Vivid shots of the rust-colored ruins of Jewish-Moroccan villages lit up Choi Auditorium Tuesday, Feb. 10 as students gathered to view the documentary “They Were Promised the Sea.” The barren images reinforced the emptiness pervading the film’s environment and the loss of Morocco’s Jews, who answered the Zionists’ call to return to Israel en masse.
The documentary follows the story of Moroccan Jews who left their homes practically overnight in 1963 for Israel. The possibility of a better life in Israel enticed the group, along with thousands of other Arab Jews; however, their departure was hesitant at best and a forced exodus at worst.
In the film, local residents guide director Kathy Wazana through the dilapidated villages, pointing out the homes and businesses of departed Jewish neighbors. She encounters beautiful synagogues that are carefully preserved and maintained for visitors despite a missing Jewish population.
Throughout the tour, Wazana interviews locals, who paint a vivid picture of Muslims in tears embracing their Jewish neighbors as they pile onto buses for Israel. The exodus affected both groups; Moroccan Muslims suffered personal and economic losses while many Moroccan Jews, who struggled to find a community in Israel, wished to return to Morocco.
“It was more than a coexistence, maybe even more than a closeness, but a oneness,” Wazana said regarding the nature of the blended Muslim and Jewish communities in Morocco prior to the Jews’ departure.
The screening was sponsored by the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life and the Critical Theory and Social Justice (CTSJ), history, Diplomacy and World Affairs and politics departments. CTSJ Professor Heather Lukes viewed the film last year and felt it was a documentary Occidental students should see. She helped organize the screening and introduced Wazana and the film.
After the film ended, Wazana and history Professor Michael Gasper hosted a question and answer session for students in attendence. They discussed the trials and tribulations of the film’s ten-year creation process and Wazana’s personal journey as a Moroccan Jew. Wazana, who was born in Casablanca and raised in Toronto, made several trips to Morocco throughout her life in an effort to understand her own identity. Through this exploration, she became enthralled by the story of Morocco’s lost Jewish population.
Wazana forged strong connections with the people she interviewed, exposing the personal hardships they suffered after Jewish emigration. Although the accounts could have been more varied, they reinforce the story’s veracity, which challenges the common narrative of Jews and Arabs in constant conflict.
The film has been perceived to support the plight of modern Palestinians: it explains Zionist groups’ expulsion of three-quarters of a million Palestinians and importation of three-quarters of a million Jews from the Arab world. As a result, the filmmakers struggled to finance the project because many potential backers were concerned that the film could be characterized as anti-Israel, according to Wazana.
That being said, the film emphasizes first and foremost the multicultural nature of the villages prior to 1963 and Morocco’s call for the homecoming of its Jewish population. Rather than making a political statement, “They Were Promised the Sea” explores the loss of a community and identity for the Jews who left and the Muslims who stayed behind.