Israel’s Black Pan­thers: The Rad­i­cals Who Punc­tured a Nation’s Found­ing Myth

  • Review
By – July 1, 2024

The framers of Israel’s Dec­la­ra­tion of Inde­pen­dence were care­ful to sit­u­ate the guar­an­tee of equal­i­ty of social and polit­i­cal rights to all of its inhab­i­tants” at the very heart of the text. Well versed in con­sti­tu­tion­al his­to­ry, and steeped in both Jew­ish tra­di­tion and the prin­ci­ples of the enlight­en­ment, they strove to cre­ate a foun­da­tion­al doc­u­ment that would be as inspi­ra­tional as the Amer­i­can Dec­la­ra­tion of Inde­pen­dence. Cer­tain­ly, the pur­pose of the Jew­ish State was the Ingath­er­ing of the Exiles.” But with its promise of free­dom, jus­tice and peace as envis­aged by the prophets of Israel,” sure­ly it could also be the nation­al embod­i­ment of Isaiah’s light of the nations.” 

Or not. In Israel’s Black Pan­thers, Asaf Elia-Shalev forces us to con­front the some­times vast dis­tance between con­sti­tu­tion­al aspi­ra­tion and social and polit­i­cal prac­tice. On paper, Mizrahi Jews in Israel have the same rights as their fel­low Ashke­nazi cit­i­zens. In real­i­ty, how­ev­er, Mizrahi Jews often face prej­u­dice and overt racism. This is par­tic­u­lar­ly the case for the esti­mat­ed 650,000 who end­ed up in Israel after flee­ing or being expelled from Arab lands in the wake of 1948. To a polit­i­cal class and social and cul­tur­al elites root­ed in Ashke­nazi cul­ture, Mizrahi Jews seemed uncom­fort­ably sim­i­lar to … Pales­tini­ans.” And with their Ara­bic tongues and Ori­en­tal man­ners and predilec­tions … [they] posed a threat to Herzl’s vision of a Euro­pean state in the Mid­dle East.” 

With­out the net­works and elite con­nec­tions afford­ed by pro­tek­t­sya,” a nepo­tis­tic sys­tem that still defines Israeli soci­ety, Arab Jews were con­signed to remote vil­lages and sub­stan­dard neigh­bor­hoods. Mizrahi chil­dren were shunt­ed into voca­tion­al and oppor­tu­ni­ty” pro­gram­ming due to their cog­ni­tive defi­cien­cies.” Their par­ents and grand­par­ents scratched out a liv­ing in the twi­light world of mar­gin­al jobs, day labor, and the gray and black mar­kets. Even the Jew­ish world’s obses­sion with the plight of Sovi­et (read: white and Ashke­nazi) Jews only rein­forced their alien­ation from the Jew­ish mainstream. 

The con­se­quences of this racism were dire. As the fifties gave way to the six­ties and sev­en­ties, many dis­en­fran­chised and dis­af­fect­ed Mizrahi teenagers drift­ed into crime and delin­quen­cy. But a few belonged to grass­roots youth clubs and lit­er­a­cy pro­grams that exposed them to a much wider world — specif­i­cal­ly, to the social upheaval unfold­ing in North Amer­i­ca and West­ern Europe. For young North African and Mid­dle East­ern Jews, it was a rad­i­cal­iz­ing expe­ri­ence. They noticed strik­ing par­al­lels between them­selves and young, inner-city African Americans. 

So it was almost inevitable that young, new­ly orga­nized, and rad­i­cal­ized Mizrahi Jews would call them­selves the Black Pan­thers, after the rev­o­lu­tion­ary group found­ed by Huey New­ton in Oak­land, Cal­i­for­nia in the late 1960s. The Amer­i­can Pan­thers want­ed change, and they were scary — at least to the estab­lish­ment. Even bet­ter, their name invoked the com­mon Yid­dish slur for Mizrahim: shvartse khaye, or black ani­mal.” Under the lead­er­ship of vision­ary activists like Saa­dia Mar­ciano, Reuven Aber­gal, and Char­lie Biton, the Israeli Pan­thers pro­voked the Israeli estab­lish­ment, took on a fun­da­men­tal­ly racist police force, echoed their Amer­i­can namesake’s demands for equal jus­tice and oppor­tu­ni­ty, and even man­aged to find their way into the high­est ech­e­lons of Israeli pow­er. After a three-hour meet­ing with a group of Pan­thers, Prime Min­is­ter Gol­da Meir con­clud­ed, My dear friend, these boys are not nice.” 

Maybe nice boys don’t make a rev­o­lu­tion (inci­den­tal­ly, one of the flaws of this account is the rel­a­tive absence of Mizrahi women in any­thing but back­ground roles). But this book is a fas­ci­nat­ing study of how what is essen­tial­ly a net­work of street gangs can under­take a com­mon cause and effect real social change. While the Israeli Pan­thers large­ly eschewed the vio­lence of the orig­i­nal Black Pan­thers, they suc­ceed­ed in mir­ror­ing their lega­cy as pro­po­nents of Mizrahi pride, cul­ture, and com­mu­ni­ty self-suf­fi­cien­cy. And in inau­gu­rat­ing an era of rad­i­cal aware­ness,” the Israeli Pan­thers cre­at­ed fer­tile ground for Shas, the polit­i­cal par­ty that gave Mizrahi Jews a voice of their own in the Knes­set. The Pan­thers demon­strat­ed the pow­er of rad­i­cal­iza­tion, chal­leng­ing assump­tions about what Israel is. 

Angus Smith is a retired Cana­di­an intel­li­gence offi­cial, writer and Jew­ish edu­ca­tor who lives in rur­al Nova Scotia.

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