Documentary Depicts a Morocco That Calls for the Return of Its Diaspora Jews

Review of director Kathy Wazana's They Were Promised the Sea

By Jordan Elgrably

Among many Jews, the desire to be a contrarian supersedes loyalty to the Jewish people or to Israel.

That is abundantly evident in the film They Were Promised the Sea by writer/director Kathy Wazana, screened recently in the Arab Film Festival. To be fair, Wazana—a Jewish Moroccan raised in Canada—describes herself as a member of the Palestinian solidarity movement, and at times her documentary on Moroccan Jews takes a political turn, when she quotes Simon Levy—a leader in the Casablanca Jewish community—who criticizes Israel's "colonial" policies toward the Palestinians. Wazana told the film-going audience after the screening that she has experienced pushback in this regard, as a number of people have suggested she remove "the politics" from her film and just stick to the Moroccan Jewish narrative.

The fact that Wazana equates what happened to the Moroccan Jews as analogous to the fate of many Palestinians gives her film a backbone.

They Were Promised the Sea documents the forced exodus of Jews from their native Moroccan towns and cities in the early 1960s, when the Jewish Agency plied the Moroccan government with various and sundry incentives. The film quotes Moroccan Israeli scholar Sami Shalom Chetrit on David Ben Gurion, saying Israel's founding prime minister "did the math" and figured that to strengthen Israel, he needed to expel three-quarters of a million Palestinians, and import three-quarters of a million Jews from Arab/Muslim lands. And indeed, to build the state, between 1948 and 1967 Israel largely succeeded in depopulating the historic Jewish communities of Turkey, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran and Yemen, importing some 800,000 Jews.

It was a dual tragedy when you consider the loss of some 400 Palestinian towns and villages, and the uprooting of hundreds of years of an interfaith narrative, for Palestine was home to Muslims, Jews and Christians alike, before, during and after the Ottoman Empire.

However, there is today a lachrymose, and largely erroneous narrative in the Jewish community, that Jews of Arab/Muslim lands were expelled en masse. The State of Israel prefers to equate this narrative to the Palestinian exodus, as if to say two wrongs make a right.

The truth is more complex. In some cases, as in Egypt, Jews were expelled by state decree, when they were viewed as a fifth column. But in other cases, particularly in Morocco and Yemen, Israel actively pursued deals with government officials and Jewish community leaders that caused the departure of whole Jewish communities, leaving behind bereft Muslim friends, as well as Jewish homes, businesses, synagogues and cemeteries.

That is carefully documented in They Were Promised the Sea. Wazana interviews a number of Moroccans, from prominent leaders to men and women in the street, who fondly remember their Jewish friends and neighbors, and decry their departure. The local Jewish community leader of Tetouan remembers the day in 1963 when several buses came to pick up that city’s Jews leaving for Israel. Their Moroccan Muslim compatriots came running after them, bringing gifts, weeping as they climbed into the buses.

Many of the Moroccan Muslims interviewed in Wazana’s film appeal to Moroccan Jews to return to their homeland. Wazana herself says that even though she’s been a Canadian for the past 40-plus years, she still calls herself a Moroccan. My grandparents left Morocco for France years before my birth, and I still consider myself a French and Moroccan American. Roots are strong and deep, and cannot easily be severed. Little wonder that Palestinians who left or were expelled more than 60 years ago, or their children or children’s children, remain attached to their homeland.

They Were Promised the Sea is a compelling oral history of a little-known diaspora community, the Jews of Morocco. Although many have become citizens of Israel, few have lost the connection to their country’s language, music, food and customs. Today, many consider themselves Arab Jews. While to some, this may sound like a contrarian identity, it is no different from being an Arab Muslim or an Arab Christian, and there is no contradiction.

You can be a Jewish Arab without fear that you are somehow being disloyal to Judaism, although you will upset the ethnocentric equation that is the backbone of Zionism.