Pictures by Meir Wigoder and Micha Bar Am, from The Black Panthers, published by Musrara School of Visual Arts in Jerusalem. Edited by Avi Sabag.
Thanks to Meir Wigoder and Micha Bar-Am for their permission to use the pictures.
March 1971—A poster calling to “stop poverty” appears for the first time in Israel. Different from previous cries to stop poverty during the two decades prior, this time the Israeli flag is absent and in its place appears the daring image of—no less—a Black Panther accompanied by the name of the movement: The Black Panther Party. For people familiar with the associations and connotations made by the poster, it was perceived as a threat; a danger to “Jewish unity”. What follows is a conversation between the then-prime minister Golda Meir, and the leaders of the Panthers—which is to say, four young, twenty-something men with an average of fourth grade schooling. After asking them on three different occasions where they got the name for their movement, Meir was still unsatisfied by their answers, and went on:
G. Meir: How did you come to this name?
R. Abarjel: There is an organization called Qattamon for Qattamon and some other organizations have been formed until this day [with other names], and they have all disappeared, or fallen into comas. This name is striking and arousing.
G. Meir: Where did you get this particular name?
R. Abarjel: It’s a striking name.
G. Meir: You did not hear of this name somewhere else?
R. Abarjel: We know they support the PLO and that they are against Jews.
G. Meir: So why did you take on this name?
S. Marziano: Because it gives us an edge, to make noise around us, and so there’ll be a response to our actions.
R. Abarjel: About the name—we may share forty percent of the ideology of the Black Panthers in the United States, who were also disenfranchised, and screwed-up. The fact is that they are violent—we are not.
G. Meir: They are also anti-Semites.
April 1971, Jerusalem, demonstration.
New generation of Mizrahim1, with new language; the banners read:
“We Are Security Too”
“Wake Up, Mizrahi Communities”
“We Want Equality”
“Hunger is Crying Out”
“We Asked for Freedom of Speech; We Got Detention”
At the other side of the picture, police forces waited on horseback and on foot, with clubs, tear gas and water cannons. The Panthers were encouraged by the “attention” they received from the “socialist government” of Meir. They realized that they were doing something right—exposing the truth: oppression of Black Jews by White Jews.
Demonstration, Zion Square, Jerusalem 1971. Thousands of young people like the ones pictured here made the Black Panthers in Israel into a mass movement. They had nothing to lose aside from their chains of poverty, their low-quality education and their unemployment. As the second generation of immigrants from the Middle East, they watched as their parents hit rock bottom and they felt they had no choice but to take it to the streets.
Demonstration—July 1971, Jerusalem. After one year of the first and only Jewish intifada, including clashes with the police and the government, Golda Meir formed a committee to investigate “youth poverty in Israel”; a comfortable euphemism for “oppressive ethnic relationships”. A year later when the new budget passed in the Knesset, all welfare sections of the budget were either doubled or tripled. That year’s budget was coined the “Panthers Budget”. The Panthers also attacked Rabbi Kahana’s racist movement, which used Israeli secret service money to divert the anger of the Mizrahi masses away from the government to a new target—the Palestinians. He offered them racism to replace social justice. Today we know that that strategy of the Israeli government did indeed work to a large extent. The only Mizrahi “Panthers” that can be found today are patriot soldiers in the occupation forces. Sad.
The leader—Saadia Marciano, twenty-one at the time. The brain and the charisma of the Panthers. He chose the name for the movement, brilliantly connecting the struggle of Mizrahim in Israel to that of the Blacks in America, with the Marxist and First-World—Third-World theories, even without having read one of the books. He heard and listened very closely to MAZPEN young friends (Israeli anti-Zionist movement established after 1967) and socialist students who had come to Israel from South America. When he had heard enough, he took his Musrara neighborhood to the streets, attracting all the neighborhoods in Jerusalem, and soon after, every Mizrahi town and neighborhood in Israel. “We wanted to scare Golda and her government” he said many years later, “and we succeeded, because she said many times that our movement’s name kept her up all night, every night.” Saadia Marciano passed away in December 2007 at the age of fifty-seven. He was poor, sick and lonely, but never lost the spark in his eyes.
1971: Charlie Bitton—twenty years old. Education—fourth grade. A bright, smart, analytical mind that Israeli social movements haven’t seen since. No fear. Nothing to lose. Unlike the cute, red-haired leaders of the summer 2011 “social uprising” in Tel-Aviv. This young man was sent to prison multiple times but never gave in or gave up. He later became the first “slams Mizrahi boy” to make it to the Knesset with the Communist Party and later the first Knesset member and Mizrahi leader to meet with PLO leader Yasser Arafat in Europe, when it was against the law. He continued his social protest in the Knesset with provocations that made it to the evening news, such as handcuffing himself to the microphone whilst addressing the Israeli parliament, saying “These social issues deserve more than five minutes!”. The Knesset security guards had to cut the handcuffs off to remove Bitton from the podium.
July 1971—Mass demonstration in Jerusalem.
The coffin reads: “Discrimination”.
Unfortunately discrimination is still alive and kicking in Israel and the occupied territories. The only visible and tragic change is that many Mizrahim “made” it into the oppressor’s side, becoming small politicians in Zionist political parties and middle class sub-contractors enslaving upwards of five hundred thousand foreign workers from the “real” Third-World. The Panthers threw themselves on the barbed wire fence to pave the way for social change. They gave us the language, the universal discourse and the example of courage. No other movement has followed in their footsteps to the same degree.
To read further on the Black Panthers in Israel and the Mizrahi struggle, see Intra-Jewish Conflict in Israel, White Jews, Black Jews, by professor Sami Shalom Chetrit, published by Routledge London, 2010 (Hebrew and Arabic versions are available under: The Mizrahi Struggle in Israel).
- 1. Editors’s Note: Mizrahi Jews or Mizrahim are Jews descended from the Jewish communities of the Middle East, North Africa and the Caucasus. The term Mizrahi is used in Israel in the language of politics, media and some social scientists for Jews from mostly Arab-ruled geographies and adjacent, primarily Muslim-majority countries.