[Europe Solidaire Sans Frontières] - http://www.europe-solidaire.org/spip.php?article3744
30 years to the Black Panthers in Israel
“Either the cake will be shared by all or there will be no cake.”[1]
CHETRIT Sami Shalom

On March 21, a conference was held at Beit Hillel, the Hebrew University in Jerusalem celebrating 30 years since the founding of the ‘Black Panthers’ movement: a movement whose emergence marked a turning point in the Mizrahim struggle for equality in Israel. The conference hall packed with students, Mizrahi activists, and people in solidarity with the radical Mizrahim was characterized by an atmosphere of strong emotional excitement due to the presence of a number of leaders from the Panthers uprising. On the other hand, the presentations of the Panthers leaders, activists and academtians regarding the ideology and political goals of the Black panthers themmselves; brought to light the changes the Mizrahi movement has gone through, since the original Black Panther perception of their oppression within class and racial terms to today’s heavy emphasis on culture and identity.

The event was initiated by Sami Shalom Chetrit, the chief editor of Kedma – Middle Eastern Gate to Israel (kedma.co.il), and Eli Bareket the executive director of Beit Hillel at the Hebrew University; and was carried out in cooperation with and the assistance of other organizations as Shatil and TZAH - Students for social justice, and Musrara School of Photography headed by Avi Sabag. The conference finale’ was a beautiful exiting concert by The Israeli Andalus Orchestra, conducted by the Maestro Dr. Avi Ilam-Amzalag, and the leading soloists Emiel Zrihan and Lior El-Maleh.

 A salute to the Black Panthers

Israeli historiography continues to push the Black Panthers’ movement to the outermost margins of the Israeli historical narrative, by largely labeling them a negative event that everyone would be better off forgetting. After thirty years since their initial emergence, only a handful of academic studies about the Black Panthers have been published. The most prominent question emerges of why this is the case?

I for one, do not expect the educational system to deal officially with the Black Panthers movement or with the Mizrahi struggle in general, largely because I do not expect anything from such a system to begin with. But the larger question is why Mizrahi researchers, writers, intellectuals and organizations also choose to ignore the Black Panthers? After 30 years, many of these people are afraid to identify with the Black Panthers struggle, and [they]treat it as though it were[was] a case of a private struggle carried out by a particular band of ‘not nice’ youth (to use former Israeli P.M Golda Meir’s famous remark about them) from the Musrara neighborhood. Mizrahi politicians love to continually emphasize that ‘We are not Black Panthers’, thus implying that in contrast to the Panthers, they are indeed ‘nice’. As Arye Derei [the political leader of Shas, now in prison] remarked more than once, Shas is ‘a positive movement which keeps order and quite and prevents agitation in the streets’.

However, from today’s 30-year retrospective, and after engaging in a thorough research of my own, I state without hesitation that the ‘Black Panthers’ were the ground-breaking catalyst for the Mizrahi struggle in Israel. Israel before March 1971 was a different Israel than that of after March 1971. In the former, the economic and cultural oppression was accepted by Mizrahim with submissiveness, except for short rebellious outbursts which were repressed with an iron fist by the government and its Mizrahi collaborators, as in the case of the Wadi Salib Uprising in 1959.

The Panthers contributed to unmasking the economic and social relations in Israel and revealed it to be a sheer battlefield. Israel before the Black Panthers, refused to admit its policy of inequality and denied its oppressive treatment of Mizrahim. Yet thirty years later, Israel can no longer deny this economic and cultural oppression which today is becoming increasingly acute. The state is therefore in need of far more sophisticated mechanisms and means[of]manipulation than those of mere denial that it used in the past. Today, this increasing inequality is conspicuous in the undisguised war of the rich launched against any policy or self-organization of the Mizrahim aimed at addressing their socio-political woes. Of course, it is only a question of time before the masses of oppressed workers fight back.

In this sense, the gathering in the Hebrew University, together with the Black Panthers heroes and their partners from the Left movements is not only an expression of thanks and honor: it is a genuine attempt to correct Israeli and Mizrahi historiography by relocating the Black Panthers’ struggle at the center of collective memory and an emerging alternative narrative so as to constitute for us and for the coming generations, a source of learning, understanding, consciousness and most importantly, inspiration, to continue the struggle, for the long and difficult road ahead.

 The Ascent and Decline of the ‘Black Panthers’ Movement:

 A Selected Chronicle of Events

The Black Panthers’ uprising was begun by a group of young, unemployed, dropout residents of the Musrara neighborhood located at the border between East and West Jerusalem - a neighborhood whose Western (Israeli) half came to be as a result of the expulsion of its original Palestinian inhabitants during the War of 1948. Due to its peripheral status at the border with the then Trans-Jordanian side of Jerusalem, the early years of the neighborhood were characterized by issues of daily security,which ended in the wake of the ’67 war, because both the Eastern and Western halves of Jerusalem came beneath Israeli municipal and police control. The neighborhood was then housed by 650 Mizrahi immigrant families, the majority of whom came from North Africa, with a minority coming from Iraq.

The local youth self organization began with demands from the municipal youth departent, regarding the educational system and extra-curricular activities.However these demands soon intersected with exposure to the radical Left of matzpen [ a radical Socialist and AntiZionist organization]which produced a radical Mizrahi social consciousness attuned to social economic perspectives far wider than the neighborhood they grew up in.

The First Stage: Radical Collective Confrontation

[January 13, 1971: The first article on the Black panthers in the daily ‘Al Hamishmar’. The name appears for the first time when they are quoted:’ We shall be the Black Panthers of Israel’.

March 3, 1971: The first demonstration in the Jerusalem Municipality Square. All leaders of the emerging movement together with members of ‘Matzpen’ are taken into preventive detention before the demonstration, following the decision of PM Golda Meir.

April 13, 1971: The Prime Minister’s office. A meeting is held with the Black Panthers. Meir attempts to carry on a conversation similar to a social worker’s talk with street gangs. After the meeting she refers to them as ‘not nice people’.

May 18, 1971: Central Jerusalem, ‘The Night of the Panthers’, Between 5000 and 7000 people participate in a demonstration which, more than any other activity stamped the Black Panthers with the image of uncompromising radicalism.

May 28, 1971: Ten days after the Night of the Panthers, supporters and Black Panther representatives get together in an assembly of solidarity with the struggle, in a Tel Aviv cinema hall.

June 1971: The first issue of ‘The Word of the Black Panthers’ is published as the mouthpiece of the movement. For the first time, they refer to their activity in unequivocal radical terms of Resistance and Uprising in the Ashkenazi-Mizrahi context: “Our organization has risen on the background of the bitterness, accumulated since the first European settlers came to this country. Our organization is the first expression of the Mizrahi Jews’ resistance - a resistance that has existed since we were first introduced to Ashkenazi Jews.”

July 5 1971: The Quiet Demonstration. With full cooperation from the police, Black Panthers from throughout Israel demonstrate with no clashes and no use of force on both sides About 3000 men and women assembled, among them 500 members and supporters of the organization, mainly from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Demonstrators carry banners with slogans denouncing discrimination, demanding the liquidation of poverty and calling for Golda Meir’s resignation. The Panthers prove to be in full control as to the nature of their organization’s activities.

August 28 1971: Zion Square, Jerusalem. A stormy demonstration of thousands is held where an effigy of Golda Meir is set on fire: “We are warning the government that we will take all necessary means against show trials of the Panthers’ activists…A state in which half the population are kings, and the other half are treated as exploited slaves – we will burn it down.”

October 15, 1971: In an interview with the French daily Le Monde, Golda Meir explains, “they [Mizrahim] brought discrimination with them. Back in the countries they came from, there was discrimination against them.”

January 18, 1972: Demonstration in front of Binyanay Hauma in Jerusalem, on the opening night of the Zionist Congress. For the first time the Black Panthers openly accuse the Zionist movement of being responsible for the unequal socio-economic conditions of the Mizrahim.

March 14, 1972: Jerusalem, The Black Panthers’ Milk project. In a nightly, Robin Hoods style operation, (and one of many similar activities), activists of the movement transfer bottles of milk intended for the rich Ashkenazi suburb of Rehavia, to the poorest neighborhoods in Jerusalem. A tag attached to the bottles reads: “The children in the poverty stricken neighborhoods do not find the milk that they need at their doorstep each morning. In contrast, there are cats and dogs in rich neighborhoods that get plenty of milk, day in-day out.”

March 27, 1972: “The Panthers’ Budget” is presented for approval at the Knesset. Its name derives from the significant increase in education and housing clauses, thus considered to be one of the greatest immediate achievements of the Black Panthers.

May 1st, 1972: A joint demonstration of the ‘Black Panthers’ with ‘Matzpen’ and ‘Siach’[New Israeli Left] against poverty, discrimination and annexation of the occupied territories is held in Jerusalem. The police disperses the demonstration using force, and more than 60 demonstrators are detained.

June 11, 1972: Four leaders of the Panthers are arrested and accused of possessing Molotov cocktail [petrol bombs] in Jerusalem, with the intention of using them against the offices of ‘The League for Jewish Defense’ belonging to Meir Kahana.

December 27, 1972: The Black Panthers National Conference is held in Jerusalem aiming at trying to unite their ranks throughout the country. The conference ends with no great success.

February 21, 1973: A group of Black Panthers unites with MK Shalom Cohen’s ‘Democratic Israelis’ faction towards the elections and sets up “Enough - Black Panthers, Israeli Democrats.” The unification causes a severe conflict with other Panthers who strongly oppose participating in general elections claiming that the movement is not ready.

April 18, 1973: Sixteen families in the poor Hatikva neighborhood in Tel Aviv invade a building as a result of a Panthers’ initiative in protest of the difficulties poor people face in housing.

June 22, 1973: The report of “The Prime Minister’s Committee Concerning Children and Youth in Distress” is presented to the government, two years after the committee has been appointed. The report emphasizes the severe economic distress concentrated among ‘immigrants from Asia and Africa’, and the lack of any general social policy to deal with it.

Overall, the period of the Panthers uprising, which continued primarily between March 1971 and mid-1972, is crammed with more collective confrontation activities than during the entire era of the 1950’s and 60’s. Moreover, in the above survey of events one can see a gradual increase in radicalization concerning the contents and means of confrontation, which, as shown below then deteriorates to complete isolation and disorganization.

Second Stage: From Political Party Politics to Disintegration

September 15, 1973: Elections for the ‘General Federation of Workers’ (the Histadrut).‘The Black Panthers – Israeli Democrats’ win 3 seats in the Executive Committee and are encouraged to participate in the coming elections for the Knesset.

October 5, 1973: War. The Egyptian and Syrian surprise attack against Israel on The Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). Israel enters a period of intense security apprehensions, and deep mourning over the thousands killed. The new protest is hitherto directed against the ‘foul up’ of Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan’s government that did not foresee the sudden attack. The social protest is swept aside to the margins of public debate.

December 31, 1973: Elections to the Knesset, (postponed from October), are held. The Black Panthers campaign in two factions: Edi Maslka’s ‘Blue - White Panthers’, and the ‘Black Panthers – Israeli Democrats’ list, headed by Shalom Cohen and Sa’adya Martziano. In their platform they note that “In this country there are two classes: those that never go hungry and those who are always screwed. This is not a discrimination of this or that ethnic group. Entire classes - the class of the oppressed majority, most of who are Mizrahim - are being brought to their knees’.

As Prof. Hanna Hertzog claims, on the way to the ballot box, as every Mizrahi party from then on demonstrates, the Panthers moderated their messages and oriented themselves towards obtaining a legitimate place. After the failure in the elections, the Black Panthers almost ceased to exist.

June 1974: Shalom Cohen dismantles the pact with the Black Panthers and devotes most of his activities to general political issues and the Palestinian question.

February 1975: The list of the Panthers to the elections in the teachers’ union is rejected on the pretext that the names signed for the petition to participate in the election are fraudulently obtained.

May 17, 1977: The Mizrahim revolt at the polls. The first political turnover in Israel takes place as the Likud, led by Menahem Begin, wins 43 seats in the Israeli Knesset in contrast to the 32 of the Labor Party, led by Shimon Peres. 75% of Likud voters are Mizrahim. In his victory speech, Begin touches upon the protest vote of the Mizrahim: “Today a historical turning point has occurred… The citizens have proven that they are not frightened slaves of the Ma’arach.” [The former front-headed by the Labor Party].

All lists that included Panthers failed except that of Charlie Bitton who became a Member of Knesset as a Black Panther faction on the Rakach list and Sa’adya Martziano who joined the ‘Shelli’ list [of the Zionist Left]. Bitton served as an original and opposition radical Knesset Member for 15 years until his political career ended in 1992. In the 1992 elections, Bitton left ‘Hadash’ of which he was a member and ran as a candidate for the ‘Hatikva’ party, but he was unable to gain the minimum votes needed for entering the Knesset.

  Adaptation of Universal Radical Left Ideology to the Local Situation

The wider ideological framework of the ‘Black Panthers’ consists of two main factors: the first and main factor is the popular basic neo-Marxist revolutionary discourse, which was absorbed in the movement’s rhetoric in terms that included ‘oppressors and oppressed’, ‘exploiters and exploited’, ‘unskilled worker’, and of course, ‘equality’, ‘justice’, and ‘revolution’. These influences reached the group through students in the Left movements, ‘Matzpen’ and ‘Siach’, and also through American students, like Dr. Naomi Kiss, who were close to and familiar with the struggle and discourse of the movements in the U.S. in the 1960s.

The second universal ideological component was the discourse world of the Black struggle in the U.S., from whom they took not only the name of the most radical movement ‘The Black Panthers’, and the symbol of the panther and the fist (which was displayed on every banner, slogan and T-shirt), but also central concepts, mentioned above, like ‘The Blacks are being screwed’, ‘white power’, ‘masters and slaves’, ‘police state’, ‘brothers’, ‘equality of rights’, and others. The adoption was not just symbolic. The members of the movement had a high social consciousness and full understanding of the language. However, what the Israeli Black Panthers took not only the intensity of radicalization of the discourse from the American Black Panthers, but also the determination in their collective confrontation with the Israeli establishment.

The Marxist and Black ideological influences were adapted to the local situation as follows:

The ultimate language of the Black Panthers, for the first time directly attacked the manipulative myth that ‘Security precedes everything’, by which the governments of Mapai [Labor] silenced every protest. They claimed very clearly and directly that a state in which there is such an unequal economic situation of Mizrahim (and of Arabs – as said in certain places, mainly by Bitton and Shemesh) has no right to exist. This was expressed by Martziano’s radical words regarding the division of the cake: “Either the cake will be shared by all or there will be no cake”.

Another local ideological principle is the shattering of central myths of European Zionism and the state, mainly presenting the prevailing myths of ‘integration of the exiles’, and ‘the law of return’ as false. The innovations here were in the attack upon the ideological roots of inequality - namely, the attack was not directed only at the political policy-makers of the present, but also upon the World Zionist Movement that induced the Mizrahim to immigrate to Israel with various false promises and declarations. It is not by chance that the ‘Black Panthers’ erased the word ‘Zionism’ from their political jargon, albeit they never declared that they were anti-Zionists.

The Black Panthers were also the first to make the connection between the concepts of ‘class’ and ‘ethnic group’. They often compared the way the new Russian immigrants were treated by the absorption authorities (in the early 70s­), with the second generation of Mizrahim who were still living in dire poverty. Thus they added another layer of comparison which previously existed in the collective consciousness– that of the absorption of Ashkenazim, and Mizrahim in the early years of the state. In this way, they completely undermined arguments of ‘Modernization’ and a ‘sociology of Backwardness’, which was based upon cultural rather than class analysis. In this, the Black Panthers preceded the class-oriented sociologists in Israel who appeared not accidentally, only after the era of the Black Panthers became the focus of their research.


Radical Effects on Israeli society

The Black Panthers’ greatest achievement was their ability to unmask the issue of the Mizrahim by presenting it as a permanent issue on the political, public and academic agenda in Israel. No one could pretend anymore that the problem was only a matter of ‘subjectivity’ or related to the set of priorities in Mizrahi homes, as Golda Meir once advised: “Let them stop all those family celebrations. Let them learn how to manage their budget rationally. Let them work hard for their rights. They should begin by having smaller families”. From then on it was clear to everyone that the problem exists – though it is continually avoided to be addressed.

According to Tarrow’s factors of success and failure of Reference?, we may claim here that the Panthers failed in translating the ‘protest circle’, which they managed to preserve for a considerable length of time, into the institutionalization of an organized social movement. Furthermore they failed in transforming the mobilization of the masses into a forum in which they could continue an institutionalized political struggle. The Black Panthers most certainly would have wished to see their movement grow into a popular social movement of ‘the class of the Mizrahim in distress’, as Aberjil, one of the panthers put it But they were unaware of the tragic role that history bestowed upon them, as the ones who ‘broke through’, but who were sacrifices for the cause of the Mizrahi and social struggles in Israel - namely, to carry out a set of radical effects which, in time, were to become achievements of a general struggle, whose fruits other, more moderate movements, would harvest.

The ‘Black Panthers’ triggered off an enormous radical effect on Israeli society of which I will note three central areas of influence:

First, they granted legitimacy and acceleration, together with additional political conditions, to the process of Mizrahim leaving the hegemonous political center, headed by Mapai, to the only alternative that existed at that time – the Likud. The ballot revolt of 1977 was the significant landmark in this process of which the year 1981 was the climax. After that came the exit from the Likud as well to the new alternative of Shas.

Second, the Panthers prompted a Mizrahi cultural awakening reflective of the cultural oppression of the Mizrahim which began immediately after their first protest and which continued in tandem with the breakdown of Mapai’s hegemony. Initially it was music that blossomed forth, followed by poetry and prose, and above all, academic research. Later came cinematography and the arts.

Third, the Panthers helped to bring about a radical social discourse in Israel. The Panthers determined the elements of this discourse in the precedent-setting connections they made between the local class-ethnic struggle on the one hand and the universal (Marxist) class struggle and ethnic Black struggle in the U.S., on the other. An additional element is the connection they were able to make between the economic Left and the political Left making them the first and last Mizrahim movement to do this explicitly.

Most of all however, I would like to emphasize the courage and devotion of the group of youngsters from Musrara who stood up against the forces of oppression and confronted the state headed by Mapai on both the ideological and physical levels. It is sad to note that since the confrontations of the Black Panthers, not one Mizrahi movement has emerged which dared to carry out a direct and brave confrontation with the state. As such, the motif of ‘sacrifice’ has almost completely disappeared from the life of the struggle. Shas, for example has not even organized one demonstration against the policy of inequality, for the simple reason that Shas itself is an continuous governing party which is a partner to this policy making. Only brave radical confrontation is capable of raising consciousness and clarifying to the oppressor that ‘things cannot continue as normal’ anymore. Only through the confrontation and sacrifice of the Black Panthers could the consciousness of the struggle be opened in the 1980’s and 90’s allowing for cultural creativity, educational development, community empowerment and alternative ideological confrontation.

[1] Saadia Martziano, 1971

* Originally published on the web site of the Middle eastern Gate of Israël: www.kedma.co.il