This Week in History: The original social protest

In 1971, the Black Panthers protested for social justice and an end to discrimination against Mizrahi Jews.

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August 19, 2012 14:20
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Social protests 370. (photo credit: Michael Omer-Man)

 
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It was a summer of passionate demonstrations, with protesters calling on the government to provide social justice and lower the cost of living; the year was not 2011 but 1971, and the protest leaders were not middle-class Ashkenazi Jews, but underprivileged Mizrahi Jews going by the name the Black Panthers.

The Black Panthers movement was born out of anger regarding disparities between Ashkenzai and Mizrahi Jews, and widespread discrimination by authorities. The protests began in January, 1971, in Jerusalem's Musrara area, a poor, crime- and drug-infested neighborhood. Young Israelis of Mizrahi descent, protested outside the Knesset building in Jerusalem, against a lack of educational and employment opportunities, and poor, crowded housing conditions.

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Most of the Mizrahim immigrated to Israel during the 1950s and 1960s, fleeing hostility in Arab countries. They endured tough conditions in transit camps and development towns, and blamed the Labor-led government, dominated by Ashkenazi Jews, for the difficult conditions in which they lived.

On August 23, 1971, tensions mounted between the Black Panthers movement and the Israel Police, as officers violently dispersed a protest in Jerusalem, injuring 7 and arresting 23.

The movement's name was inspired by the African American Black Panthers, after one of the Israeli movement's founders, Saadia Marciano, met with Angela Davis, from the African American Black Panthers revolutionary leftist organization.

The Israeli Black Panther activists posted signs around Jerusalem:

Enough!
We are a group of exploited youth and we are appealing to all
Others who feel they are getting a raw deal.
Enough of not having work;
Enough of having to sleep 10 to a room;
Enough of looking at big apartment they are building for new immigrants
Enough of having to stomach jail and beatings…;
Enough of broken promises from the government;
Enough of being underprivileged;
Enough discrimination.
How long are we going to keep silent?
We are protesting our right to be treated just as any other citizen in the country.



The Black Panthers stressed that while new immigrants were awarded benefits that allowed them to buy new houses, cars and good educations, it came at the expense of veteran Israelis from the Middle East. They particularly pointed to Former Soviet Union olim (new immigrants) as a yardstick. "We had to prove that there was discrimination. Today, we don't have to prove it. It's staring everyone in the face," movement leader Charlie Biton lamented in 1992, during a live interview program at the Kagan community center in the northern Kibbutz Gonen. Olim from the former Soviet Union, Biton claimed, fared better than second- and third-generation North African immigrants, who were still by and large economically disadvantaged.

Ironically, 30 years after the Black Panther movement, Russian immigrants created their own movement called the Russian Panthers to protest a growing sense of discrimination against them. 

At the beginning of February 1971, the Black Panthers filed a request with police to hold a protest in Jerusalem against the cost of living. The police denied them permission, but the demonstration nonetheless went ahead on March 3.  From that day on, demonstrations continued, at times becoming violent and leading to serious clashes with police.

On April 13, then-prime minister Golda Meir agreed to meet with Black Panther leaders who had announced they would hold a hunger strike until she granted their request for a meeting.  According to Meir's records of the meeting, it began cordially but ended in a heated exchange. Following the meeting, Meir was widely quoted as saying, "the Panthers are not nice people," however she claimed that her words were distorted.

Protests reached a climax on May 18, 1971, dubbed "The Night of the Panthers," when between 5,000 and 7,000 demonstrators gathered in Jerusalem's Zion Square without police permission. Protesters threw stones and Molotov cocktails at security forces who arrived to disperse the crowd, leading to injuries on both sides; 20 people were hospitalized and police arrested over 100 activists.  

Following this event, the Rakach (communist) faction proposed a no-confidence motion against the government, claiming that police conduct during the demonstration was brutal and excessive. The motion was rejected by a wide margin, but the Panther cause was by then a prominent feature on the public agenda and two ministers demanded that the government present a plan of action to solve the issues raised. A public committee was subsequently established.

As the police and government scrambled to take control of the situation, the protests continued. On August 23, the Panthers demonstrated at Davidka Square in Jerusalem, with signs reading "Golda, Golda, get lost already, everyone's had enough of you" and speeches addressing "the war of the Black Panthers against the Ashkenazi government." Protesters later blocked Zion Square, until police dispersed the demonstration using force.

A day after the demonstration, MK Yosef Tamir of the Herut-Liberal faction proposed an urgent discussion regarding the event and police conduct at the demonstration. The meeting concluded with a statement severely condemning the conduct of the demonstrators and urging the public "to distance itself from and disavow these events."

But the government-appointed commission found that discrimination did exist at many levels of society, and the budgets of offices dealing with social issues were increased, including the areas of housing, the army and National Insurance Institute.

The Yom Kippur War quickly pushed social issues to the bottom of the pile, as matters of security and defense took precedence. The Panthers succeeded, however, in bringing the issues of discrimination against Mizrahim, and of social inequality to the forefront. As Marciano said in the 2003 documentary The Black Panthers Speak: "We raised the social struggle flag in spite of the difficult security conditions. Moshe Dayan argued that you can't wave both flags of security and social affairs simultaneously. But we strongly believed that a weak society could never be strong in its security."

Several Black Panther leaders later moved into politics, determined to continue their fight for social change. Bitton joined the non-Zionist Hadash party and in 1990 established the Black Panthers as an independent Knesset faction, while Marciano became a member of the leftist Zionist Sheli party and other Panthers helped form Tami and Shas. Later on, Marciano left the Knesset and devoted his life to helping drug-addicted youth, creating Zoharim, one of the first detoxification villages, named after the Mizrahi singer Zohar Argov, himself a drug addict. Meanwhile, fellow Black Panthers founder Ruben Abergel became a social worker and an ideologue of radical protest movements.

"The real change in Israeli society, when we will witness equality and fraternity and peace, will come when we all - Mizrahim and Ashkenazim - work for it together," Marciano's sister and fellow activist Ayala Sabag told Channel 1 in 2008.

And this is exactly what the contemporary social justice activists strove to do as they pitched their tents and took to the streets in 2011, drawing hundreds of thousands of protesters from varying socio-economic and religious backgrounds into chants of "the people demand social justice!" Indeed, the protests also drew a past Panther or two, and just as he was arrested in the 1971 protests, Abergel faced fresh police encounters at the age of 68, as he joined the new generation of protesters on the streets of Jerusalem. And while he praised the energy and longevity of the protest movement, he criticized the media for focusing their cameras only on the tents on Rothschild Boulevard rather than the small groups of tents that have sprung up over the years from people who have been evicted from their homes and have nowhere else to go.

“We’ve been here since before Rothschild, we’ve been here for years and no one paid attention,” said Abergel. “But when an Ashkenazi puts out a tent, suddenly, there’s a celebration from the heavens, that they took responsibility for something in their lives,” he said.

“There’s not going to be a tsunami, because the government wants to take care of these people,” in contrast to the government’s attitude to Mizrahi Jews in the 1970s, said Abergel. “Eventually, they’ll build more apartments for students, or they’ll cancel arnona [property tax] for a year,” he said.

Meanwhile, Abergel’s fellow Black Panthers activist, founder Biton, took a more optimistic view.  “Forty years have passed since the day I stepped out, instilled with faith against the injustice surrounding me,” Biton told a rally in the summer of 2011. “Since then, year after year, I've been waiting for a new generation to stand up against injustice – and here it is.”

A year on from Biton's optimistic speech, however, the social justice movement bears a different face. The Trajtenberg Committee came and went, leaving social protest activists unsatisfied with its recommendations. Violent confrontations between police and protesters have inevitably become an issue, and in the same way as Marciano was hailed "the face of the Black Panthers" after police gave him a black eye, social justice movement icon Daphne Leef suffered an injury to her hand after a scuffle with police, drawing hundreds of enraged supporters out onto the streets in 2012.

More recently several activists have expressed their desperation through self-immolation, in a "copycat" phenomenon that followed the tragic death of Moshe Silman. And while the movement's leaders are determined not to let their fire die out, the numbers taking to the streets in comparison to the previous year speak for themselves. Several of the key figures of the movement recently announced their intentions to enter politics, seemingly concluding just as the Black Panthers did, that the only way to bring about real change is to become part of the political system themselves.

Melanie Lidman, Greer Fay Cashman and The Jerusalem Post archives contributed to this report.

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