Not the kind of vocal and violent racism you see on YouTube videos, but the sneaky silent one that is a direct side-effect of fear and trauma. Like most Jewish families, we have a history of displacement, and exile. Both my parents and their families had to run away from Algeria in the early 1960s when the country became independent. They left behind most of their belongings, the graves of their ancestors and a life time of memories, hopes and projects. Even if the scar is slowly healing, I know that it will always be part of who we are. One of the many symptoms of this kind of trauma is the lack of faith in the ”other side”. In our case: the Arabs. “They were our brothers and they chased us” is a sentence I grew up with. It was usually followed by: “They betrayed us; you can never trust an Arab.” This fear and defiance followed us in France and in Israel. And in our narrative, the Algerian neighbor became the Palestinian enemy. As a result, as an Israeli Jew of Algerian descent, I was not meant to trust any Arab.
But I became me… and I work for Peace between Arabs and Jews. You can imagine the turmoil my parents went through! My dad and uncle were both especially disappointed and worried: Their dear child, their smart and kind Sarah, who was proud of her heritage, was turning into a LEFTIST!
Of course, as the good leftist I already was I tried to change their mind and never missed a chance to bring my political agenda to our family reunions. That’s the thing with leftists, we are not afraid of challenges! Until one day, nine years ago, when my dad and uncle surprised me and invited me to a gathering with all their friends… by “friends” I mean half a dozen North African Jewish men in their 60s and 70s with the same trauma: “The Arabs betrayed us!”
I never felt so awkward and alone. Sitting at this table, I could feel the weight of their common Mizrahi gaze. A dark and heavy gaze that has the amazing power to turn from cold to warm in the blink of an eye. I was shivering. Everything was planned, and they knew exactly who I was. The battle started as soon as the excessive number if little salad plates were placed on the table. To my surprise my dad and my uncle were silent. They were looking and listening to the evocation of major historical milestones. Every single piece of Jewish and Israeli history was invited to join our dinner in no chronological order whatsoever: The first temple, the Shoah, the 6 day war, the exodus from Egypt (yes, we went that far), the Algerian war of independence, the second temple, the Israeli war of independence and more. Of course I knew those stories; they are all parts of my family’s story, my people’s story and our national history. Yes I respect my ancestors, yes I love my culture, and yes I acknowledge and even carry our trauma…. But I don’t let them dissolve my ability to have empathy, and I don’t want the past to define my future. This was the bottom line of my argument. By dessert, I was sweaty, exhausted and could have probably killed my own brother if he had tried to grab the Parve chocolate mousse that the waiter placed in front of me. Not very tolerant of me… the North African gang destroyed me!
My dad and uncle drove me back home. Sitting in the back of the car I was full of resentment. Why did they put me in this situation? Why didn’t stop their friends? I let the Arabo-Andaluz music fill the car and stared at the backs at the two men sitting in the front seats. How could they be so narrow-minded when they are so clearly Arab themselves! Arab culture is part of our identity! I know they miss Algeria and some of their best friends are Algerian Muslims… But it was too late in the evening to mention any of this.
In front of my apartment, I left the car and hardly said goodnight, ready to leave this terrible evening behind me. But the voice of my uncle held me back. His window was down and he had his head sticking out of it. “You did good! You taught them many things tonight!” He was smiling! And my dad was too. The gaze was warm.
Did I underestimate the Algerian brothers?!
A few years after this night, my uncle passed away, but my dad kept inviting me to these old school meetings. He actually loves seeing me argue with his friends. I even changed their mind a little. Today I know that if my dad and his brother brought me to this reunion it was because they were proud of me and respected me. They just couldn’t find the words… it’s just a North African man thing!