Jewish Arabs and the birth of Israel's Black Panthers

Jewish Arabs and the birth of Israel's Black Panthers
As Israel marks 45 years since the Israeli Black Panthers’ anti-establishment protests, what has been the political relationship between Israel and Jews from Morocco?
8 min read
15 May, 2016
Activists in 2011 renamed some of Musrara's streets to reflect the area's political heritage [WikiCC]

I meet Reuven Abergel in a Jerusalem office on Hillel Street just around the corner from the Musrara district, a neighbourhood that still marks the perimeter between Arab and Jewish Jerusalem. This is where Reuven - later to co-found the Israeli Black Panthers party - was raised after emigrating with his family from Rabat, Morocco, in 1949.

Reuven's Musrara became a byword for Mizrahi disenfranchisement. It was little wonder that the neighbourhood was where Reuven and fellow activists Saadia Marciano and Charlie Biton 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 to the Black Lives Matter movement - Abergel and his friends thus identified similarities between the plight and efforts of African-Americans to gain full civil right status in America with those of North African and Middle Eastern Jews to gain equality within Israel.

The Musrara neighbourhood 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 neighbourhood with immigrant communities of Sephardim and Mizrahim - Jews of Iberian and "Oriental" origin - mainly from Morocco. Wadi Salib's previous inhabitants had variously fled or were displaced in 1948 during the Arab-Israeli War.

Much like the neighbourhood 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 neighbourhood.

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. Rumours 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 neighbourhood of nearby Hadar HaCarmel. Here the protest developed into a full-scale riot - protesters burnt cars and threw rocks at the police deployed to disperse them. The riots in Haifa saw a dozen people injured and 34 protesters arrested - including the leader of the "Union of North Africans", Ben Haroush, whose organisation took leadership of the protests.

Before 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.

The fact that many Middle Eastern Jews... spoke Arabic, the 'language of the enemy', increased suspicion

Wadi Salib was the earliest case of widespread internal insurrection within Israel. To many Mizrahim, the protests at Wadi Salib and across Israel marked a watershed moment, which contextualised the disparity between their own community, known as the Olim Hadashim ["new immigrants"] with that of Israel's leftist 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 favourable treatment; even though their mastery of Hebrew was no better, and in many cases much worse, than that of Mizrahim.

The radical socialist Israeli anti-Zionist group
Matzpen was the focus of a 2003 documentary

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 among 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 followed 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 - which had 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 realising 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, in particular, 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."

The Labor government feared that such a bond between Matzpen and the Black Panthers could one day lead to its downfall

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 percent... 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.

Although the state always regarded the Black Panthers as a fringe movement, they did nonetheless see the group as having the potential to become a much larger political force. Though, 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.

Activists renamed another of Musrara's streets
after Meir's infamous quote [WikiCC]

Prime Minister Golda Meir's almost innocuous reference to the Panthers as "not 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 organisation.

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 both. 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 group. Later known as "The night of the Panthers", it saw the coming of age of the movements' Moroccan leaders. With 1959's Wadi Salib protest still part of their psyche, the Panthers organised activists who protested against the same marginalisation in Haifa

The protesters of Zion Square were denied permits for their demonstration and the night was characterised 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 such as in 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 favourably than them. They believed this was the case because these Soviet Jews had more in common culturally and religiously with the Ashkenazi-dominated establishment in Israel.

Click here for part two of Otman Aitlkaboud's study, charting the rise of the Israeli Black Panthers in a revolutionary age and the group's lasting legacy upon the country's radical and mainstream left.

The two-part series concludes with The legacy of Israel's Black Panthers

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. He formerly worked at conflict resolution think tank Next Century Foundation and for the European Union External Action service in Armenia. Follow him on Twitter: @OtmanA