How Israel’s Black Panthers radicalized its Mizrahi Jews, and changed the country


(JTA) — In Jerusalem’s rapidly gentrifying Musrara neighborhood, there’s a street sign reading “Black Panthers Way.” 

Puzzled Americans may wonder why Israelis have paid tribute to the radical African-American group that terrified the establishment in the 1960s, but local residents know better: The sign is an homage to the Israeli Black Panthers, a group of Mizrahi youth who borrowed the name and some of the tactics of the American group to demand an end to the discrimination faced by Israeli Jews with roots in the Middle East and North Africa. 

In the early 1970s, the Black Panthers held street demonstrations and staged Robin Hood-like protests. They provoked the Israeli government (Prime Minister Golda Meir famously called them “not nice”) and brought attention to the dire conditions in places like Musrara, a formerly Arab Christian neighborhood of Jerusalem that served as a sort of dumping ground for the Mizrahi immigrants who flooded into the country in the 1950s. 

The Panthers also managed to create what the scholar of Mizrahi Jewry, Sami Chetrit, calls a “mass workshop for rehabilitating an oppressed identity.” 

Chetrit is quoted in “Israel’s Black Panthers: The Radicals Who Punctured a Nation’s Founding Myth,” by my JTA colleague Asaf Elia-Shalev. The new book is a history of the Israeli Panthers and the social revolution they brought about. It is told through the recollections of its still-living veterans, such as the Moroccan-born activist Reuven Abergel, archives in Israel and the United States, and a cache of classified police intelligence files on the Panthers. 

Perhaps, with war in Gaza and anti-Israel protests being staged around the world, following a year of deep divisions within Israeli society itself, there might not be much of an appetite in Israel or among American Jews for a book that explores Israel’s sometimes shameful treatment of its Mizrahi underclass. But Elia-Shalev, 36, sees a degree of hope in the way the Panthers helped change a fractured country for the better. 

“I think ultimately the lesson of the Panthers is that a very small group of people that you never expected anything from could change society,” he told me.

Elia-Shalev is a staff reporter for JTA. He is an Israeli-American who lived in Israel for six years as a child and has since lived and worked there for what he calls “a third of my life.” He currently lives in Los Angeles.

Our interview was edited for length and clarity. 

Asaf Elia-Shalev, a staff writer for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, is the author of “Israel’s Black Panthers.” (Jeff Sredni; University of California Press)

Yours is the first book-length treatment, at least in English, of the Israeli Black Panthers. Why didn’t Israeli historians or journalists think they were worth a deeper look?

There are a few reasons. One is that Israeli academia has a blind spot around the history of Mizrahim. The other reason is that Israeli academics have been more interested in theory, and like arguing about the right theoretical framework to think about the Panthers rather than the people who have never been interviewed.

Did your own background draw you to the story? 

I’m Mizrahi on my dad’s side, who is an Iraqi Jew, and on my mom’s side we’re Sephardic Bulgarians. At UC Berkeley, my biggest paper in college was about the American Black Panthers and their impact on the student activism of the day on campus. I stumbled upon a reference to the Israeli Black Panthers, and that they represented the struggle of the Mizrahi Jews, and I was like, “Oh, wait, I think that’s me.” I didn’t have a strong sense of my own heritage at the time, and, wanting to know more, I just was incredibly frustrated that there was almost no material.

You enter the story largely through the biography of Reuven Abergel, who was one of the early activists in what became the Panthers. Tell me who he is, how you connected with him and what he represents about the history of this movement. 

I started sitting down with Reuven Abergel maybe 10 years ago, before I knew there would be a book. After college, I worked in the Bay Area for a little bit, then I moved to Israel to work for Haaretz as a news editor. Within a month of moving to Israel, I went to some party and I met Reuven. And immediately we had a connection. He really wanted to tell his story in English. At that time he was giving weekly tours about the Black Panthers in Musrara, where he grew up incredibly poor, and I would translate. It was a really interesting exercise, having him speak through me. I had to be so attuned to what he’s saying because he speaks in philosophical ways and he meanders and he’s very intellectual. And he was saying things that were quite shocking to me about Israel’s treatment of Mizrahim. 

The Panthers emerge in the early 1970s. What was the situation facing Mizrahi Jews, who were on the way to becoming a majority in Israel? 

Israel had just emerged from the 1967 war. And there’s this economic boom happening in the country, kind of leaving behind the old Israel of the kibbutz and austerity and opening up to the world. There’s visible wealth everywhere, at least on an Israeli scale. Mizrahim were largely left out of that economic progress and still living in the same way they’d been living the 1950s, sometimes 10 people to a room in unsanitary conditions, with little or no positive contact with any state institutions, whether it’s school or social workers. Police were very present in Musrara and would regularly beat up children and teenagers. And there are thousands of street youth, street gangs, young Mizrahi men in their teens or in their early 20s who just hang out and get into trouble and have no prospects. Something has to happen with that energy.

But what about the army? Weren’t they part of the universal draft? 

The military, until that point, would disqualify anyone who had any kind of criminal record. And that’s important because the military was a vehicle of social mobility.

What becomes the impetus for an actual organization? 

It’s a little bit mysterious. There’s a lot of people who take credit. Again, after 1967, Jerusalem became this mecca for hippies. Until then, none of the student protests or civil rights activity were happening in Israel and then after ‘67 it comes rushing in. You have these American radicals who start to meet the group that would become the Panthers and start to talk to them about their problems and revolutionaries like the Tupamaros in Venezuela and the Red Army Faction in Germany and the American Black Panthers. 

Meanwhile, there’s this pioneering group of social workers in Musrara saying, “We need to organize the poor to demand systemic change.” They were influenced by people like the American-Jewish organizer Saul Alinsky, who wrote “Rules for Radicals,” and other kinds of things that were happening in the United States. They wanted more money for their departments, more money for social welfare. And they were very savvy about using the media to put pressure on politicians and started to feed stories about abject poverty in the slums of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. They started to teach Panthers how to read and write because many of them had never learned. The youth start reading about all the student activism happening all over the world. And so young Mizrahim like Charlie Biton and Saadia Marciano talked about what they wanted, that they should be like the Black Panthers.

Reuven Abergel, a Moroccan-born radical, appears at a Black Panther protest in Jerusalem, Aug. 23, 1971. The sign behind him reads, “Golda, Golda, fly away already, everyone is sick of you.” (Israel Sun Ltd., from the Judaica Collection of the Harvard Library, Harvard University)

And soon this nascent movement came to the attention of the government. 

The press loved it. The politicians at first denied that it existed but then started to freak out. Police immediately started putting detectives on this group even though they hadn’t done anything. There were informants and high-level police meetings and the organizers realize, “In that case, we should do a protest. We want the government to pay attention to us.” 

That’s how your book opens, with Prime Minister Golda Meir’s cabinet freaking out about what a protest in Musrara could end up sparking. 

At an emergency meeting, Golda and her advisors discuss what they should do. They thought it would turn violent because they consider these people to be low-life scum who weren’t capable of doing anything but be violent. They also have a memory of 1959 when a police officer was shot in Wadi Salib, a Mizrahi neighborhood in Haifa, and there was a big uprising that lasted for months. Golda, as an American, is also attuned to what’s happening in the United States with the rise of black militancy.

Until then, Israel had been able to fend off the radical energies that were taking over the streets all over Europe and the United States.

What is the result of the emergency meeting?

She authorized the police to arrest 15 people under what today is called administrative detention, where you don’t need to bring actual charges. This was in the emergency code enacted by the British and was the first time that it was applied by Israel to Jews as far as I can tell. 

And of course, it backfired. Anyone with any kind of liberal leaning in Israel was asking, “Why are you arresting people?” Word gets out very quickly that raids are happening. And then every bohemian, every left-winger, every kind of professor, all these respectable people descend on City Hall to join the protest. And then they marched over to the police station where some of the Panthers are being held and demand their release. And that taught the Panthers a lesson that what they were doing was very provocative and very threatening. And they knew that they were onto something.

The height of their influence is from 1971 until the Yom Kippur War in 1973. What did they accomplish in that short time?

Their peak dates from that very first protest, March 3, 1971, which was followed by a rapid succession over the next six months of gradually escalating protests, with thousands of people in the streets. A month after arresting them, Meir meets with them in her office to hear their demands. There is a frenzy of articles about them in every newspaper. They force Israel to contend with this domestic problem.

The War of Attrition with Egypt had just ended in 1970, so there was this unprecedented quiet on Israel’s borders after 1970 and until the 1973 war. So they get everyone talking about the problem of poverty and very quickly the government starts releasing funding at every level, from education to housing to employment. The Knesset starts passing legislation. In 1972, the year after the Panthers launched, it passed what’s been dubbed the “budget of the Panthers” — a massive expenditure on social welfare. It was the first time in Israeli history that the country was spending more on domestic issues, on social welfare, than on military and defense.

They also reform the way criminal justice is conducted. Minors are no longer put through the same process as adults.

While most politicians didn’t want to give credit to the Panthers for all these changes, as a result of the Panthers we see the creation in Israel for the first time of a modern welfare state modeled after European social democracy. And, of course, that doesn’t necessarily last. Whether it’s the 1973 war or the economic recession that followed, you see the rise of the right-wing Likud, which had no interest in turning Israel into a European social democracy.

What I find so fascinating about your book and your recent obituary for Charlie Biton, who died last month at age 76, is that while the Panthers were so rooted in the radical politics of the left, the Mizrahi community as a whole takes a turn to the right, proving key to the election of Menachem Begin’s Likud party in 1977 after 30 years of left-wing rule by Labor. What accounts for that?

It’s important for me to clarify that for every kind of peace movement, Mizrahim were there. They were represented on the left. Charlie Biton, for example, was the first prominent Israeli to meet with PLO leader Yasser Arafat. 

I’m always careful about this conversation because there’s a sense that Mizrahim are stubbornly anti-peace or stubbornly anti-Arab. But I think they’ve always been the constituency that’s been perhaps the most flexible over time — for example, when Shas, the religious Mizrahi party, voted to abstain rather than oppose the Oslo Accords between Israel and Arafat’s PLO. If you look at the far right, the settlement movement, it’s always been led by Ashkenazim. The Likud was always led by Ashkenazim, and Mizrahi moderates like David Levy were passed over. 

There is also a lot of religious flexibility. Mizrahi are what’s called masorti, or traditional — ostensibly Orthodox but with a lot of built-in flexibility. They will make allowances for things in a way that the extremist settlers and extreme religious right, who have come to dominate politics in Israel, do not. 

But you’re right, the Panthers went one direction, and the Mizrahi public by and large went in a different direction. 

Black Panther Rafi Marciano reads from a document at the first demonstration of the Panthers, staged outside Jerusalem City Hall, March 3, 1971. (Israel Sun Ltd., from the Judaica Collection of the Harvard Library, Harvard University)

You write that the Likud represented the outsiders at a time when the Ashkenazim dominated the establishment. 

That’s a big part of the alliance. The Panthers talked a big game about being very radical and being against the establishment, but unlike the Black Panthers in the United States, they weren’t separatists. They believed in the Jewish state and they felt betrayed that they were relegated to second-class status.

Enter Menachem Begin and the Likud, who had their own history of marginalization, and were cut out of centers of power for many years and just maligned in different ways. Begin had a lot of credibility as a founding father, and he had a lot of charisma, and he looked at the grievance of the Mizrahi public and channeled it. In a famous speech he calls them the real Zionists, warriors and his brothers. The Mizrahim in turn saw an opportunity to register their discontent. And so this alliance was forged between these two disgruntled groups. And Likud has kind of been ruling the country ever since, except for pauses here and there.

After their heyday, some of the Panthers took very different paths. Abergel fell on some hard times, and Biton and Marciano made it into the Knesset. 

Marciano very briefly makes it into the Knesset, and he did different kinds of activism until he died at age 58.

Charlie Biton joins the communists and they create the Hadash party. He’s in Knesset for 15 years and continues to champion Mizrahi causes. They couldn’t dismiss him as the crazy radical communist because he represented something real, something widespread and something not marginal to the conversation. 

Abergel, meanwhile, becomes an addict and even homeless for a time, correct? 

Other Panthers became addicted to drugs that were flowing into Israel in the 1970s and ‘80s. Hard drugs were a huge problem among the Mizrahi population. Reuven becomes an addict, but for years and years he is able to run a youth center and was teaching kids in afterschool programs. For a very long time he was able to be a functional addict until his life completely falls apart. His emergence as a phoenix out of that period is its own story.

What has been the lasting influence of the Black Panthers, and what kind of gaps remain? 

Mizrahim made huge strides since the time of the Panthers. Many have joined the middle class, there’s a lot of Mizrahi wealth, there’s no question about that. The Mizrahi representation in media is equal or even over-represented at this point. 

But there are still areas where there’s lack of representation. They’re only like less than 10% of university faculty and university leadership. If you look at the prime minister’s cabinet, I mean, all the most important roles are held by Ashkenazim. There’s never been a Mizrahi prime minister. High culture, whether it’s art or ballet, the Tel Aviv institutions, is still very Ashkenazi. 

Ten years ago there was a ton of excitement around the Mizrahi struggle. There was a renaissance of all these young people who were doing poetry, musicians like Neta Elkayam, Dudu Tassa, Yemen Blues — making the music of their grandparents that had been seen as irrelevant for many years in Israel. There was hope that Mizrahi cultural resources would inspire Israel to become more inclusive, more into peace with the Palestinians, more integrated into the Middle East. Mizrahi history would teach Israel about ways to integrate with the Arab world. 

And then came the right-wing lurch of Israel as a whole.

Have you thought about how the historical lessons of your book have changed since Oct. 7, after the attack by Hamas and the war in Gaza?

The only event in Israeli history that’s kind of a parallel to Oct. 7 was the Yom Kippur War, where there was this really existential threat and an absolute shock to Israeli society, and many, many people dead. And when the elections happened right after the war, no one wanted to talk about poverty, no one wanted to talk about inequality. People wanted to understand why their security had been so compromised and wanted to hold people accountable. 

Today in Israel, there’s a very strong push for unity in the face of the enemy, just like there was in ’73. But once that ended, once the threat was over, that’s when Labor fell apart. If history offers any lesson it is that there could be a paradigm shift. In the coming years we might be writing about the downfall of Likud, but there’s no guarantee Netanyahu’s critics will like what comes next.

And I think the questions about Israel’s identity are going to continue. 

is editor at large of the New York Jewish Week and managing editor for Ideas for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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