Darkness in the Holy Land
An introduction to the Haggadah of the Black Panthers in Israel.
A Black Panthers protest in Tel Aviv, 1971. The large sign in the middle reads "Golda, Teach Us Yiddish"—a sarcastic reference to the way preferential treatment for Ashkenazim led to the marginalization of Mizrahi Jews.
This Haggadah was written in the first days of the Black Panthers uprising in Israel, a protest movement we founded in 1971 in the Musrara neighborhood of Jerusalem, composed of Jewish young people from Arab and Muslim countries. From the beginning, we understood that mainstream journalists were cut from the same cloth as the establishment and would not accurately represent us, so we worked hard to spread our message through graffiti and to tell our story in our own words by publishing newspapers, flyers, and posters. The Haggadah of the Black Panthers in Israel was written for Pesach in 1971 and expresses a clear message: When we came to Israel we encountered racism, oppression, and apartheid. We felt as if we had descended into the darkness of Egypt. It was in exile that we were free.
We wrote the Haggadah in the dark tin shack where I lived on Ha’Ayin Het Street in Jerusalem, which also served as our headquarters (before 1948, it had been a bus and taxi station for travel to Ramallah). That day, five of us from the Black Panther leadership gathered there as I read aloud from the traditional text, stopping every so often to throw around ideas for what we should write. Rafi Marciano sat on the floor and typed the words letter by letter on a typewriter we had stolen from the Jerusalem offices of the Independent Liberals, one of the wealthiest political parties in Israel at the time. This was the first time that any of us had ever used a typewriter and we struggled to find the letters, which seemed to us to be arranged randomly on the machine. So we stood around Rafi, directing him: “Aleph on the top line on the left! Gimel on the middle line on the left!” We worked on the Haggadah for five or six hours continuously, until it began to get dark. When we finished, we had six typed pages and we were pleased with the result. We typed directly onto stencil paper so we could print copies using a mimeograph, a machine we had also stolen from the Independent Liberals. After printing out lots of copies of the Haggadah, we went around selling them and, to our amazement, we got a lot more money than we asked for in donations to the struggle.
After Israel became a state in 1948, the Zionist establishment ushered hundreds of thousands of Jews from Eastern Europe into the center of the country, divvying up housing, jobs, and the lands of Palestinian refugees who had been expelled. As they finished dividing the spoils among themselves, they kept my family and thousands of other North African families in transit camps in Algeria, France, and Israel in horrible conditions. As if to justify their actions, the political establishment sent one of their court journalists, Arye Gelblum, to camps where Jews from Arab countries were being held in order to “report” on what kinds of people were arriving in the new state. This is what Gelblum wrote in Haaretz in 1949:
The primitiveness of these people is unsurpassable. They have almost no education at all, and what is worse is their inability to comprehend anything intellectual. As a rule, they are only slightly more advanced than the Arabs, Negroes, and Berbers in their countries. It is certainly an even lower level than that of the former Palestinian Arabs. Unlike the Yemenites, they lack roots in Judaism. On the other hand, they are entirely dominated by savage and primitive instincts. How many incidents does it take, for example, to train them to stand in line for the food in the dining hall without creating a riot? [. . .] But above all there is one equally grave fact and that is their total inability to adjust to the life in this country, and primarily their chronic laziness and hatred for any kind of work. Almost without exception, they are both unskilled and destitute.
My family—which hailed from a strong and proud 2,000-year-old community in Morocco where we lived with stability, dignity, and good relations with our neighbors—is suddenly described as dangerous, primitive, and lazy. This was not the opinion of one single journalist. All of the newspapers at the time were party newspapers, and the parties were under the influence of then-Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish Agency, and other institutions. Articles from Gelblum and those like him were written in order to poison the atmosphere toward Jews from Arab and Muslim countries—most of whom had not yet arrived in Israel—and created a self-fulfilling prophecy: They portrayed us as parasites, spreaders of disease, immoral, and without culture in order to justify their policies of racist separation and discrimination.
When we finally came to Israel on May 14th, 1950, they brought us to a ma’abara, a transit camp, in Pardes Hanna, located between Haifa and Netanya. We lived in conditions we’d never encountered before. People sat around listlessly in US Army tents made of canvas and there were two to three people to each military-style cot. The camp was locked down—no one could enter or leave without special permission—and we were under constant surveillance. There was not enough food and no one could work. People also started hearing stories about kidnapped children. (It would take decades to uncover the horror of what came to be known as the Yemenite, Mizrahi, and Balkan Children Affair, in which mostly Yemenite Jewish children were taken from their parents by the Israeli government—who often told the parents that the child died—and given to Ashkenazi parents.) The lack of basic infrastructure caused outbreaks of disease, and there was no one to properly treat the sick. Every day, people from the Jewish Agency circulated in the camp looking for Jews from Eastern Europe, who they took to more supportive environments. There were many who tried to go back to Morocco, but they quickly learned that the State of Israel had declared all Muslim countries to be “enemy countries.” This, even as European countries, including those that had only recently perpetrated the most horrible crimes against Jews and against humanity, were not given such a designation. We found out much later that Israeli officials went so far as to intercept and censor letters that Moroccan Jews sent back home to warn their family members about the conditions awaiting them in the new Jewish state.
In October 1950, my family joined with several other families and escaped the transit camp to Jerusalem. We landed in the Musrara neighborhood, which at the time was located in the new and dangerous “seam zone,” along the armistice line between Israel and Jordan. We took shelter in homes that belonged to Palestinians who were expelled in the 1948 war. We lived without electricity or running water, often ten to a single room, and we lacked access to adequate schools and basic sanitation. Meanwhile, the government would settle and support groups of 30–40 Jewish families from Eastern Europe on kibbutzim, sitting on thousands of dunams of open land.
The political establishment’s policies of separation between European Jews and Jews from Arab and Muslim countries helped forge a new category of Jews, “Mizrahi Jews,” who they stereotyped as racially and culturally inferior to Ashkenazi Jews. Authorities even included “country of origin” on Israeli identity cards to make it easier for officials to separate Ashkenazim from Mizrahim.
Within a short time, Mizrahi Jews made up more than half of the overall population, and large numbers of us were unemployed. If you had told us before we left the Arab world how we would be living in the new Jewish state, we would never have believed it! In every other country we came to—be it France, Belgium, the US, or elsewhere—our children filled the schools and universities. But here in Israel our children filled the prisons and juvenile detention centers. In Ashkenazi neighborhoods, the state provided all the necessary services, but in our neighborhoods the state sent only the police, who would provide us with beatings and arrests. As a nine-year-old, if I dared cross the “border” to Ashkenazi neighborhoods like Rechavia or Beit HaKerem, police would arrest me for “criminal loitering” (this was legal because Israel kept many emergency ordinances from the British Mandate period on the books, which are still used against Palestinians to this day).
Then, as today, when the periphery moves, the Mizrahim are moved with it.
After Israel occupied East Jerusalem in 1967, the barbed wire fences that separated Musrara from the Old City disappeared, and we immediately connected with our Palestinian neighbors. We spoke the same language, listened to the same music, and came from the same Arab culture. We soon established all kinds of joint businesses like coffee shops and clubs. At the same time, students—most of them Ashkenazim from Israel and the United States—started coming through our neighborhoods on their way to and from the Mount Scopus campus of Hebrew University. We would meet the students and our other friends in coffee shops and on the roofs of our buildings and homes, which were some of the only places we could avoid the watchful eyes of our parents, or the police. We created personal and political connections this way. The disappearance of the barbed wire fences also meant that our neighborhoods, which before the war were dangerous border areas, had become prime real estate seemingly overnight. Then-mayor of Jerusalem Teddy Kollek started a campaign of gentrification to purify the neighborhoods of Mizrahim and Palestinians on both sides of the old border, offering housing to young Ashkenazi couples and new immigrants from the Soviet Union. Childhood friends were suddenly evicted from their homes and had to move to the outskirts of Jerusalem. Then, as today, when the periphery moves, the Mizrahim are moved with it.
We heard about the Black Panthers in the US from the newsreels shown in movie theaters and from Americans we met at the time. We immediately felt a connection. We had always known we were Black. The establishment told us that we fill the prisons because we are “shvartze chaye”—black animals. We understood that they were deriding us, and at the time we directed the anger we felt inward and against one another. But we saw the Black Panthers in the US—their assertiveness against the same police violence that we were experiencing, how their leadership turned private anger into a collective resource. We saw their raised fists and their emblem of a panther with bared teeth and outstretched claws. So we said, “Okay, we can work with ‘shvartze chaye.’ But instead of terrorized street cats, we will become fierce panthers.”
Over time, our identification with the Black Panthers in the US only grew stronger. Then, in early 1971, while Mayor Kollek was busy violently evicting Mizrahim and Palestinians from the former seam areas, he invited a journalist to interview a group of street youth who were in contact with social workers. He was probably expecting some friendly coverage about how much he was doing to “help” the neglected neighborhoods. That journalist wound up with a group of young people that included Sa’adia Marciano, Rafi Marciano, Charlie Biton, David Levi, my brother Eliezer Abergel, and others, all future leaders of the Black Panthers, and all 16 to 23 years old at the time. At the end of their meeting, the journalist asked the young men, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” They answered, “We are all Black Panthers.” The movement didn’t exist yet, but this was our heart’s desire. That statement made headlines, and suddenly, people started asking, “Where are the Panthers?” So we decided to put out a flyer saying “Enough! Enough of ten people living in one room! Enough of getting beaten by the police!” and so on.
We hadn’t even distributed the flyer outside the neighborhood before the police raided Musrara and arrested the people passing them out. We decided to organize a protest the next day in front of the municipal building and central jail in the Russian Compound where they were being held to demand that the authorities release them. What made that day different from all other days? On all other days, the police would do whatever they wanted to us and turn us against each other. But on that day, the authorities’ panicked response turned the idea of the Black Panthers into a reality, by turning solidarity into a necessity.
The authorities’ panicked response turned the idea of the Black Panthers into a reality, by turning solidarity into a necessity.
In arresting the activists, they were also trying to arrest the words: Enough police violence, enough unemployment, enough of ten people living in one room, enough of not having an education, enough of not having a future, enough racism, enough apartheid, enough, enough, enough. But we had an even greater desire to express the words in our hearts, bonding us together so we could challenge the system. That was why it was so important to the authorities to try to prevent that first flyer from being distributed. They knew these words would be a source of hope for those who had lost it.
We repeated these words in our Haggadah, written the day before Passover began in 1971, and about a month after we distributed our first flyer. As you read it, you will notice that we put then-Prime Minister Golda Meir in place of Pharaoh. This was no hasty comparison, but an accurate description of reality. It was within Meir’s power to free us from oppression, but instead she tried to stifle our voices as we cried out. The establishment labeled us criminals, framed us for crimes we didn’t commit, and beat us mercilessly. The police even sent intelligence agents to infiltrate our ranks and put drugs in our neighborhoods. When these tactics failed to weaken us, the authorities tried to discredit us by accusing us of promoting extremist ideologies, calling us “traitors” who support and help Israel’s enemies. We didn’t shrink from this characterization because we understood that anyone who fights for their rights in Israel will sooner or later be declared an antisemite by the establishment. We were also not discouraged from making connections with our Palestinian friends because we wanted to build solidarity with every oppressed group. In the mid-1970s, we were the first Israeli group to meet publicly with leaders from the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in France, which was illegal at the time.
Alongside the stick, the authorities also tried to tempt us with the carrot. I will never forget what Meir said during our famous meeting with her in 1971: “Tell me what your personal problems are and we will solve them. Leave the problems of the general public to the government.” She was trying to get us to give up our universal demands in exchange for personal favors—to turn us into collaborators, depriving us of the moral authority to represent the oppressed population. This has been the Israeli government’s dominant approach toward the Mizrahi struggle since the state’s founding. The cooperation they proposed would have significantly improved our personal situations and that of our families, but we understood that there are no shortcuts in the struggle for real social change. Like Sa’adia Marciano, one of the leaders of the Black Panthers, said, “Either the cake will be for everyone, or there will be no cake.”
Unlike in the Exodus story, we did not have a Moses, and we had no angels at our side. The Israelites came out of slavery into freedom, but the vast majority of Jews in Israel from Arab and Muslim countries are still enslaved, despite our many achievements over the years. Our cry echoes, still. To this day, the oppressed of our country continue to raise the Black Panther fist in solidarity with that group of young people who dared to say “Enough!”
Haritan assisted Abergel in writing this article.
Reuven Abergel was born in Rabat, Morocco in 1943 and arrived with his family to Israel/Palestine in 1950, where he became one of the founders of the Israeli Black Panthers. Abergel has been a social and political activist in Israel/Palestine for 50 years, combining social and environmental struggles within Israeli society with the struggle for Palestinian rights and human rights.
Itamar Haritan is an Anthropology PhD Candidate at Cornell University, and a translator and editor. He has been collaborating with Reuven Abergel on writing and other political projects since 2010.