel and the sociopolitical processes that we are undergoing here.

I’m referring to a scene in which Hachkar arrives by chance at the home of Yakut Ben Shimol in Yavneh, in central Israel, while looking for someone else entirely from Tinghir. Ben Shimol opens the door, and from the moment she grasps that he’s from Morocco, her heart simply goes out to him – greeting him in a manner that also reflects a sort of mourning for the past and gripes about the present.

Pointing to the ground with her finger, Ben Shimol says, “It’s only land,” in Moroccan Arabic, and then adds, “Muslims, Jews, what difference does it make, you’re good people, we’re natives of the same country… We should be together, like we were in Morocco…” – and all this without him even saying a word or telling her he was from Morocco.

I think about that scene, and I imagine Yakut’s grandchildren, and I wonder: What are they thinking? Will they identify with what their grandmother is saying? Will they speak as she does should they happen to meet a young Moroccan Muslim? I tend to think that a gap, perhaps unbridgeable, has formed between Yakut’s generation and the contemporary generation that was born here, in Israel, into a completely different political reality. In this sense, it’s quite similar to the political situation in Morocco today, where the young people also no longer live alongside Jews.

Neta Elkayam and Amit Hai Cohen perform their song "Shitafon" (Flood).

I ask Hachkar how he reacted to criticism of his movie and accusations that he was pro-Zionist and pro-normalization of Israel-Moroccan relations.

“When a demand arose to censor my film and cancel its screening in the Tangier National Film Festival, I responded publicly with interviews, in which I said that, as a creative artist, I had made a film about a subject that is close to my heart, about my hometown. If the Jews of Tinghir had left for Zimbabwe, I would have gone to Zimbabwe. I did not purport to make a film about the occupation, nor did I have any interest in talking about that subject with the interviewees, elderly Jewish Moroccan women who are also not interested in [David] Ben-Gurion or in Zionism. I am against the occupation, I am against racism, I am for respect and equality for all people.

“I separated my opinions from my approach in the film, but even so, I don’t belong to BDS [the movement to boycott Israel] or anything like that, and I think the majority in Morocco understood me. Especially the young generation, which displayed a great deal of curiosity about Jews who speak their language and share the same culture, but whom they have never lived with.”

Nevertheless, in practice, to what extent can an artist keep his distance from the conditions and the contexts in which his work takes shape and exists?

“I am aware of the oppressive conditions, and I am also aware of the ethnic and class divisions in Israel, and the right-left split. The Moroccans in Israel identify for the most part with Likud. They love Bibi Netanyahu and they are prejudiced against Arabs, because they don’t know them and don’t live with them enough, in my opinion. Still, it’s not an extreme position like religious fanaticism – they are not dogmatic. A cultural and mental proximity still exists, and if they should meet a Palestinian at work or at university, they can become friends without any problem. I am sure of that, without a doubt! The problem is the politicians, who are cynical and incite people and want to divide them.”

“In Israel, I have seen the clearest display of those relations of power in your elections, when people vote for candidates only according to identity and not according to political platform, as though they are incapable of thinking independently, disconnected from the relations of power and from contrarianism. My [left-wing] friends in Israel supported [Gesher party head] Orli Levi-Abekasis, even though she is right-wing and used to be in Yisrael Beiteinu. How does that sit with their worldview? Just because she’s Moroccan? Ashkenazim, too, won’t vote for a Moroccan prime minister, just because he’s Moroccan.”

Hachkar came up with these observations about Israeli society during his many visits here, in the wake of the screenings of the film and his participation in other events. The social ties he forged here also contributed to his insights about the country – including friendships he struck up with the Jerusalem-based musicians (and couple) Neta Elkayam and Amit Hai Cohen.

Neta Elkayam, in a frame from “In Your Eyes, I See My Country.”
Neta Elkayam, in a frame from “In Your Eyes, I See My Country.”Credit: Director of photography: Philippe Bellaiche/HK'ART STUDIO

“A mutual Israeli friend introduced us, by means of their Moroccan music and their clips,” he relates. “I told myself, ‘Wow, who are they?’ And Neta’s beauty – I had no doubt that she is of Amazigh origin, like me. We met for the first time in the summer of 2012, when I was in Israel for three months. On one occasion, when they invited me to a Shabbat meal at their place, and Neta’s parents also came, from Netivot, and from a conversation with her father, Michael, I suddenly discovered that he was also born in Tinghir! He’s almost my father’s age, they’re the same generation, maybe they were neighbors without knowing it? It’s insane!”

Looking in from outside

That chance encounter, along with the discovery of another Jewish family from Tinghir, prompted Hachkar to recalculate his future path. From the moment he completed his first film, he realized that the saga didn’t end there and that he had to shoot a sequel. “Until then, I was sure that the sequel would revolve around a visit to Tinghir by the characters from the first film. That was my original idea. But after I met Neta and Amit, I told them immediately: my next documentary will be about the new generation, about the Moroccans who were born in Israel. The next film is about you.”

We have never seen the streets of Israel other than in the context of struggle and combat, and certainly not Jews speaking Tashelhit [a Berber dialect]. It opened the eyes of a lot of people here.

Hachkar

It’s as though you couldn’t have made a better choice, because Neta and Amit supplied you with plenty of the stuff from which cinema is made.

“Absolutely. We started shooting during a visit they paid to France in 2013. I organized a meeting with André Azoulay [an influential adviser to the country’s last two kings, particularly in the realm of culture, and Jewish culture especially], because I wanted so much to share this discovery about the Moroccan young generation in Israel with more people, and especially with those in the Moroccan political arena. I showed Mr. Azoulay a clip of Neta’s performance of a song by [Algerian singer] Salim Halali, and he agreed to meet. One of the reasons that it was important for me to set up this introduction is that Azoulay is also the director and founder of the Andalusian music festival held every year in Essaouira [a city on Morocco’s Atlantic coast], and I thought Neta should perform there.”

In addition to documenting the couple’s first performance in front of a Moroccan audience, seven years ago, Hatchkar’s latest film – “In Your Eyes, I See My Country” – which had its premiere last December (and can be viewed, in Israel, until September 30 via the Docaviv documentary film festival website), is a journey between countries and continents and shared experiences of immigration. It’s possible to think, mistakenly, that it shows the viewer from the outset where home really is. But through the route that Neta and Amit traverse between way stations involving the past and present, the establishment bureaucracy and formalities, the philosophical elements that confront us with questions about identity and belonging – we understand that this is a film about processes, about clarifying issues within ourselves and between ourselves and the world. About romance and about prosaic encounters. About life as it is or as it could be, when leading questions are open, with no deterministic viewpoint.

In contrast to your previous film, this time your remote viewpoint comes through already in the title, “In Your Eyes, I See My Country.” You filmed Neta and Amit in Morocco, in performances, in interviews with the local media, in encounters with audiences, in government ministries in an attempt to acquire Moroccan citizenship, in trips to the places from which their families departed for Israel, in meetings with Moroccan Jews who chose to return to Morocco – in every situation that could illuminate another layer, another aspect of the experience of a second generation of emigration. What did you see through their eyes? What kind of country did you encounter?

Amit Hai Cohen in a frame from “In Your Eyes, I See My Country.”
Amit Hai Cohen in a frame from “In Your Eyes, I See My Country.”Credit: Director of photography: Philippe Bellaiche/HK'ART STUDIO

“I documented them for seven years, a great deal of time, through my foreign eyes as a Moroccan citizen who lives in Morocco today, but also out of identification – as someone who knows what it’s like to grow up in a different country and feel that he’s divided. Still, I think I also succeeded in maintaining a certain distance throughout the process. Okay, right, I too am a Moroccan like Neta and Amit, but they are also artists and individuals, universalist intellectuals – it’s not only the Moroccan element that defines them. The distance also allows me to be critical, to look from the outside.”

Yet, there is a limit to how far “outside” you can be when you are sharing a similar immigration experience by means of certain cultural and sociological terms, and you both have the same basis from which you venture out into the world and to which you return, physically or conceptually.

“Definitely. And I think that it’s also present in the film: that closeness and the complete trust that Neta and Amit placed in me. At first, we wanted to title the film ‘The Return to the Homeland,’ but then I and my editor in France, Yael Bitton, found in the footage a line from a song that Neta sings, in the scene that was shot in Tinghir: ‘In your eyes, I see my country.’ We knew instantly that this would be the title. I remembered that the first time I met Neta, I truly saw Morocco in her eyes. And that genuinely captures the essence of the relations and the closeness between us.”

I can identify with what Hachkar says from first-hand experience. Visiting Morocco is truly a powerful experience, when you encounter visual images, you can seemingly identify familiar faces, and a peculiar feeling of warmth spreads inside. You recognize your home in the facial features of people you met not long ago. In the faces of the Moroccans, I recognized ‘home,’ while here at home. In the northern town of Yokne’am, I look at familiar faces and suddenly see Morocco in them.

In your opinion, Morocco is still a relevant option for us Israeli Jews of Moroccan descent, in terms of a place to live?

“Of course! The majority of Moroccans have no problem with where you were and what you did until now. There are still 500 Jews living in Morocco, and it’s possible, from the religious standpoint and from every standpoint. I know Israelis who live here. Both some who returned, and from the second generation – children of Jewish emigrants from Morocco who came here and acquired citizenship.”

Yes, I understand that formally it’s not a problem, but I ask the question precisely in light of our history, our individual one, and the things that happened from the moment we left.

“I think the Israeli authorities also have a part in this and that the Jewish Agency, for example, needs to take responsibility for losing papers or taking passports, and they should also make things easier for Israelis who want to obtain Moroccan citizenship today.”

The procedure isn’t terrifically simple from the Moroccan side, either – I’m pretty sure I could obtain a Portuguese passport, say, more easily. Look, I am not from France, I am from Israel. The diplomatic relations between the countries are not official, there are no direct flights. Don’t you think that this situation affects the attitude toward the Moroccan Jews who come from Israel?

“It might – that’s what I’m saying. I think the Israelis also have some sort of psychological barrier when it comes to Morocco, a Muslim state. In one Israeli screening, someone in the audience said, ‘What is this – look at that village [Tinghir]. Who would want to live there?’ I replied, ‘Listen, I visited Yeruham [a town in the Negev] not long ago, and it’s not exactly gorgeous and well-kept, either.’ It made me laugh. I am in favor of diplomatic relations and political ties between the countries. I see no contradiction between maintaining relations like that and at the same time taking a stance that’s critical of the occupation and of the deprivation of the Palestinians’ rights. That’s what Europe does, no?

If the Jews of Tinghir had left for Zimbabwe, I would have gone to Zimbabwe. I did not purport to make a film about the occupation.

Hachkar

“Ultimately, that is what I tried to do in my films: to set aside all the politics for a minute and understand how one leaves a home in that way. Within a few years almost the entire Jewish population of Morocco leaves, only a few remain, and those who leave don’t return. They leave behind their property, their friends, their home. I can’t imagine myself severing myself from my homeland like that.”

Ever the romantic

Sometimes, at various junctures in life, I too have trouble coming to terms with the rift that exists between my parents’ old homeland and the new homeland. The feeling of not belonging that Israeli society insisted on preserving in so many ways for Moroccan Jews – whether by the deliberate wrenching away of cultural assets, by intentionally routing people away from power centers and economic centers, by the unfair distribution of land and resources, which is not only my problem, and the ethnic correlation between who is in the privileged class and who belongs to the exploited class – all this has left no doubt.

All this became such a central motif of my life experience that I, too, wanted to return to Morocco and understand by myself: To deconstruct arguments, to live experiences that were mediated to me through books, to breathe that air and maybe, just maybe, to succeed in resolving the dilemma of not belonging. Maybe I would find the answer in the smile of a Moroccan child, maybe through politeness and generosity I will discover another contradiction, maybe I would even succeed in angering someone, from there, who would suggest to me that our time – that of Jews in Morocco – has passed and that what used to be is no longer relevant to any of us today. Not to us, nor to the Moroccans who are still there.

Khen Elmaleh, the author.
Khen Elmaleh, the author.Credit: Noa Yafe

In June 2019, I went to Morocco for the first time and documented my journey in a series of articles for this paper. Then, last November, I was invited by the French embassy in Rabat to a conference of young people in Essaouira, in which I succeeded in getting a glimpse of today’s Morocco. A Morocco that is not only the reflection of a memory of the past seen through the eyes of my grandmothers and grandfathers. The truth? I came back with a far less romantic view of the reasons for the departure of the Jews, and feeling a lot colder – like the reality itself. Because in reality people emigrate for all kinds of practical reasons that are not necessarily what they declaim afterward.

There’s a moment in the film “In Your Eyes” when we see your father saying that he left Morocco for France because of work, to make a living – direct and to the point. And he adds, “I left alone, I did not take the whole family with me, like the Jews.” I think that a certain truth is lurking in those two sentences. The truth about the reasons for the migration and movement of people from place to place as a broad, universal phenomenon, a common attempt by all of us to improve our situation – contrary to the reasons we tell ourselves. In other words, your father exposed, perhaps not intentionally, the disparity between the purpose of our activity and the way in which we justify it to ourselves.

“Nevertheless, I believe that there was a religious aspect to the departure [of Jews from Morocco]. There were people who believed that they were going to the Holy Land, and there were those who persuaded them and exerted pressure on them by a variety of means, things that I discovered in shooting the first film, about the Jews of Tinghir. But there were also some who, after all, chose to immigrate to France or Canada because of better opportunities, especially after they received letters from relatives and saw what was going on in Israel, with the transit camps and the harsh, discriminatory conditions. So it depends, but yes, the truth lies between the two, perhaps.”

Are you still looking for the truth in this story?

“I still feel that it’s an unsolved mystery for me.”

Unsolved mysteries are fertile ground for romantic ideas. The polarization of Israeli society, which according to some is now at its height, could be a serious catalyst for a conceptual and physical movement of return to a country where we left part of ourselves behind. And perhaps, as Neta Elkayam’s answer in the concluding scene reveals, when she’s asked where home is, and she responds by saying that it’s where her love, her husband, is – the location is in another dimension, not necessarily physical, but in what has always truly impelled us to move about and search in the world. And yes, if you see the new film you will discover that, despite everything, the romance isn’t dead.

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