Black Panthers Prowl Again in Jerusalem

Inspired by Americans, Social Justice Movement Thrives in Israel

Street Art: Inspired by the Israeli Black Panthers, the Muslala collective creates political art in Jerusalem.
Courtesy Muslala
Street Art: Inspired by the Israeli Black Panthers, the Muslala collective creates political art in Jerusalem.

By Margaret Eby

Published November 27, 2012, issue of November 30, 2012.
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Muslala has also sponsored neighborhood events to introduce the remaining members of the Panthers to newer residents of the neighborhood, including the ultra-Orthodox community that has grown to the west and the artists and foreigners who have been driving up home prices. Other artists have also made works commemorating the Panthers. At a gallery attached to the Musrara Institute of Art, artist Avi Sabag produced a series of animated films based on interviews with the active Panthers. In one installment, a Moroccan man named Moshe Amoyal spoke about being thrown into jail as a 9-year-old for stealing tiles. His time in the institution convinced him of the inherent prejudice against Mizrahi Jews like him, and led to his involvement with the Panthers. “Who could have touched a 9-year-old boy like that?” Amoyal asks in the film. “To ruin his life for a few tiles?”

Founded in 1971 in tribute to the American group of the same name, the Israeli Black Panthers had a brief period of relevance in Israeli politics. They fought for the ignored populations of Jerusalem: Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews. Many Panthers were sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, viewing Palestinians as a fellow oppressed minority of their home country. The Jerusalem that produced the group was a shaky one, still grappling with changing borders after 1967. Musrara was the cradle of the movement. Though it had originally been a wealthy Jewish neighborhood, the war of 1948 transformed it into an abandoned war zone. Desperately poor Mizrahi Jews from North Africa settled into the deserted houses, often living mere feet from the Jordanian border. With the unification of the city under Israeli rule, the government’s preferential treatment of Ashkenazi Jews became obvious to those in Musrara.

The Black Panthers formed as a militant answer to the problem of social inequality, staging demonstrations without police permission and distributing milk to the poor. In one clash with the police in Zion Square big enough to spur the famous meeting with Prime Minister Meir, 74 demonstrators were arrested and another 20 hospitalized. Koko Deri, the Panther leader who has been working with Muslala, remembers the time as one of great turmoil. “It used to be just like South Africa here,” he said. “Everything was organized to keep the whites in power. There was a lot of racism and hatred and inequality. We educated people about the inequality in this country and because of that we gave Mizrahim at the bottom of society a chance.“

But the Yom Kippur War in 1973 drew the state’s focus away from internal affairs, and the Panthers faded into a marginal group. Some members entered politics with little success. Starry-eyed activists have tried, unsuccessfully, to resurrect the Panthers in Israel several times since the 1970s. Many Israeli artists like Matan Israeli hope to prevent the Panthers from fading into a footnote in the history books. “It’s important for the Panthers to get credit for their work while they’re still alive,” Israeli said. “It’s an act of protest.”

This summer, Muslala joined with the Israeli Department of Culture to present a program titled “Between Green and Red,” a resurrection of the watermelon stands that the Panthers used as meeting places and open salons during the 1970s. The original stands, “basta” in Arabic, sold cups of wickedly strong Arabic coffee and slices of thirst-quenching melon to Mizrahi and Ashkenazi Jews and Arabs alike, and became impromptu neighborhood hangouts. Basta connected the separate factions of the Musrara neighborhood, and Israeli hoped that the magic could be recreated. The group brought in musicians for nightly concerts, and held Q-and-A sessions with Koko Deri and other Panther leaders.


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