On the 30th anniversary of the Black Panthers movement in Israel

Styling themselves on the American organisation of the same name, the Black Panthers campaigned against discrimination and oppression of Sephardic Jews who had emigrated from Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. The movement led to brutal clashes with the state. The peak of the confrontation between the Panthers and the authorities was in 1972, when 60 people were arrested on the May Day demonstration where they had chanted slogans not just against poverty but against the annexation of Arab lands.

At the beginning of 1970s in Israel there was the beginning of a campaign to support Soviet Jews who wished to emigrate to Israel under the slogan "Let my people go!" This campaign was justified by discrimination against the Jews in the USSR, Poland and other Eastern Bloc countries. But at the same time Israel had for many years carried on a policy of discrimination and oppression of Jews who had come to Israel from Asia and Africa.

For the Ashkenazi (Jews from Europe) Israeli elite, the Eastern Jews (Sefardis) were seen as second class citizens. After emigrating to Israel in the beginning of the 1950s, they met with low pay jobs, life in the slums, poverty and discrimination. There was a quota for Sefardis in the Universities, where they were treated as "Arabs". There were even suspicions that some children from Yemeni Jewish families were kidnapped by the Israeli government and later sold for adoption by rich American families.

Sometimes the Eastern Jews spontaneously rebelled against this discrimination and oppression. These actions were brutally crushed by the state. The strongest action took place in 1959 in the Haifa suburb of Abu-Salib. The people used social and anti-Zionist slogans and the authorities dealt with this by a combination of force and demagogy. Then everything was left as it was until 1971.

In the end of 1970, a group of young people, mainly teenagers from Sefardi families - Saadia Marchiano, Charly Biton, Kochavi Shimshon, Reuven Avidz'al, Rafi Marchiano, Edi Malcha, Kuku Dery and others - decided to establish an organization to fight for Sefardi Jewish rights in Israel. They learned from the experience of the Black Americans' freedom fight, and called their organization "The Black Panthers".

Like their Americans predecessors, the Israeli Black Panthers wanted to combine the struggle for civil rights and the class struggle. The majority of the Black Panthers leadership were under influence of left-wing and Marxist ideas. The authorities at first looked upon the new movement with a mixture of snobbish contempt and indifference. But after the first Black Panther demonstration near the Jerusalem city council building, the Black Panthers' leaders were arrested on personal orders from prime minister Golda Meir. The Jerusalem "Labour" mayor Tady Kolek called out to the demonstrators from his office window - "Get off the lawn, you bastards!"

But the Black Panthers made a name very quickly. In the next month Golda Meir was obliged to meet with these "troublemakers" in her office. As a result of this meeting Mrs Meir pronounced her famous phrase: "They aren't nice." From the point of view of the Israeli establishment she was not so wrong.

On May 18, 1972, between 5,000 and 7,000 came to the Black Panthers' rally in the centre of Jerusalem. In the next few months demonstrations in solidarity with the Black Panthers had taken place in Tel-Aviv and other Israeli cites. In most of these demonstrations there were clashes with the police. In the first issue of the Black Panther magazine Black Panthers' Word the most usual terms were "resistance" and "rebellion". A Black Panther group was even established in Jerusalem university.

The authorities refused flatly to discuss the problems of poverty and discrimination of the Eastern emigrants. In an interview for the French magazine Le Monde, Golda Meir sad that the Eastern Jews themselves were responsible for their poverty, which they brought with them exported from their countries. This was a barefaced lie because everybody knew that before emigrating to Israel most Jews in Arabs countries had a high standard of living.

The peak of the confrontation between the Panthers and the authorities was in 1972. About 60 people were arrested on the May Day demonstration when they had chanted slogans not just against poverty but against the annexation of Arab lands. A few days later four Panther activists were arrested on suspicion of burning residents of Meir Kachane - well known fascists. After this, about ten people declared hunger strike in protest against this arrest.

The Black Panthers usually used the so-called tactic of "direct action". For example in March 1972 they stole all the milk destined for the wealthy Jerusalem Rechavia district and transferred it to the poor suburb of Kirjat-Uvel. In every bottle was a short letter, explaining that milk was more important for poor children than for rich people's cats.

Unfortunately, the Black Panthers didn't succeed in becoming a revolutionary party that would lead the Israeli working class in struggle. They had no Marxist programme of action. Their connection with the working class was not strong. Among the leadership there were many people from the lumpen-proletariat and petty bourgeoisie. The first Black Panther congress in December 1972 didn't succeed in preventing a split in the organisation. Some Panther members were active in the trade unions but they failed to win in the elections to the Kneset (parliament).

The October war in 1973 diverted the Israeli masses from the social struggle. The Labour government wanted prevent a new social uprising. After the war ended, the Israeli establishment made some concessions to the Eastern Jews. The most discriminatory practices were abolished, some Sefardi activists got jobs in the administration, the social budget was increased.

The situation was utilised by the Labour Party's main rival - the right wing Herut (Freedom) block. The leaders of this block, especially Menachem Begin (a former right-wing terrorist) demagogically "defended" immigrants from the Middle East (in the past they paid no attention to them). In 1977 Herut (later they took the name Likud) won the Kneset elections, thanks to Sefardi support and then forgot all the promises they had made before the election. The liberal economic policies carried out by Likud even worsened the problems of this part of the population.

Today, on the 30th anniversary of the Black Panther movement, the politicians do not want to be reminded about them. Leaders of the religious party Shas, a party that claims to represent the whole of the Sefardi community, declares at every opportunity that they will not use the "extremist" methods of the Black Panthers. Many former Panther leaders have abandoned the ideals of their youth. Many of them have joined bourgeois parties. But this movement will remain in the collective memory of the Israeli proletariat as one of the greatest social struggles in the history of this land.