Black Panthers in Israel
The population of Israel (within the pre-June 1967 borders) is divided into three major ethnic groups: European Jews (a little over 40%), Oriental Jews (a little under 50%), Arabs (a little over 10%). Thus, of the total of roughly three million, about 1.5 million are Oriental Jews. This ethnic division is also by and large a class division. Whereas the majority of the Arabs are employed in unskilled and seasonal work, the Oriental Jews constitute the bulk of the Israeli working class and are employed mainly in semi-skilled jobs. The European Jews are the foremen, professionals, bureaucrats, technocrats and capitalists. This description is, of course, of a statistical and schematic nature. Although the Israeli Arabs are the most oppressed, discriminated against and underpaid section of the Israeli population, we shall describe here the discrimination practiced within the Jewish community, i.e. the discrimination of the Oriental Jews by European Jews.
According to the Statistical Yearbook published by the Israeli government in 1969, out of the entire Jewish population, 4% of the families had 4 or more persons living in one room, but among the Oriental Jews the percentage of such families is nearly 8%. In the Jewish primary schools (age groups 6 to 14), children from Oriental families constituted about 60% of all pupils whereas in secondary schools (age groups 14 to 18) they constituted less than 40%; and in the last form of grammar schools (17/18) they constituted less than 12%. Only 4% of the Oriental Jews over the age of 14 have more than elementary education, whereas among European Jews the figure is nearly 16% (amongst the Arabs – 1.3%…).
Amongst the registered unemployed (over 65,000 in 1968) the Oriental Jews numbered more than twice the Europeans. The figures concerning slum dwellers and people living at subsistence level show an even more marked discrimination of Oriental Jews when compared to European Jews.
Despite the proclaimed Zionist ideology which aspires to fuse together all the various ethnic Jewish groups, the actual facts, as shown by many surveys, reveal that the social and economic gap has steadily increased.
In addition to the economic and social discrimination, particular bitterness is caused by cultural discrimination. The ruling strata – almost exclusively of European origin – have imposed their own, east-European Jewish culture on the rest of the population. They often mention the ‘danger of the Levantinization of Israel’ which, according to them, would arise if the Oriental Jews maintain their specific culture. Recently the Prime Minister (Mrs. Meir) went as far as to declare (in New York) that a Jew who does not speak Yiddish (a German-Jewish dialect spoken exclusively by European Jews) is not a proper Jew.
In a variety of ways, the Oriental Jews are made to feel culturally inferior. This cultural imperialism is exacerbated by the patronizing attitudes of the European Jewish establishment.
The bitterness of the Oriental Jews has recently been aggrevated by the arrival of a new wave of immigration from Russia, after 1967. The Israeli establishment, which has a special interest in this immigration for political reasons, gave these immigrants special privileges. These privileges include good flats in new houses (under very good payment terms), good jobs, etc. The Oriental Jewish immigrant who has lived in a slum for many years, sees the new immigrants getting government subsidized flats which he knows he will never acquire. On top of this many of the new Russian immigrants display particularly open and obnoxious racialist attitudes towards their Oriental ‘brethern’.
An additional factor is the recent marked increase in police brutality in dealing with the youth in the Oriental ghettoes. Since the 1967 war, the Israeli police, in particular the Jerusalem police, had to deal with Arab protest and resistance in the occupied territories. In this confrontation the police adopted increasingly brutal methods, in many cases causing the death of Arab detainees. The police became addicted to brutality and sadism and applies the same treatment to Oriental Jewish youth living in slums.
All these factors gave rise, at the beginning of 1971, to the creation of a militant group of young Oriental Jews in Jerusalem, who decided to call themselves Black Panthers. In actual fact many Oriental Jews have a swarthy skin although the colour differences between the various ethnic groups is not sharp. The term ‘blacks’ has often been used in a derogatory sense with reference to the Oriental Jews. One of the founders explained the choice of the name:
“We decided to set up some organization, and we knew that an organization like that exists abroad, in the United States, that it is called “the Black Panthers”, and is struggling for rights. There the discrimination is between negroes and whites, and we felt that we are almost like them” (interview in “Ha’aretz“, March 12, 1971).
One might add that the social background, sometimes even personal histories, of the founders of the Jerusalem Black Panthers, resembles closely their namesakes in the United States. However, their initial demands were not very radical.
Their first public activity was to publish a leaflet calling for a demonstration on March 3rd (1971) outside the Jerusalem municipal building.
The leaflet reads:
We are a group of victimized youth addressing all those who are fed up.
ENOUGH of unemployment.
ENOUGH of sleeping ten in a room.
ENOUGH of seeing houses built for newcomers.
ENOUGH of being jailed twice a week.
ENOUGH of unfulfilled government promises.
ENOUGH of discrimination.
ENOUGH OF VICTIMIZATION.
How much longer shall we let them screw us and remain silent. Seperately we can do nothing, together we’ll succeed.
We are demonstrating for our right to be like all citizens in this country.
The demo will take place on Wednesday, March 3rd at 3:30 p.m. in Jaffa Road outside the municipal council building.
Since every demonstration in Israel requires a police permit, the Panthers applied for one. The police not only refused to grant the permit but took the unusual step of arresting about a dozen of the Panthers’ leaders as well as prominent members of the “Matzpen” group. This group, also known as the Israeli Socialist Organization, is a revolutionary, anti-Zionist group. It supported the Panthers from the beginning, joined their activities.
The anti-democratic and unprecedented behaviour of the police (unprecedented as far as Jewish political activities are concerned) caused an uproar in the Israeli press. At first the police gave out the lame excuse that since some of the Panthers had a criminal record, violence was expected on the demonstration, and the arrests were meant to forestall this. When the press rejected this excuse the police finally admitted that it had acted under direct orders from the prime minister, Mrs. Golda Meir.
It later transpired that on the very day the Panthers applied for the permit, the minister of the police called on Mrs. Meir and in a special emergency meeting was instructed by her to prevent the demonstration even at the cost of extreme measures.
The next day the demonstration took place despite the police ban. Many young people of European origin joined the demo which marched on the police station demanding the release of the prisoners.
When the demonstration reached the municipality building the dynamic mayor of Jerusalem, Mr. Teddy Kollek, found nothing better to tell the demonstrators than to ‘get off the flower beds’.
Following these events the Panthers gained support and members all over Israel. The government decided to try the carrot instead of the stick and took the unusual step of adding 100 million Israeli Lira to the budget for slum clearance. At the same time it pressurized the Panthers to dissociate themselves publicly from “Matzpen” and to join one of the establishment Uncle Tom organizations for the Oriental Jews.
These pressures proved unsuccessful. A few weeks later the Panthers held a successful demo in Tel Aviv. This time they were allowed to hold a rally but not to march. Despite this ban they did march and held up the traffic in the main street. The Tel Aviv police did not use violence to prevent this.
On May 18th the Panthers held a big demo in their main base, Jerusalem. They assembled in the Davidka Square and marched to Zion Square in the centre of Jerusalem via Jaffa road. This demonstration was planned as an orderly, non-violent protest. The Jerusalem police, however, assembled some 800 men, many of them mounted, dressed in riot gear and armed with clubs, gas-grenades, helmets and shields.
When the demonstration got under way the police staged an unprovoked attack, unprecedented in its brutality. The battle between the demonstrators and the police lasted some five hours.
Scores of passers-by and demonstrators were arrested and brutalized by the police. Two days later, on May 20th, the prisoners were released and held a press conference in which they described how they had been treated. They also described the incredible events that had taken place earlier that morning, before their release. In prison the police attempted to force the leaders of the Panthers to join the Alliance of Morroccan Jews, an ‘Uncle Tom’ organization. When some of the leaders finally collapsed the police rushed Mr. Ben-Simchon of the “Alliance”, equipped with a text of an agreement and whiskey bottles, to the detention cell. There the agreement was signed on 5:00 a.m. in the presence of the police officers.
The more consistent and militant leaders of the Panthers did not join this agreement and repudiated it. They declared publicly that the Panthers would continue their independent existence.
Those who did sign, together with Mr. Ben-Simchon held a separate press conference which broke down in chaos when it turned out that the defectors had second thoughts. It appears though that the movement has, in effect, split into a moderate group which seeks a compromise with the establishment, and a militant part which will continue the struggle against the establishment.
It is most probable that this militant group will make itself increasingly felt in Israel and will undergo a process of political radicalization.
During August, the Jerusalem police busted the Panthers’ offices in broad daylight. It also prohibited any demonstration in the centre of Jerusalem. A number of people of the Israeli left were ordered by the police not to leave their homes after midnight. These are unprecedented developments in Israel.
At a teach-in in the Jerusalem University the Panthers carried a banner – “When will Oriental Jews be treated like Russian Jews?” Matzpen, who supported them, added – “And when will an Arab be treated like a Jew?”
Indeed, one of the major tests which the Israeli Black Panthers will have to face in the future, is their readiness to make a complete break with Zionist anti-Arab chauvinism, which is one of the roots of anti-Oriental discrimination in Israel.
Note: The connection between the conception of political Zionism and the discrimination of Oriental Jews in Israel is easily grasped on analysing the following document, sent by Dr. T’hone (secretary of the ‘Palestine bureau’ of the Zionist congress in 1908) to the Zionist Executive:
“…The problem of settling Jewish workers and employing them rather than Arab workers will, probably, decide the fate of our colonies… If we could bring Jews from the Yemen and settle them in the colonies we could also have their wives and daughters work as servants instead of the Arab girls employed at present… Up to now there has been no attempt to replace Arab workers by Yemenite Jews. The Jewish labour force can, and should, come to Palestine from two sources: 1. The Zionist youth in the diaspora, particularly from Russia; 2.The Oriental Jews who lack means and are, still, on the same cultural level as the Arab peasants.”
(The T’hone memorandum to the Zionist Executive, October 1908, Quoted in History of Zionist Colonization in Palestine’ by A. Bein).
Somewhere in Israel, August 26th, 1971.
FROM THE UNDERGROUND
A letter from the Israeli Black Panthers’ leader Sa’adia Marciano to the citizens of Israel.
I am addressing you from my hiding place. I shall not tell you here about the police violence during the demonstration and in the detention cells.
Let us leave that for later.
Golda Meir’s discriminatory regime has declared war on us and is trying to force us underground.
Golda’s government was scared by the latest mass demonstration in Zion Square (Jerusalem) which followed the devaluation of the Israeli Lira (by 20%), declared by (finance minister) P. Sapir – a direct blow to the families of the poor.
are wanted for violence, robbery, character assassination and fraud
The tremendous support we received from the poor in Israel brought Golda’s discriminatory government to conclude: “They are dangerous to the regime. They must be put down at once. If we don’t finish them now they might finish us.”
For this reason Police Superintendent Turgeman received instructions to finish us off once and for all. For this reason did the (Jerusalem) detectives break into the Panthers’ offices without any legal warrant, arresting us and beating us up in detention.
Do they really believe they can finish us off that quickly?
Do they really believe this?
Here in my hiding-place I have plenty of time to think. I want to tell you something personal which keeps haunting me.
Amongst the thousands of letters we receive from the poor and oppressed in Israel there was one from a family by the name of Va’anunu. This was a few days before the demonstration. This family has 12 children. They live in one room. The kitchen and the toilet are in one cubicle two yards by two yards. Here is what the social worker wrote about the family:
“They are severely overcrowded. They have no space for sufficient beds for all the children. All the children are forced to sleep in one bed. The overcrowding and unsanitary conditions foster disease. The children are frequently ill. Often they have to be taken to hospital. As a result they miss school and lag in their studies. Two months ago the whole family contracted a contagious skin disease (impetigo). Despite the medical treatment given to the entire family the disease keeps recurring because of the severe overcrowding. This is a source of infection for the entire neighbourhood….”
The social worker concluded her report by saying:
“A rehousing for this family is imperative for there is no other hope to their health, and no other hope for the children to make any progress…”
But Golda’s discriminatory regime refuses to be impressed by this reality; P. Sapir the finance minister, keeps saying that there is no poverty in this country. The authorities rejected all the family’s appeals. Later that day I saw one of this family’s children searching for food in the dustbin outside a luxurious house. I could not stop my tears. I knew that the story of the Va’anunu family is the story of the second Israel, the oppressed and neglected Israel consisting of tens of thousands of families.
This story have I re-learnt in the Mousrara quarter in Jerusalem which is a university for poverty. That child got out of me what that sadist, police interrogator Mushitz never managed to: I cried like a child.
At that moment I vowed to myself: all my efforts will be dedicated to war on this outrageous reality, the reality of the little child named Va‘anunu, or Va’aqnin or Shar’abi (Oriental Jewish names – Trans.), who searches for food in the dustbins of the flat of an Epstein; against this vicious reality which forces this child to grow up as an unskilled labourer to serve the children of Rabinowitz (European Jewish name – Trans.).
I have sworn that no power in the world will deter me in this war. Neither the libel of journalists nor the murderous beatings in police stations, nor the hunt which Golda’s police mounts against us as if we were criminals.
When we stopped the traffic in Zion Square in Jerusalem it was like a great outcry for all those oppressed families who regard us as their last hope. My comrades are as determined as myself. Together we have sworn: No more poverty. No more deprivation. If in the framework of the present regime it is impossible to put an end to poverty and deprivation, then we shall put an end to this regime.
Citizens. From this hiding place I appeal to you: Help us to help you. Demonstrate your solidarity with us. Come this Saturday night to the Russian Compound (location of the Jerusalem police detention cells), the families of the detainees will be waiting there for you.
There we shall all demand:
RELEASE THE DETAINEES.
AN END TO POVERTY.
AN END TO DEPRIVATION.
On behalf of the mobile Hq. of the Black Panthers organization,
Aug. 26, 1971
On Friday, September 10th, Marciano and his comrades – following legal advice – gave themselves up to the police in public, in Zion Square, in front of journalists and TV cameras. They were held in the notorious detention cells in the Russian Compound pending their trial on charges of ‘interfering with public order’, ‘obstructing traffic’, ‘assaulting policemen’, ‘violence’, etc. etc.
Funds are urgently needed to support the Panthers Campaign.
Send your contribution, however small, to the Israeli Revolutionary Action Committee Abroad – 219, Putney Bridge Rd., London SW15.