Jerusalem in early September is a restless place. The streets still emanate waves of trapped desert heat into the air. It’s the brief lull between Ramadan and Rosh Hashanah, but the Old City is alive with the sounds of chanting, clanging bells and calls to prayer.
I am just outside of the Damascus Gate, which opens into the Muslim Quarter of the city, about to enter into Musrara, a neighborhood that lies on the seam of East and West Jerusalem. My tour guide, Matan Israeli, is a scruffy 30-something Jerusalemite wearing a pair of sunglasses that look like old-fashioned aviator goggles and an oversized T-shirt. Israeli is the leader of a not-for-profit arts organization based in the neighborhood called “Muslala,” a combination of the neighborhood’s name and “k’lala,” the Hebrew word for “curse.” The name is reflective of the complications of the neighborhood, a place often caught in the middle of violent conflicts.
Israeli stops in front of a winding alleyway flanked with stone houses riddled with bullet holes from the years of conflict the neighborhood has seen. Above the wall of the Old City, just across from us, the Dome of the Rock glints in the sunlight. The alley bears a tiled sign typical of the streets of the Old City, with the name of the street in Arabic, Hebrew and English. “This,” he explains with a triumphant flourish, “is Black Panthers Way.”
Forty years after their founding, the Israeli Black Panthers have become folk heroes for artists like Israeli; they are icons of social justice in a country increasingly polarized between left and right. The Panthers, inspired by Huey Newton and Bobby Seele’s fight for equality in America, struggled to make prejudices against Mizrahi Jews visible. They hoped for an overhaul of Israeli society. Today, they are remembered, with more warmth than are their American counterparts, as pioneers in the arena of social justice.
Black Panthers Way was one of several guerilla art projects that Israeli and Muslala installed in the neighborhood — subtle works that, like the street sign, look like any other municipal markers until you peer a bit more closely. Some spray-painted signs modeled to look like the common markers directing residents to bomb shelters have been replaced with the word “love.” Another sign announces “They’re Not Nice” Alley next to a picture of Golda Meir. That is how the prime minister described the Panthers after meeting with them in the early 1970s. Another plaque, on top of a reclaimed community center, simply has the imprint of an upraised fist, the symbol of the group.
“The Panthers were a radical voice for equality,” Israeli explains. “What the Panthers were fighting for hasn’t changed here. This is a chance to revive them.”