Existing as a political act

The International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) is in town again. Two weeks of the best documentaries bathing in people, societies, stories and dreams that are worlds away from my own, or so I thought. This year I am invited to moderate the screening of a French film, May God Be With You, an autobiographical dive into Jewish (be)longing by Cléo Cohen. When we meet, there is immediate recognition: “Hey, you’ve got the same hair as me!”

Cohen is a French Jew, from Arab descent, with grandparents that emigrated to France from Algeria and Tunisia in the 1960s and 70s. In her debut documentary, she films herself having conversations with all four grandparents in order to better understand what stories, customs, languages and places she is made of. But the grandparents tell incoherent stories, and her grandfather who presumably would have the most comprehensive view on being Arab and Jewish, first under French colonial rule and afterwards under postcolonial authoritarian rule, remains silent. 

This is a story about intersectionality in an intricate and not-easy-to-comprehend way. First, there is the incomprehensible existence of “MENA Jews”, Jews from the Middle East and North Africa. In Europe, the overriding view of Jews and Jewishness is an amorphous, European-like, religious entity with the Holocaust as the central historical point of reference. MENA Jews defeat this categorization on all accounts. There are worlds of ancestry nestled within the languages, the customs, the food, the specific Jewish history of these places. Indeed, one of the central problems Jews are dealing with is a complete lack of knowledge by the people around them of what it means to be Jewish. As a consequence, presenting yourself as a MENA Jew often results in puzzled faces. 

Cohen meticulously describes, through several seemingly mundane scenes, the layers of difficulty of being an Arab Jew in France. During family discussions about Israel/Palestine she feels uncomfortable with the levels of anti-Arab rhetoric. Her grandparents seem to have left their Arabness at the French border when they fled, causing the next generation not to identify with their Arab roots till the point of active rejection. Cohen however actually longs for her roots in a melancholic way and works to reclaim them. 

For Cohen, it is all the more frustrating that Jews are often considered as ‘white’ by the intersectional world, as this is inherently discordant with her ancestry. At the same time, she also reflects on the ways in which Algerian Jews did perhaps become ‘whiter’ when the French colonizers played off the Arabs against the Jews by offering the Algerian Jews French citizenship overnight in the Crémieux decree. This actually put the Algerian Jews in a position closer to the colonizers than to their indigenous Muslim Arabs and Berber neighbours. Being an Arab Jew in France these days is a complex identity to carry around, with many contradictions to hold, acknowledge and work through.

Throughout the documentary Jewish Tunesian writer Albert Memmi’s book The colonizer and the colonized is referenced. Memmi describes himself as standing at a crossroads of three worlds: being indigenous in a colonised country, being Jewish in an antisemitic environment and being African in a world ruled by Europe. Memmi speaks to exactly this multilayered complexity of being an Arab Jew. Even though Cohen is of a different generation and faces different nuances in the complexities of being an Arab Jew in the European context, Memmi’s lucidity is still highly relevant today. Or as Cohen aptly dropped this truthbomb at the Q&A after the screening: Just simply existing is a political act. 

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