At a time of increasing division and intolerance across the world, events that increase understanding of minority cultures are more important than ever. This year’s New York Sephardic Jewish Film Festival (NYSJFF), in March, did exactly that. The film festival covered a variety of independent films from all over the world, highlighting the prevalence of the Sephardic community and its contributions to understanding and tolerance across the globe.

Group shot--L to R David Serero, Chakib Ghouadani, Director of Morocco Tourism Office NY, Maxime Karoutchi, Singer

Sephardi Jews (or Sephardic Jews) are a group of Jewish people originating from Sepharad on the Iberian Peninsula. Following their exile from Iberia, beginning in the late 1400s, the Sephardim migrated to North Africa, the Levant (modern Middle East), Anatolia (modern Turkey), and many other parts of the globe.

Outside the borders of Israel, France and the United States have the largest populations of Sephardic Jews today, with around 300,000 living in each of those countries. While there are many other denominations, Sephardic Jews are most commonly distinguished from Ashkenazi Jews, a diaspora that was dispersed around the Holy Roman Empire (mainly modern Europe) towards the end of the first millennium AD.

The NYSJFF, which celebrated its 22nd year his year, is run primarily by the American Sephardi Federation (ASF).

NYSJFF 2019 focused particularly on promoting understanding between Jewish and Muslim communities. ASF executive director, Jason Guberman, spoke with Inside Arabia this week to share his thoughts.

“While there are other Jewish and Israeli film festivals in New York, the NY Sephardic Jewish Film Festival is the only one dedicated to presenting the beauty, depth, complexity, and vitality of the Jewish experience,” said Guberman. This year’s eleven-day NYSJFF had film entries focused on Egyptian, French, Israeli, Moroccan, Spanish, Syrian, Tunisian, and Yemenite communities. “Each night of the Festival featured a themed program honoring one of the diverse communities the ASF represents.”

The opening night of the event, March 6, focused on Morocco and was presented in collaboration with Moroccan NGO Association Mimouna. Association Mimouna was founded in 2007 at Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco (AUI) by Moroccan Muslim students. Its goal is to educate Moroccans about the history of Judaism in the country and to encourage harmony among Jews and Muslims. This was the message transmitted to the thousands of attendees at NYSJFF.

22nd Annual Sephardic Jewish Film Festival Honored Morocco on Opening Night

Moroccan-French Opera Singer & Producer David Serero, MC’d the proceedings and sang both the Moroccan and the US national anthems as a symbol of the internationalism and solidarity the NYSJFF represents. The Moroccan community turned out in droves for the special opening night of the festival.

Morocco has a rich history of Judaism and a substantial Jewish diaspora, particularly in Israel. Jason Guberman has revealed to Inside Arabia that the NYSJFF is in discussions that may result in some films being screened in Morocco in the future, specifically in Fez and Essaouira. Guberman describes Morocco as “a vibrant and welcoming country that is proud of its Sephardi past and future.” He says that focusing on the North African nation was intended to buck the trend of increasing intolerance between Jews and Muslims worldwide.

In addition to Serero, several prominent Moroccan figures were present. These included Chakib Ghadouani (Moroccan National Tourist Office), Hamid Aberaouz (Moroccan National Tourist Office), Maxime Karoutchi (a Jewish-Moroccan singer) and Taha Kadri (a representative from the Moroccan UN Mission).

Karoutchi gave a stunning performance during the proceedings, during which audience members were dancing in the aisles. Virtuoso Moroccan-American Oud player, Rachid Halihal, also performed.

In Guberman’s words: “The concept of the Moroccan Opening Night began with the the 20th NY Sephardic Jewish Film Festival, when we honored Mr. André Azoulay, Senior Counselor to Morocco’s King Mohammed VI, in recognition of his remarkable life’s work bridging religious divides through artistic and cultural endeavors, such as the founding Essaouira’s Festival des Andalousies Atlantiques.” Indeed, the new Moroccan constitution, ushered in by King Mohammed VI in 2011, officially recognized for the first time the diversity of ethnic groups that make up the modern population, including the Jewish community.

The arts are a place where the ancient links between Muslim and Jewish cultures are displayed. Last year’s NYSJFF presented the Grammy-nominated Moroccan group Innov Gnawa with its renowned Pomegranate Award for Musical Conservation, Creativity, and Coexistence in recognition of its contribution to keeping the Jewish-Moroccan musical genre Shabbat Gnawa alive. The group performed again at the opening reception this year.

The Pomegranate Award was sculpted by Baghdad-born artist Oded Halahmy, who explains his design of the award: “Round and full, pomegranates are an ancient and universal symbol of beauty, love and marriage, fertility, prosperity, hope, life, and rebirth. Their seeds, rich, abundant and tightly compacted, are revered as the holy secret of unity. They promise generous futures and I sculpted this aluminum pomegranate to wish love and prosperity to all.”

All in all, this year’s NYSJFF was an enormous success and, by all accounts, left a lasting impression on those who attended. In our troubled times, it is imperative to support such events to promote unity through common understanding.