What It Was Like to Be a Teenage Moroccan Immigrant in Israel in the '70s

Daniel Ben Simon's autobiography is best when he's not writing about 'the Moroccans,' but focuses on himself – the immigrant boy in a strange new land.

Daniel Ben Simon (far right) at Kfar HaNoar HaDati (lit. the religious youth village) in northern Israel.
Daniel Ben Simon's autobiography, 'The Moroccans.'

“The Moroccans,” by Daniel Ben Simon, Carmel Publishing House (Hebrew), 223 pages, 74 shekels

The first chapter of Daniel Ben Simon’s autobiography is entitled “Departure.” Ben Simon’s journey to Israeliness, to the State of Israel, to the Israeli consciousness, essentially begins with a departure from there – from Morocco, from Casablanca. And in a sense, perhaps the most meaningful sense, from family, too. The story is a personal one – of departure, of disconnection. Of a young man sent to a new world, one that’s practically unknown. A world that sanctifies ideals, that is drenched in a dialogue of identities, of definitions, of the division of “are you with us or against us?”

This is also a story of the cost of migration, the cost of becoming integrated into the new world. Is it an enchanted world? Does it have something in it that the old world lacks? It doesn’t matter. Ben Simon is a very young fellow. His parents send him out, together with his sister. Integration is a necessity born of circumstances; it means survival. Either you integrate or you pay the price and are thrown by the wayside.

Ben Simon’s book is called “The Moroccans.” In an interview, he confessed that this wasn’t its original title, and that he chose it partly for extraneous reasons, such as for purposes of marketing. The title is not a good choice; at least, it is not a very accurate one. To a great extent, the choice of title makes the book a collaborator in oversimplifying the multifaceted discourse about immigrants to Israel, past and present. I intentionally use the phrase “discourse about immigrants” to describe people who have arrived here and faced a hopeless situation; people of a certain age who were compelled to rebuild themselves, redefine themselves, assume a role that was different from what they thought would be the story of their lives, make do without the very basic power of language, of familiarity with a place, with customs. People of a certain age who were to one degree or another compelled to become needy, to become dependent on the good graces of others.

Bringing all “the Moroccans” – a multifaceted (culturally and consciously) group of Jews in this case, which evolved over the course of centuries, a group that while still in its native land was already internally divided by clear, distinguishing characteristics – into a single story is an impossible task. In the same way that it would be inaccurate to generalize about all Mizrahim, Jews whose origins are in Middle Eastern or North Africa, as if they constituted a single phenomenon. Anyone who does so, who refers to “the Mizrahim,” or to “Mizrahi culture,” is a knowing or unknowing collaborator in making this discourse superficial, in preserving stereotypes, in conceding a priori any discussion of complexity or depth. The connection between the Jewish-Moroccan “Mizrahi” and the Jewish-Iraqi “Mizrahi” is, for example, at the most a marginal one. One that is about as significant as, say, the connection between the Jewish-Moroccan “Mizrahi” and the Jewish-German “Ashkenazi.”

Anyone well versed in Jewish history leading up to the start of the 20th century is familiar with the powerful connections between Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, on the one hand, and Europe in general – and Germany, in particular – on the other: two-way ideological and intellectual connections, connections due to halakha (Jewish law), connections related to cross-migration.

Daniel Ben Simon.
Tomer Appelbaum

That point raises the greatest issue that hovers over the book under review – that of identity, of defining of identity, of the human need to assign labels and external definitions, and the price that society, any society, pays for this. This is not the place to ask whether an exclusive identity that makes possible the definition of specific groups of individuals even exists, or whether such an identity – in a profound, exact sense – even exists: an identity that barely changes with any given moment, that doesn’t lose its relevancy with every new experience, with every emotion, with every discovery. But still.

Ben Simon writes in the introduction, “I am not sure that my immigration experience is representative of the immigrants from Morocco.” But elsewhere he also writes: “To date, no attempt has been made to decipher the sociology of the Moroccan immigration. This book is a modest step in that direction.”

I object to Ben Simon’s sociological aspirations in this book. In his work as a journalist, he aimed his efforts in this direction, always doing so in an interesting and profound manner. But that is not the story here, because this is a different sort of literary undertaking. Someone who seeks to tell about himself has to first employ tools of emotion, sharing experiences and memories, allowing the reader to learn the process involved in consciousness-in-the-making: a private and personal consciousness, not a “sociology,” not the diagnosis of a society, not a creation of a portrait of something – but rather literature.

‘Language falls silent’

By its nature, an autobiography is first and foremost a literary text. And it is enough to think of Sartre’s “The Words” to understand this. Sociology, by virtue of the alienation that underlies its definition, in its critical sense of observation from the outside – is alien to literature. Being Moroccan is, in any event, much more complex, and so too are its immigrant experiences. It is enough for me to think about my “Moroccan” family, about its consciousness, about how it coped, about its relationship to religion and its immigration experiences.

Ben Simon sets out on a journey that traces the impressive path he has forged, the consolidation of his own perspective on reality, his emotions. But in “The Moroccans,” he feels a need to package this in “sociology.” Clearly there is a context, a “period,” a reflection of reality, but it is marginal; it is not the main thing.

I would like Ben Simon’s book to be read primarily by young people who have immigrated recently from Ethiopia or from Russia or from anywhere else – the sort of young people who every day undergo the same experiences he describes: “Language falls silent, and I felt as someone whose strength had been pried from one’s hands.”

These young people are the real target audience of this book. They are the ones who are profoundly familiar with Ben Simon’s feelings when he writes: “I understood nothing of what the teachers were saying. They came in, one after the other, delivered the lesson, and then hurried to leave. I sat on the bench in the back and I was like a statue that had been placed in the classroom.”

Who among the readers, and it doesn’t matter which generation you belong to, does not remember those youngsters who were like “a statue that had been placed in the classroom”? The young people who didn’t know what to do with themselves in the face of the Hebrew that was so foreign to them, in the face of the different mentality, the impatience? This statue – the book assures us, and this is one of its unique qualities – can someday become a Daniel Ben Simon: author, journalist, and member of Knesset.

In the book’s best moments, Ben Simon succeeds in ushering the readers into his state of mind, that of the boy that he was, that of the young man who paved his way through a world that was racist and, by and large, superficial. This, then, is the power of the literary act: the ability to bring the reader into the soul of its hero, into that expanse in which definitions fall away, in which at every moment a new identity is formed, a new insight born, a new observation conceived.

Within this expanse, there are no Moroccans and no Ethiopians. There is an immigrant, a weakened individual, a soul that is seeking succor. And there is a society that by virtue of its being a society, by virtue of its being strong, tramples this soul. And there is a reader, who suddenly understands how complex the human story is, grasping the fact that the definitions the ruling class, the elite, decides for us are hollow, and serve it alone. And more than anything else, there is the importance of always being able to stop, look, ask questions and extend a hand, because the person sitting across from you, even if he is an immigrant, even if you don’t completely understand him, is forever a human being – and must always be treated as such.