Israel’s Black Panthers Remembered


Shortly after Israel’s victory in the War of Independence, the Jewish state took in a mass exodus of Jews from Arab lands, first in 1949, and then again in 1956.

Jews from Arab lands, called Mizrahim, came to Israel not because they were ardent Zionists, but because their host Arab countries, angered by the establishment of the State of Israel, had turned against them.

When the Mizrahim arrived in Israel, they harbored a deep sense of grievance towards European Zionists, which was compounded by their settlement in Israel’s least developed neighborhoods — mostly the ones vacated by Arabs after the war — and their paltry job options. Mizrahi children were put in trade schools rather than on a college degree track, which meant they ended up becoming mechanics, plumbers, hairdressers and the like, prolonging their stay in poverty. Something, they felt, had to change.

By the 1970s, Mizrahim made up more than half of Israel’s population, but lacking the ability to change things from within its institutions, then as now dominated by Ashkenazi Jews, thousands took to the streets. For nearly two years, beginning in 1971, a Mizrahi group called the Black Panthers, modeled on the black movement in American, began what many today regard as the beginning of Mizrahi civil rights.

“They decided not to play by the rules anymore,” said Sami Shalom Chetrit, a professor at Queens College and co-director of film about the Israeli Black Panthers, which will be screened at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this weekend. “You brought us here; it’s your responsibility to take care [of] us,” Chetrit said, expressing the Black Panther attitude. “They had nothing to lose.”

Chetrit’s film, titled “The Black Panthers (in Israel) Speak,” co-directed with Eli Hamo, first aired in Israel in 2002 and shed light on a brief chapter in the country’s history that many feel has been deliberately ignored. Jake Perlin, the co-curator of the BAM series, “Contraband Cinema,” where the film is showing, said, “I think I was really impressed with how little people seemed to know about this.”

Many Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews in Israel today regard the Black Panthers as violent hooligans whose implosion after only two years indicates their lack of popular support. Mizrahim have been better served, critics argue, by parties like Shas, the religious Sephardic party, which are willing to work within the system. It was Shas, for instance, that was pushing hardest for the recent Supreme Court decision that barred a fervently Orthodox Ashkenazi school from segregating its Mizrahi and Sephardic students.

“I think the sense of grievance [among Mizrahim] is subsiding substantially, especially among the third generation,” said Yaron Peleg, a professor of Hebrew literature at George Washington University, who is Ashkenzi. He said that the racial prejudice against Mizrahim, which the Black Panthers highlighted, is overstated, anyway.

“A lot of it has to do with chance because [the Mizrahi Jews] got to Israel later,” he said, noting that any new immigrant, no matter their ethnic background, tends to fare worse than the established population.

Many Mizrahim today disagree, arguing that the project begun by the Black Panthers is far from complete. Rachel Shabi, a British journalist whose parents were Iraqi Jews who immigrated to Israel before relocating to England, recently wrote a book about the Mizrahim titled “Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands” (Yale University Press, 2009). She said she was shocked by how deep the sense of injustice still is among Mizrahim.

“It was a surprise to see how much they still feel those same issues. … ‘Why does Israel bury all these issues about social inequality?’ You still hear people saying that.”

“The Black Panthers (In Israel) Speak” grew out of a conference that Chetrit — a Moroccan-born Jew who immigrated to Israel in 1963, when he was 3 — organized in Israel in 2001, on the 30th anniversary of the organization’s founding. He invited former leaders, like Sa’adia Marciano and Charlie Biton, both of whom later went served in the Knesset under other leftist parties.

With heightened expectations, Chetrit invited his old friend, the filmmaker Eli Hamo, to take footage of the conference. “People call me the Mizrahi archivist,” Hamo said, whose parents were also Mizrahi Jews. He remembers participating in Black Panther protests himself as a teenager, and after watching some of the conference footage with Chetrit, they decided to make something of it.

They went back and conducted further interviews with former Black Panthers, and were keen to keep the issues present-minded. If all they did was talk about the past, Hamo said, “it would not be threatening, it’d be nostalgic.” He wanted to recapture the Black Panthers’ sense of outrage, and revive it again. For him, the injustices are still present, and by making the Black Panthers seem relevant, the inequalities that still remain might be resolved.

Hamo remembers being involved in few several-thousand-person rallies in the heart of Jerusalem. In a particularly fiery one, held in Zion Square on Aug. 28, 1971, Black Panther leaders announced on a loudspeaker: “We are warning the government that we will take all necessary means against show trials of the Panthers’ activists.”

As an effigy of prime minister Golda Meir burned, the voice over the loudspeaker continued: “A state in which half the adult population are kings, and the other half are treated as exploited slaves — we will burn it down.”

Several arrests against Black Panthers had been made earlier that year, and Golda Meir was on record as saying that the Black Panthers were “not nice people.”

Moreover, the Black Panthers had been one of the first Israeli groups to officially support the Palestinian Liberation Organization, then considered a terrorist organization. They engaged in other illicit activities too, like a campaign where they stole milk from the doorsteps of wealthy Ashkenazi homes and delivered them to poor Mizrahi ones. They also planted Molotov cocktails in the offices of the militant Orthodox rabbi, Meir Kahane, with whom the Black Panthers increasingly clashed. But the defection of key leaders to rival political parties ultimately led to the movement’s collapse. And by the time the Yom Kippur War broke out in 1973, there was little public energy left to focus on Israel’s internal problems.

Many people today, including Peleg, acknowledge that the Black Panthers helped deliver the Mizrahi vote to Likud, which effectively ended the country’s 30-year domination by the Labor party. But because of the Black Panther’s radicalism, they were never able to establish their own viable political party. The Mizrahim, said Peleg, were therefore “co-opted very quickly by the established parties.”

Chetrit remains a vocal critic of Mizrahi politics, which are conservative and favor religious parties like Shas. (And plenty of Mizrahim, it should be noted, are critical of him, who they view as an elitist intellectual who has given up on them in his American exile.) Chetrit was founding member of the Mizrahi social movement, the Democratic Rainbow Coalition, which speaks to the same grievances as the Black Panthers, but is less confrontational. But after his own falling out with the leadership in the late-‘90s, and the closing of a Mizrahi school where he was principal, he decided to give up activism altogether. “There is life after activism,” he said.

He returned to Hebrew University in 2000 to earn a doctorate, writing his dissertation on Mizrahi history, but could not find an academic job in Israel after he graduated.

“I don’t blame them,” he says. “I was an activist.”

So he has since moved to the United States with his family, where he has a good job at Queens College. Though there is now a large gulf separating him from the Mizrahi movement in Israel, he sees his film as serving their cause.

“If you’re going to change the facts” on the ground, he said, “you have to change the narrative.”

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