Israeli “Black Panthers” Meet with Prime Minister Meir to Discuss Mizrahi Jews

April 13, 1971

Emerging in the early seventies, to protest against the social injustices felt by the Mizrahi Jews in Israel, the Black Panthers staged a number of demonstrations in the country and began to generate widespread support.  The group took its name from the African-American movement that was active in the United States from the mid-sixties. Like the American movement, it sought to raise awareness of racial discrimination.

Saadia Marciano, a Moroccan born Jew and one of the founders of the Panthers, said that the group chose the name because they thought it would scare Prime Minister Golda Meir.

Many Mizrahim, including the leaders of the Panthers, believed Israel instituted discriminatory policies against them and favored Ashkenazi immigrants. During the first decade of the state, as the nation absorbed almost a million new Jewish immigrants, a disparity emerged between the treatment of those coming from Europe and the West and those who came from Arab lands and North Africa.  Mizrahi immigrants were most often settled in transitional tent camps before housing could be built for them, while most often Ashkenazi immigrants were given preferred housing.  There was a near complete absence of Mizrahi Jews from Israeli politics, senior public services and higher education in the fifties and sixties.

The Black Panthers staged a number of memorable demonstrations in Jerusalem to protest what they saw as inferior Sephardi treatment and access to basic services.  In early April 1971, the group threatened a hunger strike at the Western Wall if the Prime Minister and other Israeli leaders would not meet with them.

During the April 13th meeting, Reuven Aberjil, one of the leaders of the Panthers, told the Prime Minister, “There are many obstacles for people like me: they don’t have the opportunity to rise [socio-economically]. We are not seeking welfare funds or charity. We are healthy and can work, so all we want is the opportunity to advance ourselves. We are not here to talk about my own employment. If it was just my problem, it would have been wonderful. But there’s the problem of the Sephardim or Mizrahim who form 65% of the country’s population. The situation of that group is poor, and many live under the poverty line, earning less than 400 liras a month. We are talking about families with 10 or more children. 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.” (Israel State Archives)

One month later, 6,000 Black Panthers and their supporters held a massive demonstration in Jerusalem.  Following the clash between demonstrators and police, Meir was quoted as saying the Panthers “are not nice people.”  The quotation would stick with her and the Labor Party for years, exemplifying, many believed, the Ashkenazi establishment’s elitist approach toward the MizrahiMizrahi disenchantment played out in the May 1977 election, where Menachem Begin’s Likud Party received a large percentage of the Mizrahi vote and ended the Labor Party’s twenty-nine year grip on Israeli political leadership.

The photo shows a Black Panther’s poster; the Hebrew says, “War on poverty – not the poor.”

The Israel State Archives has a collection of documents (in Hebrew with English descriptions) about the Black Panthers, which can be found HERE.

April 13, 2015