I’ve been a diehard NBA fan since I was a kid. I grew up watching the greats, like MJ, Clyde the Glyde, and Patrick Ewing. But the experience of watching sports isn’t just about the players. You know what makes watching a good game really really great? It’s a great sportscaster. The guy who tells me what I’m watching, and also gives it flavor, color, texture. And one of the greats is a legendary man by the name of Marv Albert. Marv has called some of the greatest games in NBA history until his recent retirement. Marv, I’ll miss you.
Marv has been interviewed over the years about his style of calling games. And on his retirement tour, he said one thing that I can’t get out of my head. See, here’s the background: Marv wasn’t the kind of sportscaster who told you how fantastically the team was doing, even when they were losing by 10 points. Actually, let me tell you a story: by the early 2000s, Marv had been the official Knicks sportscaster for decades already. And let’s be honest, at this stage, the Knicks were not very good. And Marv was real about that, as he called the game. But reportedly, the Knicks front office wasn’t so thrilled about Marv making what they thought of as critical comments about the team, even though Marv would just call it honestly.
And Marv (I like saying Marv) was recently asked about this very choice. Specifically he was asked if objectivity was important, and this is what he said:
“Very, very important. I know particularly out of town, a lot of announcers are really encouraged to be homers, and I just feel I personally could not do that. Particularly on radio, where you are the game. … Why would people believe you if you are not telling them when times are bad, that either someone’s not playing well or the team is not playing well when they are playing well? And on television, people see it. So if you’re saying something that is really not happening, you look foolish. You don’t have to kill, but if something’s bad, you have to say it.”
Marv Albert…with deep wisdom…YESSS.
(Okay, that was my pathetic attempt at a Marv Albert impression)
I think Marv actually hit the nail on the head here. Objectivity, or trying to be objective, is important because truth is important, yes, of course. But also, you’re not fooling anyone, right?? If the Knicks are down by 20 late in the 4th quarter, and you tell the people they still have a chance, their only thought is, wow, can’t trust this guy.
No one believes, oh, Marv is down on the Knicks in this game, he must hate them. Heck, he must hate basketball. That would be crazy! Marv IS basketball. And when it’s honest about the tough times, we truly believe it more, because he builds up stores of trust with us.
And I think this week’s episode is one of those not-so-perfect stories. We’re going to be talking about the Israeli Black Panthers, or the Panterim Shchorim, a fiery protest movement of the early ’70s that ignited Israel’s Mizrahi minority population.
Now, this is a complicated story, and like Marv, I’m a fan, who wants to call it like it is.
But before diving in, we have to back up — way, way before the founding of the state, to the destruction of the second Temple in 70 C.E. This cataclysmic event scattered most of the world’s Jews to the four corners of the earth, and inspired us to pray, for the past 2,000 years, for a return to the land of Israel, and a reunification of the Jewish people.
In 1948, it seemed that prayer had finally been granted. Before the formation of the modern state of Israel, the country boasted roughly 600,000 Jews — some were Europeans immigrants, and a minority of Sephardic Jews who had been living in the land for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. But, by the end of 1952, more than double that number flooded the young country. It felt like it was finally happening, and the Jews were returning to the ancestral homeland.
The majority of these immigrants were Mizrahi, ie Jews from North Africa and the Middle East. They came, often running for their lives, from countries like Yemen, Morocco, Iraq, Egypt, and Syria, where they had lived — and often, been oppressed. The Israeli operations that brought different Mizrahi communities to Israel are intricate, and this episode is already going to be way longer than we want it to be…because this content is awesome and fascinating! So we can’t get into everything, but I highly recommend you check out the Unpacked videos and articles, like our piece on the story of the Yemenite Jews, which you can find in the show notes below. But suffice to say, Mizrahi immigrants to Israel faced chaos, lack of support, and from their perspective, they called out the left wing Labor party as being “racist” towards them. I know, confusing, but we’ll get there.
The new immigrants were first brought to ma’abarot, or transit camps, where they lived in poverty. These camps were made up of canvas tents, later upgraded to shacks — most without access to water or electricity. Higher-ups described the conditions as “a holy horror,” but Prime Minister David Ben Gurion dismissed these concerns, saying: “I don’t accept this pampering [approach]… Anyone who doesn’t want to live in the tents needn’t bother coming here.”
And it didn’t stop with the living conditions. Over and over, the Mizrahim were made to feel like the “Other.” Giyora Yoseftal — who in 1956 became the secretary-general of the ruling party, Mapai — said that Mizrahim have “no morals” and that Moroccans were “primitive people and a backward ethnic group.” In the documentary The Ancestral Sin, filmmaker David Deri exposed some pretty damning facts, like Ben Gurion explicitly saying, “It’s true. There’s discrimination. It’s necessary.”
Let’s pause for a sec. I know this is hard to hear. At least, it’s hard for me to read and say out loud. And that’s probably why growing up, we didn’t learn about this tense early history between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim in Israel. Because our teachers were concerned that the truth might turn us away from a positive image of Israel. But again, like Marv said, our goal isn’t to whitewash. It’s to uncover our true story, so that we can have a deeper, more profound and incredibly real relationship with Israel, and Israelis. This story helps us achieve these aims.
So back to the story. By the 1960s, the ma’abarot gave way to the so-called “development towns” on the state’s periphery. Mizrahim were used to bolster the state’s tenuous and constantly-contested borders. Sderot and Ofakim — which, in 2021, remain majority-Mizrahi — are mere kilometers from Gaza. The Mizrahi immigrants were literally on the front lines of Israel’s embattled borders.
There’s a small neighborhood of Haifa called Wadi Salib. Like most other majority-Mizrahi areas as well as many non-Mizrahi areas (let’s be straight about this, in the 50’s, Israel was not exactly a replica of Bel Air) — it was poor and underdeveloped, many of its residents unemployed. Importantly, it was also right next to a wealthy Ashkenazi neighborhood, called Hadar. Get ready for that name to come back.
One night in July of 1959 (totally irrelevant fun fact and non-sequitur, precisely the month my father was born), the local drunk — a Moroccan immigrant named Yaakov Elkarif, Yaakov Alkadif, or Akiva Alkadif, depending on the source — was acting up, throwing bottles and resisting arrest. The police shot him, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. Rumors — later proved to be untrue — spread that Elkarif had died in the hospital.
The protestors marched on the wealthy Ashkenazi neighborhood of Hadar, breaking windows and setting cars on fire. The mayor of Haifa, Aba Hushi, responded…kinda poorly, inflaming the situation, by comparing the demonstrations to Kristallnacht (which had happened only 20 years before, and is a bit much from my perspective). The riots only spread, continuing to other majority-Mizrahi areas, where demonstrators burned down buildings associated with political parties or the local branch of the labor union.
The riots eventually ended and their leader, a Moroccan immigrant named David Ben-Haroush, was sentenced to prison. Shocking to no one, nothing actually changed for the Mizrahim following the events of the summer of 1959. But the stage was set, the resentment continued to simmer, and within 12 years, Wadi Salib would soon be replaced in the national imagination with another neighborhood, whose residents aimed to start a more lasting revolution.
If you’ve seen the Israeli TV show Valley of Tears — and by the way, you should, it’s both invigorating and anxiety inducing at the same time — you’ve had a peek into the Jerusalem neighborhood of Musrara, a third of which was on government welfare. You’ve seen that it was overcrowded, stuffed to the gills with young people with few prospects beyond continued truancy and unemployment.
And these seamy conditions provided an impetus for a massive social awakening. As new European immigrants began arriving in Israel in the 60s, the young Mizrahi Jews of Musrara (and Ofakim and Ashdod and Sderot and Dimona and Yeruham….) could not help but notice the preferential treatment that these Ashkenazim received. They were given large apartments, generous government loans, access to social services.
In contrast, Jews who had arrived from Morocco and Tunisia and Algeria and Libya and Yemen and Iran and Iraq and on and on, in the early 1950s, were still crowded into slums that lacked real schools or job opportunities! Mizrahi immigrants felt trapped, locked into a cycle of poverty. Their resentment soon bubbled over.
The American Black Panthers were established by California college students Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton in 1966. They were sick of the black American community being seen as second-class, and while they laid out specific demands in their official platform, like full employment, housing, better education, almost just as importantly, they were also determined to help the black American community feel a sense of Black Pride.
But interestingly, though the focus of the Black Panthers in America was on American social ills, they also had a global consciousness. The organization often weighed in on conflicts and governments around the world. And in the Arab-Israeli conflict, they were not on the side of the Jews.
In July of 1967, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, also known as SNCC, led by Stokely Carmichael, who was known as the “honorary PM of the Black Panther Party” — published an anti-Israel screed in the SNCC newsletter. The article calls Israel an “illegal state,” claims that “Zionist terror gangs deliberately slaughtered and mutilated women, children and men,” and then treads some well-worn territory with this cute little tidbit: “Did you know that the famous European Jews, the Rothschilds, who have long controlled the wealth of many European nations, were involved in the original conspiracy with the British to create the ‘State of Israel’ and are still among Israel’s chief supporters? That the Rothschilds also control much of Africa’s mineral wealth?”
Charming, right? Geez.
Rabbi Norman Lamm, former president of Yeshiva University, and someone who’s had a tremendous impact on my own thinking, wrote:
I question the priorities and consistency of many Jewish students when they make of the Black Panthers a cause celebre of their moralistic movement. Yes, I agree that they are, in this country, entitled to a fair trial and to be protected from police brutality and vindictiveness. I believe we should see to it that the police who were brutal are punished, and that even Black Panthers receive their rights as American citizens. But they are not our friends! They are anti-Semites and they are anti-Israel. I would like to see young Jews who seek justice for the Black Panthers—and more power to them in their passion for justice—oppose these pernicious anti-Semites with equal zeal.
So it might be clear to you why the Israeli establishment — including PM Golda Meir — weren’t the biggest fans of the American Black Panthers. This animosity only grew when the Black Panthers’ newspaper ran editorials by Yasser Arafat and George Habash, heads of the PLO and the PFLP — both of which carried out multiple terrorist attacks throughout the 60s and 70s, including Operation Entebbe, which we discussed in detail in a past episode of Unpacking Israeli History.
So why on earth would the Israeli Black Panthers model themselves after a group that dives headfirst into a pool of tired anti-Semitic tropes? Didn’t they know about the American Panthers’ views on Zionism?
Well…Yeah…They did… and that was kinda, exactly, the point. The Panterim were well aware of what they were doing when they chose their name. In fact, it was kind of the whole point. Kochavi Shemesh, an Iraqi-born Panter, said: “The idea was to frighten Golda. She said that this name wouldn’t let her sleep. That was what we wanted. With the name, we changed the discourse between the social movements and the establishment.”
In short, the name was a middle finger to the Israeli government — and to the ordinary Ashkenazim who, from their estimation, looked down on Mizrahi Jews. And by modelling their movement after Black Americans who celebrated and drew power from their Blackness, the Israeli Panthers reclaimed their identities, and all it connoted, with pride.
So back to the Jerusalem neighborhood Musrara, where, in 1971, along with jobs, houses, and food, pride was in short supply. But what there was, was anger. Which came to a head when the young Moroccan-born men who formed the nucleus of the Israeli Black Panthers — among them Sa’adia Marciano; Charlie Bitton; and Reuven Abergel — organized their first official protest in March of ‘71. See, the police had refused them a permit, on grounds that many had served time. To add insult to injury, they ordered preventative arrests, simply assuming the protests would turn violent.
This didn’t stop the Panthers. They protested in front of Jerusalem City Hall anyway, leading Mayor Teddy Kollek to poke his head out a window and crankily exhort them to “get off my lawn.”The Panterim’s energy drew the attention of socialist anti-Zionist group Matzpen and other radical groups, and the movement was off to the races.
There are differing accounts of this meeting — with some offering calm, reasonable quotes, like this one from Reuven Abergel: “We are not seeking welfare funds or charity… all we want is the opportunity to advance ourselves. The situation of that group is poor, and many live under the poverty line… What they earn isn’t enough to live off. I wandered in the neighborhoods [where Sephardi Israelis live] and saw it with my own eyes.” The conversation, however, deteriorated, with Abergel eventually calling Meir a “liar” when she outlined all the government was doing to help establish an equitable society.
Though they came prepared with 33 demands — including the abolishment of slums and representation for Mizrahim in all of Israel’s institutions — the Panterim left empty-handed. So it’s no surprise that they continued to protest with increasing violence. It was in May of 1971, during a fiery protest that became known as the “Night of the Black Panthers,” that Meir made one of her most famous mistakes. “They’re not nice people,” she is reported to have sniffed contemptuously. The quote is so famous that there is literally an alley in Musrara named after it — the “They’re Not Nice Alley,” or “Simtat Hem Lo Nechmadim.”
But let’s give Prime Minister Golda Meir a little more credit here. The demonstration of the night before — like many that would come later that summer — had turned violent, leading to hours of clashes between protestors and police. In a particularly ugly moment, the Israeli police beat Panther Kochavi Shemesh — who limped due to a childhood bout with polio — across his legs. In short: it was bad. And the night became even worse when protestors threw three Molotov cocktails at police.
So when Meir famously lamented the Panthers’ lack of social niceties, it was in context of that night, when a host at a political function mentioned that some of the Panterim were “nice guys.” According to the Israel state archives, “Golda responded that ‘People who throw Molotov Cocktails at Jewish police aren’t nice guys.’”
Regardless of what she meant or didn’t mean, regardless of context, regardless of whether or not you agree, one thing was clear: the country was on fire.
But here’s where things get complicated for the Panterim. What exactly did they stand for? Like, yes, ending police brutality is an easy thing to agree on. But beyond that, each member of the group had a vastly different vision of their goals. Some of the Panterim were Marxists who made common cause with the PLO — yes, that PLO — but others were strong patriots. According to historian Oz Frankel, one of the leaders of the Panterim wanted to end demonstrations with Hatikva, Israel’s anthem. Others demanded that juvenile delinquents be allowed to serve in the military–an odd request, but one that speaks to how military service is a prerequisite to full participation in Israeli society.
Perhaps it was this ideological confusion that prevented the Panthers from ever really accomplishing their aims. Their charitable activities — like the “liberation” of fresh milk from the rich neighborhood of Rehavia to the Jerusalem slums — were stunts. Important symbols, but not systemic change. When I say that, by the way, I’m not criticizing stunts or symbols. Both have real power for the collective imagination. But a bottle of milk is not food security for hungry children living in slums. A protest is not a guarantee of political representation.
Complicating matters was the fact that the police had infiltrated the group almost from the very beginning. An informant named Yaakov Elbaz reported to the police on the group’s activities. The HBO series Valley of Tears, which features a few fictionalized Panterim, dramatizes this tension between radicals and “shtinkerim” (that was my painful fake Israeli accent you just heard) — Israeli slang for informants. In a 2019 interview, Reuven Abergel confirmed the devastating effect of the police’s infiltration: “People were scared to hang out with us or speak to us because they could be arrested by the police… They [Israeli authorities] worked on isolating us from the rest of our community.”
In either case, it’s clear that the Panterim really never made real change, the way they wanted to. Sami Chetrit, a Moroccan-born poet and professor, told Electronic Intifada that the Yom Kippur War of 1973, only two years after the founding of the Israeli Black Panthers, “put an end to the Panthers as we know it… There were no more mass demonstrations in Jerusalem. There were no more solidarity demonstrations. It was the end of a radical period.”
Which is not to say that the Panthers didn’t continue their activities under different auspices. The protests dried up, but Biton and Marciano went on to serve in the Knesset, though the Black Panther Party failed to win enough votes to join the government. Biton served under Hadash, the Israeli Communist Party. Marciano served for a term under Sheli, a now-defunct peace party whose name is an acronym for “Shalom Le’Yisrael,” Peace for Israel. And though Abergel and Shemesh never served in the Knesset, they remained politically active.
But, maybe they did make a huge splash. When Menachem Begin ended nearly 30 years of Labor leadership, it was very much so because of his popularity with Sephardic and Mizrahi society, because of his strong stances against surrounding enemy Arab countries and because of his tax cutting and price slashing, which helped the Sephardic communities. And, it was much more than that. For 30 years, Menachem Begin was shouting at the Labor government as an outsider, and he was viewed as THE voice of those who were marginalized. It’s hard to compare American and Western politics today to politics in the Middle East 50 years ago, but the left was perceived as the cultural elites who were white and totally out of touch with the lower classes.
Menachem Begin, a Polish Jew, was perceived in the exact opposite way. In his 1952 autobiography, The Revolt, Begin describes Etzel, his paramilitary group:
We were the melting pot of the Jewish nation in miniature. We never asked about origins: we demanded only loyalty and ability…Nobody ever displayed stupid airs of superiority toward Mizrahim.
Begin became the recognized spokesperson for the Mizrahi community, who also felt marginalized. And today?
Today the Mizrahi party Shas enjoys considerable influence. Today, Mizrahim serve in the Knesset. You might recognize some of their names: Shaul Mofaz, the former Minister of Defense, born in Iran. Amir Peretz, born in Morocco, former Mayor of Sderot, current MK with the Labor Party – the Labor Party, the party of Ashkenazi elite! Miri Regev, former Minister of Culture and Minister of Transportation. Born in Israel to Moroccan parents.
Today, Mizrahim are leading scholars and professors — a number of which were quoted in this podcast. Today, a significant number of entertainers are Mizrahi, using their platform to shape our national stories. Like Lior Raz, the guy who created Fauda, born in Israel to parents from Iraq and Algeria. Maor Zaguri, whose show Zaguri Imperia (Zaguri Empire) was widely praised for its rich and nuanced depiction of Moroccans living in Israel. Ben-El Tavori, of the wildly popular pop duo Static and Ben El, born to a Yemenite father and a Moroccan mother. Like I said before, at Unpacked, we have a few videos about the rich Mizrahi cultural world that surrounds us today, which you’ve got to watch; we’ll put a link to those videos in the show notes. Mizrahi culture and Israeli culture have become synonymous.
I don’t want to act like things are perfect, they aren’t. But by most standards, the country has come pretty far. And I think the most important marker is this– among regular people, not politicians, scholars, professors, or entertainers, there’s been a huge rise in how often Ashkenazim and Mizrahim marry each other, producing “mixed” offspring who identify, most often, not as Mizrahi or Ashkenazi, but as simply Israeli. As of 2016, it’s estimated that 20% of kids born in Israel are products of these marriages, and that number is likely to increase.
So, here are your five fast facts about the Black Panthers:
- In the first 4 years after the founding of the state of Israel, the country’s population doubled, with most of these immigrants from Mizrahi countries, like Yemen, Morocco, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and more.
- These new immigrants were first placed in transit camps, and then in development towns, or in city slums. They faced poverty, discrimination, and lack of economic opportunity, but their concerns were dismissed by the political leadership and social elites, leading to intense Mizrahi resentment.
- The Israeli Black Panthers, or Pantherim, rose out of this resentment. They intentionally and provocatively named themselves after the American Black Panthers, both to needle the elites, who hated the antisemitism that came out of the American group, and to try to help the Mizrahi community feel the same sense of pride that Black Americans felt.
- There were a lot of internal squabbles within the group about what the Panterim’s goals were, and only two years after founding, with the Yom Kippur War taking over the country, the group kind of fell apart.
- On the whole, in the last 50+ years, the Mizrahi community has made huge strides in Israeli society, in politics, culture, academia, and so much more.
Those are the facts, but here’s one enduring lesson as I see it. You know, sometimes, the story of Israel is reduced to the story of the conflict between Israel and its neighboring countries, or the relationship with the Palestinians. And of course, they are important pieces of the puzzle. But the story of Israel is so much bigger than that. Here at Unpacking Israeli History, we want to understand the full story, including the major challenge of what it looks like for a modern state to bring all of its disparate people–who haven’t lived together in thousands of years!–back to one land, and one community. This was a sui generis challenge.
Shmuel Rosner and Camil Fuchs conclude their must read book “Israeli Judaism,” by saying, “Having ingathered so many Jews, it forces them to articulate what they have in common. Having united so many Jews, it compels them to live together: bound as neighbors in friction and compromise.”
But let’s let another preeminent modern Jewish scholar have the last word here…because I think Drake got it right when he said: “Started from the bottom, now we’re here.” I do think that ultimately, the story of Mizrahi Jewry in Israel is a hopeful one. We’ve accomplished a lot, and we still have a-ways to go. That, my friends, is Zionism. Let’s keep going.
Thank you all for listening. If you haven’t yet, subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. And help us grow this podcast community, by rating and reviewing us on Apple Podcasts.
Now it’s time for our final segment, Israel Nerd Talk, where we highlight one of you, our amazing listeners. We get the best emails from you guys, and we want to share them with the world. This week, I want to highlight an awesome letter from Matt:
My name is Matt. I moved to Israel from London two years ago to live with my fiance. It’s worth mentioning that I’m not Jewish or religious, and I consider myself fairly left wing.
Having never given much thought to Israel and Palestine in the past, I was shocked when seeing it with my own eyes. Israel is young, fun, hard working, well educated, and an extremely welcoming country. Having always hung out with left wing and liberal crowds, I have a hard time seeing how many misconceptions these people have about the real situation in Israel and Palestine, and I’m surprised at how little they know about the history of the region.
I just want to thank you for the work you do with your podcast. I’m doing my best to share it with those interested in, but unaware of, the history of Israel.
Matt, this email rocks. And I feel the same way. I love Israel so much, but before I started really spending time there, I don’t think I really understood it. Just reading about Israel, talking about it, it’s sometimes not enough to help us really get it. Honestly, I don’t fault the people who read about Israel and come to quick judgments about Israel. I wish they didn’t, but I get it. If anything, we live in a society which pushes people to judge things before knowing them. So Matt, I hope that, like you, more people get a chance to come to Israel, and really experience it firsthand. I’ll try to meet you there, let’s get a coffee. And if you, listeners, if you also have thoughts, comments, suggestions, ruminations, whatever to share, don’t hesitate, be like Matt! Send us a message at email@example.com.
Unpacking Israeli History is a production of Unpacked, a division of OpenDor Media. Check out jewishunpacked.com for everything Unpacked-related, and subscribe to our other podcasts. Follow Unpacked at all the social media places, like TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter – just look for @JewishUnpacked. And again, write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org – your email might even get on the show.
This podcast was produced by Rivky Stern. Our team for this episode includes Adi Elbaz, Baruch Goldberg, and Rob Pera. I’m your host, Noam Weissman. Thanks for listening, see you next week!