The establishment of Israel’s Black Panthers in the early 1970s had a radicalizing effect on Israeli society, its founders were inspired by the US Civil Rights movement and especially the Black Panther Party led by Bobby Seal, Huey Newton and Eldridge
Clever. It was originally formed by young unemployed workers like Sa’adia Marciano and Charlie Biton, when the latter was asked what motivated him he said, “We felt and were being oppression and resented it. We didn’t even know who the oppressors were and how they oppressed us. Only through struggle were we to understood who steps over us and why they do so.” Biton’s words will be recognizable today by millions of young people who live in the worlds economically deprived communities.
Up until that time Israeli politicians claimed it was impossible to fight social oppression as the security of the State had to come before all else. This left a large part of the economically poorest section of the population living in appalling conditions. As Marciano was to later say, “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 it’s security.”
Of course like its US counterpart there were many weaknesses in the Israeli Panthers ideology or what passed for it; and some of them went on to become mainstream politicians, but there is no doubt that like the explosion of US and European left politics that took place in the 1960s early 70s the world is a better place for having had the Israeli Black Panthers.
Israeli pioneer of direct action protest movement
By Lawrence Joffe
The Moroccan-born social campaigner Sa’adia Marciano, who has died in a Jerusalem hospital, aged 57, was the founder and public face of Israel’s Black Panthers protest movement, and one of the most charismatic, if tragic, figures in Israeli society. He battled ceaselessly for Israel’s poorer Sephardim and Mizrahim (Jews of Spanish and oriental origin) and at his death was still campaigning to provide food and heating for Jerusalem’s needy.
Sa’adia was a lanky, long-haired 20-year-old when he first galvanized unemployed youths in the rundown Jerusalem neighbourhood of Musrara in 1971. The Panther moniker was an echo of the African-American group: “Golda Meir was aware of [their] reputation, and we wanted to scare her.”
The rebels took to the streets, accusing Israel’s European-origin Ashkenazi establishment of betraying their community. The Sephardim were a small minority when the state of Israel came into being in 1948, but by 1971, after immigration from the Middle East and north Africa, they represented almost 60% of all Israeli Jews. However, only 3% of top official posts and a fifth of parliamentary members were Sephardi.
The Panthers attacked the ruling Labour party for housing Sephardi immigrants in substandard ma’abarot (transit camps) and “development towns”, and denigrating Arabic-Jewish culture. A spontaneous uprising soon turned into protests outside Jerusalem town hall. They bore coffins to symbolise the death of social equality, and stole milk bottles from outside middle-class homes to redistribute in disadvantaged areas.
The Panthers won attention after Marciano’s face, bruised by police batons, appeared on television. In 1971 Golda Meir called them “not nice boys”, and a month later 20 were wounded and 74 arrested when they clashed with police. But they forced her to call an inquiry and increase social budgets.
Marciano’s group challenged two sacrosanct ideas of Israeli society: that Jews constituted one, indivisible bloc, and that social concerns had to wait until peace arrived. They also claimed common cause with Israeli Arabs and Palestinians in the occupied territories, and were among the first Israelis to meet Yasser Arafat in 1972.
In September 1973, the Panthers won several seats in the Histadrut labour federation, but in the wake of the Yom Kippur war that October most Sephardim disagreed when the Panthers blamed Zionism for engendering social rifts.
In 1977 Marciano entered the Knesset (parliament) for the leftwing Sheli party. Three years later he formed the one-man Equality in Israel-Panthers party, but failed to pass the 1% election threshold in 1981. He then founded a drug rehabilitation centre, organised concerts and dabbled in film production. He later joined the Labour party, though he never stood for election again.
Despite their failures, the Panthers set a model for direct action in Israel, which has been followed by the leftwing Peace Now, Yesh Gvul and Four Mothers, and pro-settler rightist groups such as Gush Emunim and Zo Artzeinu. They also put social issues on the national table. The ruling Likud party launched projects to revive development towns; culturally, Mizrahi music has entered mainstream pop; and restaurants sell more bourekas, shwarma and hummus than bagels, schnitzels and gefilte fish. Since 1971 Israel has had two Mizrahi presidents and many government ministers. Sa’adia’s cousin became chief aide to the Moroccan-born Amir Peretz, who was elected Labour’s second Mizrahi leader in late 2005.
Marciano was born the sixth of 11 children in Oujda, a town on the Moroccan-Algerian border. He emigrated to Israel in 1950 after violence between local Arabs and Jews. He is survived by his wife Vicky; they had a son.
· Sa’adia Marciano, campaigner, born May 1 1950; died December 21 2007