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The Panther awareness sessions produced a rare mix in modern Israel; they were places where ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews and Palestinians met. “We got criticism from both sides, Israeli recalls. “The extreme right said, ‘Hey you’re bringing Arabs to the neighborhood.’ And the left, they said, ‘We aren’t interested in your idea of normalization.
How can we sit with Israelis while they’re still occupying our land?’” Some questioned whether the Panthers, a fringe organization that had a reputation for violence in their heyday, should be celebrated in such a fashion. Several of Muslala’s related works — a billboard that featured a painting of a woman, a huge graffiti sign that read “Help!” — were defaced or painted over by enraged local residents. But the nights were enough of a hit that Musrara is considering making a permanent watermelon stand and event venue there. “It’s the first step,” Israeli said.
What do the actual Panthers think about Jerusalem artists using their story to promote social justice? Koko Deri, for his part, is happy to have young people involved in activism once more. “There are still a lot of problems, and technology has changed the culture completely,” Deri said. “Today people are passive. They prefer to sit at home on the Internet instead of going out to the street and change things. We need people to imitate our methods.”
But to Israeli, that’s not the point. Trying to resurrect the Panthers as an actual movement, he told me, is like “riding a dead donkey.” The hope is that Israelis will remember their own social history, and that change is possible from grassroots organizations like the Panthers. The way that the Panthers worked — using what they could, building with or without the permission of the state — is, to Israeli, what art should do: provoke and question the status quo. In a place like Jerusalem, it’s particularly important to keep the threads of history alive, to encourage artists to speak out about their values. The artistic community’s embrace of the Black Panthers is a way of preserving social history as well as political landmarks, a criticism of Israeli culture that manages to also celebrate it. “There’s amazing memory, here in Musrara,” Israeli said. “But it’s crucial to show that there’s another narrative in Israeli society. It makes people think. It’s the right thing at the right moment.”
Margaret Eby has contributed to The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Slate and Salon, among other publications. She lives in Brooklyn.