Israeli Black Panthers back on prowl for social justice

In Israel, mass protests against a perceived lack of social justice have been inspired by a voice from the past. A prominent member of the Israeli Black Panthers movement, who staged similar protests in the 1970's, joined the crowds.

­Now, he says he is frustrated that 40 years on, the state of Israel has become the enemy of its own people.

“Forty years have passed since we rose up to protest against the lack of justice. Since then, year after year, I’ve been waiting for the next generation to rise up,” says Charlie Biton, leader of the Black Panthers and a former MP. “And now, 40 years later, my vision is being realized!”

It was 1971. Eight youngsters from one of Jerusalem’s poorest neighborhoods banded together and changed the course of Israeli history. They were immigrants from North Africa and Arab countries, and they took their name from the African American Black Panthers in their call for social justice.

“The Panthers came with the rage, with anger, really with their back to the wall,” award-winning film-maker and editor Nissim Mossek has said.

Thanks to them, social issues such as education and housing benefits for the poor were put on public agenda for the first time. Radical and sometimes violent, they clashed with the establishment.

“One of my proudest moments was when [then Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir] said that we were not nice boys,” founder and leader of Black Panthers Israel, Kochavi Shemesh, has said. “It showed that we were powerful and had achieved something. It showed us we were on the right path.”

And it was a path that for nearly two months this year inspired hundreds of thousands of Israelis to take to the streets again.

“They gave us a legacy saying that if you really believe in something and you think you are right and you don’t use violence per se, you can get whatever you are fighting for,” peace activist and radio host Tammi Molad Hayo explains.

And although the tents are slowly coming down, Prime Minister Netanyahu still has a lot to answer for. In three weeks, the committee he set up needs to address how to fix the country’s mounting social problems.

“Not only have we not progressed, but the country has become an enemy of its people,” Charlie Biton continues. “Everywhere citizens are harassed. There are more police, and now it’s not only the lower class who are suffering, but the middle class as well.”

Forty years on, the ideas and dreams of these men remain as big as ever. But so too are the challenges they face. Internal leadership divisions, regional turmoil and the possibility of an Israeli-Palestinian showdown could at any time take center stage.