Charlie Biton, co-founder of Israeli Black Panthers and first Israeli to meet Arafat, dies at 76


(JTA) — It was March 1971 and Charlie Biton and his friends had recently taken to calling themselves “the Black Panthers” in admiration for the revolutionary African-American group. The group, one of dozens of street gangs in Jerusalem at the time, was about to hold its first demonstration against the racism and poverty experienced by Mizrahi Jews in Israel.  

To Golda Meir, Israel’s American-raised — and Ashkenazi — prime minister, a Mizrahi rendition of the Black Panthers was intolerable. A few nights before the protest, she held an emergency meeting with the country’s top police officials and authorized the arrest of Biton and 14 others to prevent them from demonstrating.

Her decision and the subsequent police raids were an unprecedented assault on the free speech of Israel’s Jewish citizens. But the ensuing public outrage ensured the protest would happen anyway, and following a peaceful rally, the government released the detainees. 

“Everywhere we go, every government office we enter, we are treated totally differently,” a 23-year-old Biton told a reporter shortly afterward, comparing the treatment of Mizrahim to that of Black people in the United States. “It’s why we decided to organize, so that other young people won’t turn out like us — screwed, depraved, and bitter.”

From those arrests, the Israeli Black Panther movement emerged and Biton, as its co-founder, was set on a course of activism and politics that would have seemed unlikely for someone with limited schooling and a criminal background.

Biton died on Saturday at age 76, having ridden the success of his protest group to a 15-year career as a member of Israel’s parliament, serving from 1977 to 1992 mostly alongside communists in the Hadash faction. Biton distinguished himself as a fighter for social change and an early voice for peace with the Palestinians. No cause of death was announced.

His fellow left-winger, the late Uri Avnery, took credit and is widely regarded as the first prominent Israeli to meet with Palestinian national leader Yasser Arafat. But Biton actually beat him to the feat by two years in 1980, a fact that Avnery himself established at the time in a newspaper column. 

Born Shalom Biton in Casablanca, Morocco, in 1947, he was the eldest of six children. The family immigrated to Israel in 1949, far earlier than the vast majority of Moroccan Jewry. They claimed an abandoned Palestinian apartment in the Musrara neighborhood of Jerusalem as their home and were surrounded almost exclusively by other families from Morocco. 

Crowded conditions in the ethnic ghetto were exacerbated by the immediate proximity to Israel’s militarized border with Jordan. Barbed wire and ambient sniper fire marked Biton’s childhood, a situation that kept Musrara isolated until 1967 when Israel conquered the West Bank and reunited Jerusalem. 

Israeli lawmaker Charlie Biton raises his arms in one of his spirited interjections during parliamentary debate in Jerusalem, Oct. 10, 1983. (Nati Harnik/GPO)

Anger at the Israeli establishment seemed to run in the family. Biton’s father, Eliyahu, wound up being labeled a “political provocateur” in memos written by undercover detectives, which surfaced decades later by researchers for the documentary “The Ancestral Sin” by David Deri. The memos outlined police surveillance operations targeting Israel’s Moroccan Jewish community in 1959, after the police shooting of a local resident in Haifa’s Wadi Salib area triggered civil unrest. 

Like many boys growing up in Musrara at the time, Biton was regularly arrested on charges such as petty theft and loitering. Police regularly beat children in detention, and Biton once recalled a beating he suffered at age 9. At 14, he was sentenced to a year in a juvenile facility. 

The Six-Day War, in 1967, transformed the lives of Biton and his friends. The reunification of Jerusalem put Musrara at the geographic center of a newly exciting and optimistic city. With the fighting over, the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll and left-wing radicalism finally arrived in Israel, rushing in with the sudden torrent of foreign arrivals from the United States and Europe. 

Under the influence of social workers and Israeli and American radical activists, Biton, Saadia Marciano and others decided to organize, choosing America’s militant Black Panthers as their model. The Musrara boys were savvy enough to recognize that using such a name would aggravate the establishment but couldn’t have guessed just how alarmed the establishment would get. The Panthers became the topic of extensive news coverage and derogatory opinion pieces before they launched a single action. The attention, which culminated in their arrest, taught them a valuable lesson about the power of publicity.   

For the next two years, the Panthers continued to shock and provoke. They held demonstrations, clashed with police in the streets, issued proclamations, published propaganda and otherwise captured the imagination of the nation. 

Biton led Operation Milk, one of the most famous stunts carried out by the Panthers. Before dawn on March 14, 1972, Biton and a few others swept through the upscale neighborhood of Rehavia and stole bottles of fresh milk that had been delivered to the doorsteps of households with the means. They left notes behind. “We thank you for giving away your milk to hungry children, instead of to the dogs and cats in your homes,” the notes read. “We hope this operation inspires you to contribute to the war on poverty.”

A short while later, across town in Asbestonim, an impoverished neighborhood named after the asbestos sheets used to hastily erect the local dwellings, residents woke up to a pleasant surprise. On their doorsteps, they encountered what was an almost unheard-of luxury for them: freshly delivered milk. Another note was attached. “This is a reminder to all citizens and to the government, and especially to you, that we care,” the note read. 

Black Panthers, including Charlie Biton, second from the left, march during May Day demonstrations in Tel Aviv, May 1, 1973. (Moshe Milner/GPO)

The lesson Biton derived from his time with the Panthers in the early 1970s took him on a very different course from most Mizrahi Israelis, who after the next decade would embrace the political right.

Biton became disillusioned with the very notion of Zionism, a disenchantment that was solidified when in October 1971 he took a trip to Europe to meet Marxists and revolutionary groups. Biton was so enamored with global left-wing politics that he named his daughter Angela after the American revolutionary Angela Davis, a longtime critic of Israel

In 1975, he went to Europe again, and this time, he and two fellow Panthers met with representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which was still regarded in Israel as a terrorist organization. A few months later, the Panthers held a national conference at which they voted to support the creation of a Palestinian state, a radical position for its time. In the language of the approved resolution, the Panthers declared that “a just peace is possible only on the basis of mutual recognition of Israel and the Palestinians, founded on the principle that this land is the common homeland of two peoples, each of which has the right to an independent country and sovereignty.”

Having earned his left-wing bona fides, he joined the Israeli Communist Party in 1977 to form a new political faction called Hadash. They ran for election and secured enough seats to make Biton, the son of two janitorial workers, a member of parliament. He would serve until 1992. 

Very few Mizrahim followed Biton to Hadash. Instead, many abandoned the Mapai party, which represented Labor Zionism and ruled Israel since its founding, and followed the charismatic leadership of Menachem Begin and the right-wing Likud party. The Mizrahi electorate, emboldened in part by the Panthers’ attacks on the old order, brought Begin to power in 1977 and kept his party in control of the country almost continuously since. 

As a lawmaker, Biton continued to press the Israeli establishment and fight for his causes. Within Biton’s first two months as a parliamentarian, he exposed a system of cheating in university admissions and jolted education authorities who had ignored the widespread sale of examination materials. He also publicized a prison strike against poor conditions and mistreatment, which was being led from behind bars by incarcerated Panthers

Later, he famously handcuffed himself to the speaker’s podium in parliament in protest, which earned him a suspension. For another stunt, he delivered a speech on social issues with his back to other lawmakers “since talking to them is no better than talking to the wall.”

After leaving office, Biton continued to be active in Israeli political life and served as a symbol of persistent Mizrahi claims against Israel’s Ashkenazi-dominated ruling class. In 1998, after Ehud Barak, who was running as head of Israel Labor party, issued a formal apology for his party’s role in mistreating Mizrahim in Israel’s early years, Biton and fellow Panthers Reuven Abergel and Kochavi Shemesh wrote a letter to Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu, who was then serving his first term as prime minister. 

“Even if we didn’t mean to do so, we were one of the reasons that Likud found voters among the Mizrahim,” the Panthers wrote. “Since the various leaders of the Likud have been known to enjoy Mizrahi votes and have not solved the problems of desperation and poverty in the poor neighborhoods and development towns, we call on you to follow in the footsteps of the head of the Labor party and ask for forgiveness from the second and third generation of Mizrahi immigrants.” 

No such apology has been issued by Netanyahu, now in his sixth term. 

Over the decades, Biton drifted away from the radical left. After the failure of the Oslo Accords to achieve peace and the violence of the Second Intifada, he came to adopt the mainstream Israeli view that there is no Palestinian partner for peace. 

Politicians and commentators from across Israel’s political map noted Biton’s death and praised his legacy. Centrist Benny Gantz, a former minister of defense and Netanyahu critic now serving in Netanyahu’s war cabinet, said Biton “didn’t just pursue justice — he was justice.” 

Aryeh Deri, head of the Orthodox Sephardic party, said Biton “inspired everyone in his social struggles.” Ayman Odeh, head of Hadash, said, “We will always remember his struggle to unite the disadvantaged in pursuit of peace, equality and social justice.”

Biton is survived by a wife, children and grandchildren. 

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