Israeli propaganda film: “Dark” Oriental Jews and “light” of civilization

A newly discovered Israeli propaganda film from the 1950’s reveals the depths of racism applied to Oriental Jewish children who came to Israel – and how it was justified by militarism and the need for disciplined soldiers

Last weekend, Lihi Yona published here a post describing and explaining her self-identification as an Arab Jew. Although not new (Yona herself cites a 2003 book by Yehouda Shenhav, and use of the term stretches back to Albert Memmi and his novel “The Pillar of Salt”), this identification was revived recently by the inspiration of the Arab Spring. Those who chose to adopt this identity do it as an act of defiance – both against the traditional underprivileged place reserved for “Oriental” Jews within Israel, and against separation-based nationalism that excludes Israel and its Jews – especially “Oriental” Jews – from the Arab world.

As if to provide the perfect illustration to why such rethinking is needed, Channel 2 has dug up an old Israeli propaganda film about the forced Europeanisation of Jewish immigrants from Arab countries, told through the story of a devoted European-Jewish soldier girl, “Ruthie”, and a filthy shack-dwelling Yemenite-Jewish boy, “Sa’adia”.

The racism reeking from the 1953 film beggars belief: Sa’adia, we are told by the narrator, lives “in darkness”, eats with his hands, smokes in bed and gets beat up by his parents; Ruthie reads, writes and eats with a knife and fork. The narration begins with “In the name of the World of Light, Ruthie will descend into the Dark World of the immigrant camp; she will give of her light to Sa’adia and bring him up to her level.” It goes downhill from there:


Channel 2, which hardly conceals its disgust at the film, went further and brought together the daughters of the soldier girl (real name Talia Bauman, later chief psychiatrist of the Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv); the narrator from the film’s voiceover; and one of Sa’adia’s friends from the film; the channel’s report ends with a plea to viewers to find Sa’adia himself.

To me, the most poignant moment is Sa’adia’s friend  – now in his late 60’s – insists he is not remotely offended at being presented as a fly-covered wildling, sprayed with chemicals, and drilled into “civilisation”, because this is how him and his kids, later soldiers, won the Six Day War. In other words, the de-Arabising was good because it let us beat the Arabs (and, by implication, prove we were worthy and even essentially needed Israeli Jews).

And where is Sa’adia himself? Viewers found the answer within days of broadcast. Sa’adia, real name Zecharia Shalom, was killed in the Six Day War, in the battle for Jerusalem. He left behind a wife, and two children – the younger, an eight-months-old boy.