Iraqi-born Israeli broadcast pioneer speaks for dispossessed

One day in the early 1940s, little Salim Fattal ran away from Muslim toughs in his dusty Baghdad neighborhood. The older boys finally caught the 12-year-old and slapped him around for no reason other than Salim was a Jew.

Bolting home, he cried to his mother, “Where is the justice?” Salim’s mother laughed out loud and replied in Arabic, “You are looking for justice? You are Jewish.”

Such was life for Iraqi Jews before the founding of Israel in 1948. Once Fattal and his family escaped to the Jewish state in 1950, they started life anew. But Fattal never forgot, or lost, his Mizrachi roots.

Fattal, 79, is a retired Israeli broadcaster and writer. He pioneered Israel’s Arabic-language radio and television. He directed acclaimed documentaries, including a three-part series on the Jews of Iraq and a six-part series on the Jews of North Africa.

Salim Fattal speaks out for Jews from Arab lands. photo/cathleen maclearie

He may be retired, but he is not retiring.

Fattal continues to speak out on behalf of Jews from Arab lands, dispossessed and exiled after centuries of coexistence. He was in the Bay Area late last month as a guest of Jimena (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa), a local organization that draws attention to the history and plight of Mizrachi Jews such as Fattal.

“We could feel the superiority of the Muslims against the Jews,” Fattal told j. of his life in Iraq. “There were periods where they treated the Jews justly, but they were accustomed to seeing Jews submissive and inferior all the time.”

The Iraq of his youth was ruled by an authoritarian secular regime. Among the 120,000 Iraqi Jews of the time, most were poor. The wealthy had means to flee to Palestine, but for Jews like Fattal, there were few options for making a more equitable society.

He chose to join the Communist Party. In anti-communist Iraq, that led to additional layers of persecution. He was followed by secret police and eventually arrested. Ultimately he felt compelled to leave the country for good.

Once in Israel, he found work right away as an Arabic-speaking radio announcer, but his communist past caught up with him soon enough and he lost the job. He tried several other career paths, and each time he was fired for his past political beliefs.

“I came to the conclusion it’s better to work in a laboratory with mice,” he said with a smile. “I worked as an illustrator in a medical school in Jerusalem.”

In time he married, earned a master’s degree in Islamic civilization and Arabic literature, and another degree in biology. In 1962 he returned to Arabic-language broadcasting, first in radio and later in TV.

“[Israel] thought the best way to reach the Arabs and change their prejudices about Israel was through television,” he said. “We did shows for children [because] I thought the best thing to do to reach the heart of the Arabs was not to talk politics. Children have no brainwashing yet.”

In 1968 he created a show called “Sammy & Susu,” one of the  most watched Arab children’s programs of the time. He also acquired programs from the BBC and American networks, all subtitled in Hebrew and Arabic.

Given his knowledge of Arabic and Islamic culture, Fattal has a deeper understanding of Israel’s Arab citizens and neighbors than do most Israelis. But he is unforgiving of Arab enmity toward Israel and the Jews.

“If you compare [Arab Israelis] with citizens in any other Arab country, they have a much better standard of living,” Fattal said. “Yet their leaders would like to do harm to Israel. We know there are problems. We don’t deny them. But because it’s a Jewish state, the whole world attacks Israel from all possible directions.”

He sees this as a new form of anti-Semitism. “If you scratch a boy from Gaza, the media says, ‘What did you do?’ But when a terrorist comes to Israel to bomb a bus, it’s only a matter of reporting what happened, and after two days it’s forgotten.”

Thus, he is skeptical about Arab-Jewish relations and seems pessimistic about the recently restarted direct peace talks. These or any talks.

“Until this day [Arabs] talk about annihilation of Israel,” Fattal said. “How can you negotiate with someone who wants you to die?”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.