Past Panther says protests won’t lead to ‘tsunami’

Abergel: There won't be a tsunami because the government wants to take care of these people, eventually they’ll build more apartments.

tel aviv massive housing protest_311 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
tel aviv massive housing protest_311
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Reuven Abergel, now 68, has spent his life protesting.
In 1971, he was on the streets with fists raised as one of the key leaders of the Black Panther movement from the Jerusalem neighborhood of Musrara, and he hasn’t stopped fighting since.
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Almost exactly forty years later, on this past Sunday morning, he was arrested again along with nine other demonstrators at a protest demanding more public housing in front of the government-owned Amidar public housing company.
After his release on Sunday, Abergel talked with The Jerusalem Post about the summers of protest in 1971 and 2011.
In 1971, the sometimes-violent Black Panther demonstrations were a jolting wake-up call about the disparities between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jewry, and the widespread discrimination from authorities. But 40 years later, comparing this summer’s protests to the Black Panther uprising makes Abergel uncomfortable.
“This is a new generation, you can’t compare between then and now,” Abergel said of those who try to draw parallels between the Black Panther uprising and the summer of social protests.
“This is the generation of Internet and Facebook. These are things that didn’t exist for Panthers, ways that allow you to transfer information easily and quickly,” he explained.
Still, he praised the current protests for their longevity.
“Even if they don’t do anything [political], they’ll be doing something,” he said on Sunday, noting that the most important impact of the protests might be international rather than local.
“The media that takes their cameras down there, they are taking the world, not just the Israelis, and they are showing them what an incredible democracy we have. What a democracy, a democracy of singing and dancing and artists and belly dancing and sushi.
Where else in the world do you have demonstrations like this? Certainly not in Syria, or Egypt,” he said.
But Abergel critiqued the media for just focusing their cameras 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.
“For someone living in a tent on Rothschild who’s finishing their degree, it could take him a while to get on his feet, but because of the connections from his family eventually he’ll be alright,” said Abergel.
He complained that no one was talking about the tents in “the country’s backyard,” small tents set up in the same neighborhoods where people are evicted from their homes after they can’t pay the rent.
“We’re talking about the second and third generations of people whose salary never went above minimum wage,” he said.
In the tent city in Sacher Park, there are second generation tent protesters – people who were adolescents when their parents were evicted from their homes and decided to live in protest tents for months in a major housing protest in 1994 to demand more public housing. More than fifteen years later, they find themselves in exactly the same situation, making the same demands.
Still, Abergel praised the “wave that started on Rothschild,” prompting sweeping demands for a restructuring of the distribution of wealth. He cautioned against expecting large changes as a result of the current popular struggle.
“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.
But Abergel’s fellow Black Panthers activist, founder Charlie Biton, took a more optimistic view of the protests at the massive rally on Saturday night that drew upwards of 200,000 people.
“Forty years have passed since the day I stepped out, instilled with faith against the injustice surrounding me,” Biton told the rally. “Since then, year after year, I've been waiting for a new generation to stand up against injustice – and here it is.”