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When Israel’s Black Panthers found common

cause with Palestinians

Black Panther founder Reuven Abergel at his home in Jerusalem with the
logo: “Enough with poverty!”
Jaclynn Ashly

Jaclynn Ashly -7 March 2019


Gila learned about the Nakba long before she was ever introduced to her own
history with Israel.
“I learned more about the Nakba from Israeli liberals than what they were
willing to tell me about what Jews did to Jews, because they were all a part of
it,” the 30-year-old Mizrahi Jew of Iranian descent said.
The Nakba – Arabic for catastrophe – refers to when Israel was established
upon the expulsion of more than 750,000 Palestinians in 1948.
Gila lives in Jerusalem and asked to use a pseudonym to protect her identity.
She said she only began understanding the history of the Ashkenazi (Central
or Eastern European Jewry) oppression of the Mizrahim (Jews originating
from the Middle East and North Africa) after being introduced to former
members of a little known, albeit hugely influential, movement: the Mizrahi
Black Panthers.
The story of the Mizrahi Black Panthers is rarely told but offers a fascinating
insight into Israel’s intra-Jewish tensions and discrimination.
With general elections approaching in Israel, and many Mizrahim waiting
to cast their ballots for right-wing politicians – the existence of a group of
enlightened and politically engaged Mizrahi youth who attempted to
radicalize their community and challenge the ethos of Zionism seems almost
unimaginable now.
Formed in 1971 in the Musrara neighborhood in Jerusalem, the Panthers
consisted of mostly second generation Mizrahi teenagers and youth
demanding equal rights and an end to widespread racism and discrimination
against their community in Israel.
For a few years, their movement spread throughout Israel and developed into
a full-scale anti-Zionist movement that partnered and organized with
Palestinians.
“It all started from the pain”
“In our schools we only learned about the Jewish European history,” Gila told
The Electronic Intifada. “They [the Black Panthers] were the first ones to talk
to us about the kidnapping of Mizrahi children and how Israel conducted
medical experiments on them.”
In the 1950s, shortly after Israel’s creation, thousands of babies, largely from
newly arrived Jewish Yemeni families, disappeared from hospitals, a mystery
that has yet to be fully explained.
Some of them are believed to have died during medical experiments
conducted in Israeli hospitals without the families’ consent. Others are
believed to have been kidnapped and put up for adoption to Ashkenazi
families.
“We were never allowed to open this Pandora’s box,” Gila said. “The
information was strategically hidden from us.”
But the missing babies were just the tip of the iceberg for a community who
long suffered systematic discrimination in Israel. At the time of the founding
of the Black Panthers, Mizrahi communities in the country had faced decades
of widespread poverty, discrimination and neglect.
“The movement came from the people who were suffering. It all started from
the pain,” Reuven Abergel, a co-founder of the group, said, his legs crossed,
leaning back on a chair in his modest home in Jerusalem.
“The reality was so hard. We didn’t have time to sit and plan. We protested
because it was a response to the difficulties we faced in our everyday lives,”
the now 76-year-old said.
“We filled up the prison cells”
Abergel was the oldest founder of the group, at 28. The other founders, Saadia
Marciano, Charlie Biton and Kokhavi Shemesh, were in their early to mid 20s
at the time.
Their community was seen by the mainstream Ashkenazim as “primitive” and
an “ethnic problem” for the state of Israel, according to Sami Chetrit, a
Hebrew poet and Mizrahi scholar who wrote a book on the Mizrahi
experience in Israel titled Intra-Jewish Conflict in Israel: White Jews, Black
Jews.
Chetrit told The Electronic Intifada that at least 55 percent of Mizrahi
children dropped out of school in Israel at the time of the founding of the
Black Panthers. Eighty percent of welfare-supported families were Mizrahi,
while an Ashkenazi family earned 30 percent more than a Mizrahi family.
In neighborhoods like al-Musrara – which before the 1948 forced expulsion
was an affluent, largely Christian Palestinian area that included Muslims and
Jews – the numbers were even higher.
“Kids were just on the streets and no one really cared,” Chetrit said.
“From the first day we got to this country, we filled up the prison cells,”
Abergel, a Moroccan-born Mizrahi who wound up in Musrara, said. “In our
neighborhood, people were living in fear of the establishment. They were
putting their heads down and not wanting to cause trouble in fear they would
be beat up [by the police] or arrested.”
Young Panthers meet. The photo is part of Abergel’s personal collection. The
group would often meet at Abergel’s house in Musrara, the area where
Israel’s Black Panthers were founded.
Jaclynn Ashly
The Mizrahi migration to Israel turned families and communities upside
down, Chetrit said.
“It was not just quantitative poverty; they were also deprived of their families
and structure. The family and community structure that was so strong in their
countries of origin completely collapsed.”
“People [Mizrahim] who came from very stable communities for many years
found themselves living in slums. It all happened in front of your eyes, within
four or five years, hundreds of thousands of people suddenly had no
community. Their whole lives collapsed,” Chetrit said.
Men who could no longer adequately provide for their families experienced
widespread unemployment and depended on finding work at the “labor
markets” where Mizrahim were chosen and hired often for just one day as
laborers, according to Chetrit. The Mizrahi laborers called these markets the
“slave markets.”
Women, who had typically not worked in their countries of origin, resorted to
cleaning houses, cooking or doing menial housework for Ashkenazi families.
In Jerusalem, the inequalities between Mizrahi and Ashkenazi neighborhoods
were even starker than in the rest of the country.
“You could literally just walk up the hill, cross the street, and there’s an
affluent Ashkenazi neighborhood, or they [Mizrahi youth] were forced to
watch them build new housing for Russian Jews who were preparing to
migrate in the 1970s,” Chetrit explained to The Electronic Intifada.
“They had to live with these inequalities every day. They could see it and
touch it. So for them [the Black Panther members] that was very upsetting
and inciting. They could see no one actually cares about them, and they are
forgotten.”
Preventing Palestinian return
The Mizrahim and Sephardim (Jews originating from Spain or the Iberian
Peninsula who are often categorized with the Mizrahim owing to their shared
histories) make up just over half of the Israeli Jewish population.
In the decades after Israel was established some 850,000 Mizrahim either fled
or migrated to the newly established state from various Arab and Muslim
countries, including Iran, Tunisia, Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Morocco and Yemen.
The Ashkenazi-controlled Israeli government housed many of these new
immigrants in Palestinian homes that stood vacant after their owners were
expelled by Zionist militias during Israel’s creation.
“In the eyes of the government, they wanted to literally occupy the houses and
make sure no Palestinian came back,” Chetrit said.
Thus many Mizrahim found themselves in Palestinian homes
in Ramla, Jaffa, Lydd and Haifa – now mixed cities. And inside confiscated
Palestinian refugee homes, the Israeli government constructed walls to create
more rooms in order to settle five or six families into one house.
The formerly affluent Palestinian neighborhood of Musrara, where the Black
Panther movement was eventually founded, was thus transformed into a
Mizrahi slum after its Palestinian residents were expelled.
According to Chetrit, in Wadi Salib, a pre-1948 Palestinian neighborhood in
Haifa, the Mizrahim were “living everywhere, sometimes on the roof or the
stairs.”
These conditions led to the Wadi Salib riots in 1959, considered to be a
precursor to the Black Panther movement, when Mizrahi Jews participated in
widespread street protests against discrimination and clashed with police.
It was during this same decade when thousands of Mizrahi children – mostly
from Yemen – disappeared from their families. Several inquiry committees
established by the Israeli government over the years have backed up
accusations of medical experiments and negligence causing the deaths of
hundreds of children – the scale of which, however, has still not been fully
addressed.
Thus, by 1967, the conditions for widespread discontent were well established.
“Nothing to lose”
The 1967 war, when Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip (as well as
the Golan Heights and Sinai Desert), also played a major role in the Black
Panthers’ formation. In part, this was due to the economic boom following the
war, which exacerbated Ashkenazi-Mizrahi economic disparities.
The war “had a central role in speeding the process of disappointment among
Mizrahim, and marked the beginning of a growing class and culture
consciousness, until finally leading to a crisis in confidence, manifest in a
growing population of second generation Mizrahim who had been gradually
pushed to the political margins,” Chetrit writes in his book, Intra-Jewish
Conflict in Israel.
A Mizrahi Black Panther poster from the 1970s reads: “Until when will 10
people have to live in one room? / The Panthers”
Jaclynn Ashly
The boundary areas – near the 1949 armistice line with Jordan where many
Mizrahim had originally been settled in camps that eventually became towns
or suburbs – were opened following the war. For the Mizrahim it meant that
“our day-to-day experiences were not with the privileged Ashkenazi Jews who
lived in nice neighborhoods,” Abergel said, “but with the Palestinians who
lived all around us.”
The 1967 war also changed the social order in Israel, Chetrit said. The
Mizrahim were “artificially pushed up the social scale by an introduction of a
new status [Palestinians in the newly occupied territory], lower even than that
of the Israeli Arabs [Palestinian citizens of Israel].”
Despite the emergence of this new social order many Mizrahim still developed
their political thinking.
According to Chetrit, the young Panther members, who spent most of their
time on the streets, were influenced by members of the Matzpen movement, a
revolutionary socialist and anti-Zionist movement in Israel, founded in 1962
and consisting of mainly young Ashkenazi Jews.
The Matzpen members would come to Musrara where the young activists
listened to rock music, read revolutionary texts and smoked hashish together
at the Ta’amoun coffee shop. The soon-to-be founders of the Panther
movement, having dropped out of school at very young ages, sat and listened
to the activists sharing stories about Che Guevara and revolutionaries around
the world, “absorbing everything like a sponge,” Chetrit said.
But it was in the Black Panthers and the struggles of Black Americans in the
United States that the young Mizrahim could see their own reality reflected
back at them.
It was a “nothing to lose” situation, Chetrit said. “There was very deep
poverty, dropouts, children on the streets. Fathers are not around. The
community is collapsing. Then they hear all of these stories about movements
around the world. The Black Panthers appealed to them,” he said.
Operation Milk
Their first planned demonstration in March 1971 resulted in a wave of
preventive arrests, with police detaining 17 activists after denying them a
permit to hold the protests. A counterprotest, however, led by Abergel who
was not arrested at the time and families of the arrestees succeeded in
securing their release.
“It was the first time since leaving Morocco that we felt a little triumph,”
Abergel told The Electronic Intifada.
The Panthers then organized a hunger strike at the Western Wall, Chetrit
said, leading to a well-publicized meeting in April between the Panther
members, including Abergel, with then Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir,
who famously described the young activists as “not nice people” following the
meeting.
The movement and its aims quickly spread throughout Mizrahi
neighborhoods in Israel, with numerous chapters established throughout the
country. The protests continued in Jerusalem, attracting thousands and
sometimes triggering violent clashes with police.
In June 1971, the group published the first issue of its magazine Dvar
HaPanterim HaSh’horim (Words of the Black Panthers).
“Our organization was formed on a backdrop of accumulated bitterness since
the first European settlers arrived in the country,” an editorial states. “Our
organization is the first manifestation of the Jews of the Middle East’s
resistance.”
The first time the Panthers took a clear stand against Zionism, Chetrit noted,
was in 1972 while protesting a World Zionist Congress meeting in Jerusalem.
The Zionist movement was the cause of their socioeconomic conditions in
Israel, the Panthers said ahead of protests that saw renewed clashes with
police and several preventive arrests targeting the movement’s leaders.
In a flier passed out to protesters the organizers stated: “If you are attacked
by the police, use all means at your disposal!” Others disrupted the World
Zionist Congress meeting by placing anonymous phone calls claiming that a
bomb was planted in the building.
In March that year, the Panthers carried out an action called Operation Milk
in which activists, led by Charlie Biton, took milk bottles from the doorsteps
of homes in the affluent Rehavia neighborhood and distributed them to poor
Mizrahi families.
Attached to the bottles were fliers reading: “Operation Milk for the children
of poor neighborhoods. These children do not find every morning, next to the
door, the milk they need. On the other hand, some dogs and cats in the rich
neighborhoods have milk every day, and in plenty.”
The members would also steal oil from warehouses and distribute it to poor
Mizrahi families.
“Supporting each other”
For all their activity, what evoked the most fear in Israeli leaders was the
connection to Palestinians, according to Chetrit. That, he said, was one of the
chief reasons the movement was targeted and eventually eliminated by Israeli
authorities.
According to Chetrit, David Ben-Gurion, the first Israeli prime minister, had
been apprehensive about the possible relationships that could form between
the Mizrahim and Palestinians in Israel, many of whom lived in the same
neighborhoods, since the early years of the state.
Ben-Gurion had gone so far as to write letters to Israeli school teachers
warning them of the “Mizrahi youngsters,” and encouraged teachers to
“divide them [from Palestinians], and always remind them of their
Jewishness, and remind them that this makes them different,” Chetrit said.

A Mizrahi Black Panther protest poster from the early 1970s addresses
Israel’s prime minister at the time, Golda Meir: “Golda, Golda / Fly away /
We’ve had enough of you.”
Jaclynn Ashly
The Panthers saw their struggle as being intricately linked to Palestinians. “It
wasn’t like we were fighting for Palestinian rights – not in the way the
privileged [Israeli] left-wing does now,” Abergel told The Electronic Intifada.
“But we understood that when we’re fighting for Palestinian rights, we’re also
fighting for our own rights.”
The Panthers developed connections with the Palestine Liberation
Organization as early as 1972 and recognized it as the “legitimate leaders of
the Palestinian people.”
“We had talks, and we understood their need for independence and to
eliminate the occupation, and we agreed that the problems with the Mizrahim
and of the Arabs are intertwined,” Kokhavi Shemesh, one of the founders of
the movement, is quoted in Chetrit’s book as saying.
“There will be no equality and no chance for the Mizrahim as long as there’s
occupation and a national struggle, and on the other hand, the national
struggle will not be over so long as the Mizrahim are at the bottom of the
ladder, and are practically an anti-Arab lever,” he adds.
Charlie Biton and Kokhavi Shemesh were the first Israelis to ever meet
Yasser Arafat, then head of the PLO, according to Chetrit, and the Panthers
developed relationships with various members of the Fatah movement in the
occupied West Bank.
“If the police were after them, they would run from them and hide in
Palestinian homes,” Chetrit told The Electronic Intifada. “They were really
supporting each other. This was a very radical movement.”
“The less Arab you are, the more Israeli you are”
If the 1967 war created them, the 1973 war “put an end to the Panthers as we
know it,” Chetrit said. “There were no more mass demonstrations in
Jerusalem. There were no more solidarity demonstrations. It was the end of a
radical period.”
According to Abergel, Israeli authorities flooded the movement with
informants, and even friends of Panther members were targeted for arrest.
“People were scared to hang out with us or speak to us because they could be
arrested by the police,” Abergel said. “They [Israeli authorities] worked on
isolating us from the rest of our community.”
Despite the crackdown and their ostracization, after the Panthers’ meeting
with Golda Meir a government committee was established to investigate
poverty. As a result, Israel’s 1972 state budget – nicknamed the “Black
Panther budget” by Israel’s parliament – was tripled in all areas dealing with
education, welfare and healthcare.
The Panthers dispersed. Some joined left-wing parties in Israel’s parliament.
Charlie Biton joined Hadash, a Palestinian-led communist party in Israel.
Abergel, meanwhile, continues his work in social justice, providing tours
around Jerusalem to explain the historical realities of both the Mizrahim and
Palestinians.
Despite the Panthers’ efforts, the Mizrahim did not become radicalized.
Abergel said that ultimately Israel was successful in using Palestinians as a
tool to force the Mizrahim into identifying with their Jewish over Arab
identities.
“They [Israel] would just shut up the Mizrahi struggle because the
Palestinians were painted as a bigger threat, manipulating Mizrahi people
into joining with the Ashkenazim,” he said.
“That’s why the Zionists will never stop their policies and operations on the
Palestinian people because they know that if they ever become quiet on the
Palestinian issue, that’s when internal [Israeli] problems will arise.”
Certainly, educational disparities between Mizrahi and Ashkenazi
communities persist. In 2015, just under 29 percent of second-generation
Mizrahi immigrants had a university or college degree, compared to about 50
percent of Ashkenazim. The wage gap between Mizrahi and Ashkenazi
workers in Israel also remains stark.
There is a clear formula in Israel, Chetrit added: “The less Arab you are, the
more Israeli you are.”
“So you have to erase that image in the mirror every morning,” he said. “And
you start to hate yourself. Women start dying their hair blond to get rid of
any signs of Arabness. They wear a Star of David pendant around their neck,
and when you see an Arab, insult them. So you can really feel like you’re
Jewish.”
Nevertheless, Chetrit said Israel did not succeed entirely. There is a new wave
of young Mizrahim, he told The Electronic Intifada, who are returning to the
Arabic language and their Arab identities as poets, artists, filmmakers,
musicians and even academics.
Gila said she would not have the same identity or knowledge she has were it
not for the Black Panthers.
“For us [left-wing Mizrahim], the Panthers were the ones who paid the
highest price,” she said. “They gave us the voice, the vocabulary and
infrastructure. They gave us everything we do and write today. They are
heroes for us.”
Jaclynn Ashly is a journalist based in the West Bank.
Posted by Thavam