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Forty-five years later, the legacy of Israel’s Black Panthers continues to impact Israeli politics

Israel/Palestine
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I meet co-founder of the former Israeli Black Panthers’ party Reuven Abergil in a Jerusalem office on Hillel Street just around the corner from the Musrara district, a neighborhood that still marks the perimeter between Arab and Jewish Jerusalem. This is where Reuven was raised after emigrating with his family from Rabat, Morocco, in 1948.

Reuven’s Musrara became a byword for Mizrahi disenfranchisement. It was no wonder that Musrara was the place where Reuven and fellow activists Saadia Marciano and Charlie Bitton would launch their Israeli Black Panthers group, following the failure of the Labor government (and in its previous incarnation as Mapai) to sufficiently tackle the grievances brought up by these Jews from Arab lands in protests like that in Haifa in 1959. The movement, founded in 1971, was influenced by a meeting held with the founder of the American Communist Party and close associate of American Black Panthers, Angela Davis. And much like Ethiopian Jews in Israel today have connected their struggle  against violence and discrimination that they have faced within Israel to the Black Lives Matter movement – Abergil and his friends thus identified similarities between the plight and efforts of African-Americans to gain full civil right status in America to that of North African and Middle Eastern Jews to gain equality within Israel.

Musrara and the Panthers

The Musrara neighborhood is where Reuven made his first foray into political activism. And where in July 1959, he handed out posters and signs in support of Moroccan residents in another district, the Wadi Salib district in Haifa.

The Israeli government had settled the former Arab neighborhood, Wadi Salib, with immigrant communities of Sephardim and Mizrahim (Jews of Iberian and Oriental origin) mainly from Morocco. Its previous inhabitants had variously fled or were displaced during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.

Much like the neighborhood of Musrara where Reuven grew up, Wadi Salib was a neglected locale – many of its Moroccan Jewish residents were unemployed and poverty was rife. Failure to see a marked improvement in their lives’ following ten years of calling Israel their home, residents of Wadi Salib protested against the then Labor government for its perceived failure to tackle the social problems that were disproportionately affecting the neighborhood. If social malaise of the immigrant Moroccan community was a long-held grievance, the shooting by police of unarmed Yaakov Elkarif on July 9, 1959 brought these feelings to a fore. To the residents of Wadi Salib their socioeconomic status and Elkarif’s shooting illustrated how an Ashkenazi-dominated establishment not only cared little for their concerns, but had no qualms about harming them arbitrarily. (Rumors had circulated that Elkarif had died – he hadn’t, but he was seriously injured).

The morning after the shooting, Wadi Salib residents marched to the affluent Haifa neighborhood of nearby Hadar HaCarmel. Here the protest developed into a full-scale riot – protestors burnt cars and threw rocks at the police, who tried to disperse them. The riots in Haifa saw a dozen people injured, and 34 protestors arrested – including the leader of the ‘Union of North Africans’, Ben Haroush, whose organization took leadership of the protests. Up until Haroush’s arrest, other riots had broken out on 11 July 1959 in other Israeli towns and cities with largely Mizrahi populations, including Beersheba in Israel’s far south, and Tiberias and Migdal Haemek in Israel’s North.

To many Mizrahim the events of Wadi Salib marked a watershed moment which contextualized the disparity between their own community, known as the ‘Olim Hadashim’ (new immigrants) to that of Israel’s Ashkenazi ‘Pioneers’ who arrived during the British Mandate of Palestine. They alleged that post-1948 Ashkenazi olim – including Romanians and Holocaust survivors from Europe’s postwar displaced persons camps – received favorable treatment; even though their mastery of Hebrew was no better, and in many cases much worse, than that of Mizrahim.

Many Mizrahim found themselves marooned for years in dingy ma’abarot, or absorption camps, or dispersed to less secure border settlements on Israel’s periphery, far from the more economically dynamic Tel Aviv-Jerusalem hub in the centre of the country.

Several other elements bespoke discrimination – the notion, often fictitious, that Mizrahim were generally poorly educated and thus liable to be an economic burden; and the idea that the ‘orientals’ were not Zionist in the modern sense (often true, but no different from most refugees from Hitler in the 1930s). The mostly secular Labor Zionist establishment also disparaged the average Mizrahi immigrant for being traditionally religious (hence ‘backward’ in the eyes of the most zealously ‘progressive’ Laborites). Lastly, the fact that many Middle Eastern Jews (especially those from Iraq and Yemen) spoke Arabic, the ‘language of the enemy’, increased suspicion from the Hebrew-speaking population – and made many Mizrahi children feel embarrassed at their parents’ ways.

By and large, the legend of a united Jewish people prevailed during the decade since Israeli independence in 1948 – years when the Israeli population literally doubled, and millions were spent on absorbing the new arrivals. Thus the events of July 1959 were a jolt to the relatively new state of Israel that assumed that religious commonality, despite cultural differences, would be cause enough to continue the established status quo. The idea that Jews would be violent and cause destruction in a Jewish homeland that offered them sanctuary went against the grain of thinking within the establishment.

Reuven explains that Wadi Salib was a shock to the Mizrahim, too, with “elders in the Mizrahi community realizing that Morocco was their home”. He even recalled handing out posters which encouraged the King of Morocco, Mohammed V, to “bring back its Jewish citizens.”

The events in Haifa and the protests in Jerusalem and other cities brought international coverage and at the very least prompted King Mohammed V to express his concern for the treatment of Moroccan Jews in Israel.

Reuven maintains that the protests at Wadi Salib marked a critical moment for Moroccans and their relationship with the Israeli Left. The protests in Haifa awakened a new Mizrahi political consciousness that later was crucial to his formation of Israel’s Black Panthers. These conditions were important in eventually offering a voice to other neglected groups, such as Israel’s minority Arab population. According to Reuven, Wadi Salib offered a platform which began a process that offered Arab citizens of Israel the confidence to raise their grievances regarding land appropriation with the Israeli government, through their annual Land Day protests.

“The atmosphere of Wadi Salib opened a space for both the Mizrahi protest movement and the Palestinian movement”, he says. “The Black Panthers’ activities were an important juncture for future civil rights protests and both Mizrahi Jews and Palestinians need to acknowledge this, as both are important for peace”. Reuven makes it quite clear that he does not want to detract from the inroads that Arab-Israelis have made and the Palestinian national movement in their struggle for equality and statehood. Reuven believes “100 %…that a Palestinian and Mizrahi union would end the conflict in Israel.” Above all he feels that a revisiting and understanding of the two groups’ shared linguistic and cultural heritage is crucial for any future peace.

Reuven emigrated to Israel at the age of seven at the end of 1948 from Rabat, Morocco, with his parents along with 9 siblings on a journey that would take them almost 2 years to complete. He experienced life in the transit camps in France and French-Algeria, (which were set up in collaboration with Israel and the French government) but also in Israel in the Ma’abarot camps which were meant to act as temporary shelter. The conditions in these camps were often unsanitary and overcrowded. The experiences that Reuven encountered after his family’s rootedness and then shock exile from Morocco had a profound effect on him and his decision to, what was at first, a desire to seek justice for his family, and which later eventually developed into Abergil’s championing of civil rights and questioning the establishment to provide equality and basic provisions to all of Israel’s citizens.

Reuven laments that the same historical process that saw the dispossession of land, property and national-political rights of the Palestinians also befell North African and Middle Eastern Jews: “we were lied to, we were not able to go back to Morocco…they took our ID cards and family book, we didn’t have a way to get out all doors were closed on us, we were unable to go anywhere we just stayed here [in Israel] waiting for a god sent solution”. Even now he finds it hard to explain how at the time he along with over 250,000 Moroccan Jews decided to make Aliyah to Israel, after much of its population had been in Morocco for two Millennia. He places the fault on Zionist agencies, and mid-level bureaucrats in Morocco that greatly profited from helping in the mass exodus, a fact that has only recently come to light with Israel’s opening up of some of its historical archives.  

Reuven describes – mainly through the memories of both his parents and grandparents – how his family lived a comfortable life in Morocco, he says: “we lived a good life in Morocco…my grandparents lived a good life and when they arrived in Israel they just cried and would say why did we make the mistake of coming here?”   

The Threat of Mizrahi Activism

Although the state always regarded the Black Panthers as a fringe movement, they did nonetheless see the movement as having the potential to become a much larger political force. However, it was not a possible alliance between the Black Panthers and Palestinians that worried the Israeli establishment, but rather the threat of a mutation into Israel’s mainstream Left of a coalition of Ashkenazi activists with the Mizrahim.

Prime Minister Golda Meir’s almost innocuous reference to the Panthers as “not very nice boys” after meeting with them in April 1971, belies the serious threat that her and previous governments felt would come from a Mizrahi-Left coalition.  The Labor government felt that such a challenge would come from an alliance that coupled the Black Panthers to the socialist Matzpen organization. Matzpen’s anti-Zionist stance and its solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for national liberation was already a cause for concern for the state, which sought to target members through smear campaigns in the media, and occasionally by force through the state’s security apparatus.

The Labor government feared that such a bond between Matzpen and the Black Panthers could one day lead to its downfall, and this sense of alarm led to a sustained effort to demonise. As a result of this persistent state-driven campaign, the two groups ultimately saw their capabilities and wider appeal diminish – though not before the Panthers were able to gather 7,000 civil rights activists in Jerusalem’s Zion Square.

That night of May 18, 1971 marked the defining moment for the Panthers. Later known as ‘The night of the Panthers’, it saw the coming of age of the movements’ Moroccan leaders Reuven Abergil, Saadia Marciano and Charlie Bitton. With 1959’s Wadi Salib protest still in their psyche, the Panthers organized activists’ who protested against the same marginalization that led to the protests in Haifa.  The protestors of Zion Square were denied permits for their demonstration and the night was characterized by running street battles between activists and the security forces. The protest also had a new frame of reference for how Mizrahim were perceived by the establishment that was absent during previous protests like Wadi Salib. This came in the form of an influx of newly arrived Jewish immigrants from the Soviet Union who activists surmised were immediately treated more favorably to them. They believed this was the case because these Soviet Jews had more in common culturally and religiously with the Ashkenazi dominated establishment of Israel.

A significant number of politicians believed that the actions of the Panthers were part of a passing revolutionary phase that followed the numerous revolutionary turning points in 1968 following the Vietnam War. But to protestors their actions reflected deeper concerns within the Mizrahi community. Having felt they missed out on being pioneers before 1948, and finally ‘proved themselves’ in Israel’s 1967 Six Day War, they resented all the more their continued marginalization that was confirmed by the preferential treatment that new arrivals immediately received.

The state did not accept that the protests were largely down to the social malaise that the Mizrahi community continued to experience. Even so, the Panthers were briefly successful in encouraging a government commission of inquiry which concluded that the Mizrahi community had indeed been discriminated against at many levels of society. The commission had made recommendations to increase budgetary resources. However, the community was unable to benefit from these recommendations because much of these budget allocations were withdrawn and redirected to the security budget following the Yom Kippur War in 1973.

The prevailing establishment in Israel was Labor Zionist – the Panthers held a mirror up to the Labor ‘socialists’ through their demands for real change and their confrontations with the establishment. In short, the Panthers suggested that Laborites were not as progressive as they thought after all.

The Legacy of the Panthers

The activities of the Black Panthers eventually petered out, due to internal rifts and the trend of most Mizrahi groups following mainstream political parties.  Israel’s 1967 War saw a shift in Mizrahim voting patterns with many increasingly deciding to vote for the rightist Likud bloc after the Labour government began to divert money into the Occupied Territories of the West Bank and Gaza (previously under Jordanian and Egyptian control from 1948 – 1967) and away from the type of development towns largely populated by the Mizrahim. Ironically settlement of the Occupied Palestinian Territories (particularly the West Bank) accelerated in 1977 under Menachem Begin’s Likud. In fact the historic victory for that party in 1977 attributed very much in part to Begin’s success in courting the sizable Mizrahim vote (at the time accounting for up to 60 % of all Israeli Jews) which he did by acknowledging and speaking of the discrimination that they experienced under the Labor government.

Mainstream left-wing movements in Israel did not respond to this Mizrahim jolt to the right, and if anything the Left in Israel became more restrictive in its political focus and ethnic composition. Absent from even its mainstream grassroots organizations was a working class Mizrahim cadre, with the dominant milieu of the Left from top to bottom being predominantly Ashkenazi, bourgeois, urban, secular and educated. Mizrahim felt uneasy in Ashkenazi-dominated movements such as Peace Now, ironically sensing that peaceniks discriminated against them whilst at the same time backing Arab and Palestinian rights. Instead a conservative majority of Mizrahim found a home in Likud, or later, in the Sephardi religious party, Shas. Other more progressive Mizrahim – albeit fewer in number – gravitated towards Mizrahi-dominated movements like Keshet (Mizrahi leftist Rainbow movement) and Shalom le-Mizrah, Peace for the East[erners] which shadowed Peace Now and Gush Shalom goals, but in Mizrahi terms.

Reuven’s own political journey continued on the fringes of Israeli politics after serving for many years as a Knesset Member for the Communist Hadash party. He currently heads Tarabut-Hit’habrut Arab-Jewish movement for social and political change. Notably both in Hadash and in Tarabut, Reuven fuses the Mizrahi struggle with Arab causes.

The Israeli Black Panthers did initially play a sizable part in contributing to a voice for a Mizrahi political consciousness. It successfully influenced the national debate during the 1970s and, paradoxically, the movement could claim credit for contributing to Likud’s historic success in 1977 after Likud promised to tackle and put an end to the type of discrimination that the Mizrahim had experienced under previous Labor governments. The Israeli Black Panthers exposed policies that left the Mizrahim feeling excluded and marginalized in politics, education, employment and more. These issues resonated with the Mizrahi populace even though they never did support the Panthers’ entire political stance.  The mid 1980s saw a new party emerge to challenge Likud for the Mizrahi vote that was now comfortably on the political right. This Shas party, with its Sephardi and Mizrahi dominated leadership, fused Mizrahi social concerns with ethnic pride and religious orthodoxy. It championed the theological tradition of Maimonides and Yosef Karo and Baba Sali and the Babylonian Talmud – which once bore tremendous authority throughout the Jewish world, and still informed the Ashkenazi yeshivot (rabbinic seminaries). Headed by former Sephardi Chief Rabbi, although not as dominant now as it once was, the Shas party offered an alternative for Mizrahi voters whenever they felt that Likud and its recent offshoot Kadima reneged on its promises.

Likud by and large still enjoys considerable support from the Mizrahim, but has never had a Mizrahi as its leader. Paradoxically Labor has had two: Binyamin Fuad Ben-Eliezer who was born in Iraqi Kurdistan and Amir Peretz who was born in Morocco.  Mizrahim have occupied other senior posts including: a foreign minister (David Levy), two presidents (Yitzhak Navon and Moshe Katsav) and an IDF chief of staff at the time of the 1973 Yom Kippur war (David “Dado” Elazar).

Israel is yet still to elect its first Mizrahi Prime Minister though there is a predominant view that holds that Israel is a melting pot and that mixed Mizrahi-Ashkenazi marriages has changed the face of Israeli society for the better. Improved socioeconomic conditions played a significant part in this course too; but that is not to say that the legacy of Wadi Salib and that of the Israeli Black Panthers is no longer relevant today. Protests against police brutality last year by Israel’s Ethiopian Jewish community and Israel’s social justice protests of 2011 proved not only that issues to do with discrimination, adequate access to housing and the eradication of poverty were still applicable, but as in the case of the social justice protests, it also confirmed the bitter opposition within the Left movement between Mizrahim and mainly Ashkenazi bourgeois – differences that eventually helped bring the 2011 protests to an end.

A version of this article first appeared in The New Arab.

About Otman Aitlkaboud

Otman Aitlkaboud is an Executive Committee member of the Arab-Jewish Forum working on improving relationships between Arabs and Jews in the UK and beyond. Formerly working at conflict resolution think tank Next Century Foundation and for the European Union External Action service in Armenia.

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