Among the memorable films I’ve seen in Lincoln Center’s Jewish Film Festival is the world premiere of “Villa Jasmin.” This is the basically true story of a French-Tunisian Jew who returns as a 30 year old with his pregnant wife to explore the family roots he left behind 20 years before in Tunisia, when he departed for France as an orphan (both his parents had died of natural causes within three months of each other).
His father was a politically active left-wing journalist, arrested by the Vichy French authorities and turned over to the Nazis who put him in a concentration camp. He survived largely because he was regarded as a political prisoner (sheltered by his Italian last name) rather than as a Jew.
It’s a window on Tunisian-Jewish life, including the split between the older community of Arabic speakers and the more recent arrivals from Livorno, Italy who were French speakers. There are resonances and real-life confirmations of Robert Satloff’s findings in his book, “Among the Righteous,” on warm North African Muslim-Jewish relations during, before and after World War II.
The director is Ferid Boughedir, a Francophone of Tunisian-Arab background who spoke at the premiere. He made the movie as a favor to his friend, Serge Moati. Moati is a French-Tunisian-Jewish writer and filmmaker who wrote a novel of the same name, from this story of his actual journey to recount his parents’ lives together. Apparently, Moati felt too close to the story to make the movie himself. Some of the actors are also of North African-Jewish background and French-language culture.
As with many Tunisian Jews, the father in the story was caught in the contradictions of their situation. He speaks French and hardly any Arabic, is dedicated to French culture but also looks forward to independence from French rule. He is not ashamed of his Jewishness but is an enthusiast of French Republican-style secularism. When his wife mentions upon his return from Europe that her brother has become a Zionist, he simply states that it’s too bad that his brother-in-law has given in to a “fantasy.” Given the fate of North African Jewry, however, it’s Serge, the French-speaking Tunisian Jew, dedicated to a vision of life in an independent Arab country informed by the French Revolution’s “Declaration of the Rights of Man,” who may have been unrealistic.
But there is nobility in his universalistic idealism. In a late scene in the film, Serge addresses his party comrades who rally to celebrate his safe return from European imprisonment; he mentions comrades with obvious Jewish names, arrested with him, who did not survive. They close the meeting by singing the socialist anthem, the Internationale.
As Mr. Boughedir, the filmmaker, indicated in his talk, Tunisia still has a viable Jewish community of a few thousand and has enjoyed a level of tolerance there that is uncommon in the Arab and Muslim worlds. But as he also admitted, this is left over from the much larger community of 200,000, most of which fled in the face of anti-Semitic riots following the Six Day War in 1967. According to Boughedir, the Tunisian government restored order and prosecuted many of the rioters, but the damage was done to the trust most Tunisian Jews had in their future in an Arab country. Still, according to the director, many Jews return to their former homeland each year as visitors.
Postscript: One offhand remark of Mr. Boughedir indicated to me how little non-Jews (even educated and sympathetic non-Jews) appreciate the tiny minority status of Jews in the world (perhaps 15 million today, as opposed to 18 million on the eve of the Holocaust). This is significant because it underscores how the vulnerability of Jews is little understood. When asked how many Tunisian Jews there had been, he said, “200,000– not even half a million.” Now 200,000 is a relatively large community by Jewish standards; there were only about ten or so that were larger, but perhaps not realizing how few Jews there are in the world, he saw this number as small.