The Black Panthers (Hebrew: הפנתרים השחורים, translit. HaPanterim HaShhorim) were an Israeli protest movement of second-generation Jewish immigrants from North Africa and Middle Eastern countries. It was one of the first organizations in Israel with the mission of working for social justice for Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews, drawing inspiration and borrowing the name from the African American Black Panthers. It is also sometimes referred to as the Israeli Black Panthers to distinguish them from the American group.
The movement began early in 1971 in the Musrara neighborhood of Jerusalem, in reaction to discrimination against Mizrahi Jews, which it considered to have existed since the establishment of the state. The Black Panthers felt that this discrimination could be seen in the different attitude of the Ashkenazi Establishment towards the olim from the Soviet Union. The movement's founders protested "ignorance from the establishment for the hard social problems", and wanted to fight for a different future.
At the beginning of March 1971, the Israel Police denied the Black Panthers a permit for a demonstration; the Panthers ignored this decision and proceeded with the demonstration illegally, protesting the distress of the poverty, the gap between poor and rich in Israel, and the ethnic tensions within Jewish Israeli society. The movement successfully built a base of supporters, both in the public and in the media.
On 18 May 1971, "The Night of the Panthers", between 5,000 and 7,000 demonstrators gathered in Zion Square in Jerusalem in a militant protest against the racial discrimination. The demonstrators even demanded to change the name of the square to Kikar Yehadut HaMizrah (Eastern Jewry Square). This demonstration was also held without police permission. The security forces that came to disperse the demonstration encountered an angry mob who threw stones and Molotov cocktails. Both police and demonstrators were injured in the clash; 20 were hospitalized, and 74 demonstrators were arrested by the police.
Prior to the demonstration, representatives of the Panthers had met with Prime Minister Golda Meir on 13 April, who characterized them as "not nice people". She saw the leaders of the movement as lawbreakers and refused to recognize them as a social movement. The violent protest of 18 May brought the government to discuss seriously the Panthers' claims and a public committee was established to find a solution.
According to the conclusions of that committee, discrimination did exist at many levels in society. Following this, the budgets of the offices dealing with social issues were enlarged significantly. However, the 1973 Yom Kippur War soon changed the government's list of priorities, and most of these resources were turned, again, towards security needs.
The Panthers eventually moved into electoral politics, but without success, at least in part because of internal disputes and struggles. In the 1973 Knesset elections the party won 13,332 votes (0.9%), just short of the 1% threshold. For the 1977 elections Charlie Biton ran on the Hadash list. He was re-elected three times, before leaving Hadash to establish the Black Panthers as an independent Knesset faction in 1990. Some of the movement's leaders integrated into either the main Israeli parties specific, ethnic parties such as Tami or Shas, and through them promoted the Mizrahi Jews' agenda. Reuven Abergel has since been active in the struggle for social justice and peace in Israel and the Palestinian territories as a member of various groups and movements. He currently serves on the board of the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow.
The young Black Panther activists raised public consciousness to the "Oriental question", which subsequently played a role in Israeli political debate in the 1970s and 1980s, contributing to Likud success in that period. Although inequalities remain, many Mizrahi Jews have over the years entered the mainstream of Israeli political, military, cultural and economic life, including Moroccan-born Amir Peretz and David Levy, Iraqi-born Shlomo Hillel, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and Yitzhak Mordechai and Iranian-born Shaul Mofaz and Moshe Katzav.
A group of activists from Muslala named two routes through Jerusalem's Musrara neighborhood "Black Panthers Way" and "They're Not Nice Alley" in 2011, the latter taken from the comments made about the Panthers by Golda Meir.
The newly named streets will be part of a tour dubbed 'In the Panthers' footsteps' through Musrara's mostly unnamed alleys.
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