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 40 Years Since the Establishment of the Israeli "Black Panther" Movement: New Documents on the Response of Government Institutions

Black Panther poster - "War on poverty - not on the poor!"

(All the documents are in Hebrew. See the Hebrew website)

List of Documents and summaries in English

"For months a campaign of slander has been conducted against me, because of my remark that "the Panthers are not nice people", wrote Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir in November 1971, in a letter to a North African party activist, Shaul Ben Simhon. She denied the saying attributed to her, explained the circumstances under which she said to him what she did and concluded with these words: "I am certainly prepared to listen to criticism; however, I am not prepared to accept slurs based on distorted facts" (Document No. 1).

Four days later Ben-Simhon replied and admitted that her description of the circumstances in which the remark was made was correct. He added: "I am very sorry that there are people who spread slanders based on distortion of the facts." (Document 1a)

The Black Panther organization was established at the beginning of 1971 to protest about the problems of Israelis from Middle Eastern countries and North Africa, known as Oriental or Mizrahi Jews. Most of these Jews had immigrated to Israel during the 1950s and 1960s, and lived in difficult conditions in transit camps and development towns. Many of them later migrated to the urban slums. They suffered from unemployment, poor housing and lack of educational opportunities, and blamed the government and the ruling Labour party, whose heads were generally European or Ashkenazi Jews. The founders of the Black Panthers were young men from the Jerusalem slum neighbourhood of Musrara, most of them of North African origin. Many versions exist as to how or why they adopted the name of the radical Afro-American Black Panther organization, but it certainly helped to draw public attention and to symbolize the militancy of their attitude.

At the beginning of February 1971 the police received a request from the organization to hold a demonstration in Jerusalem against the cost of living. With the support of the government the police refused to allow the demonstration, but nevertheless it took place on 3 March. Through a series of demonstrations, sometimes violent, and protest activities, the organization managed to bring the distress of the Oriental Jews into the public consciousness in Israel and created a considerable upheaval.

40 years after the appearance of the Black Panthers the Israel State Archives is publishing a collection of 32 documents on the reactions of state institutions to the appearance of the organization in the first months of its existence. The documents originated in the ISA collections, and some of them have been released specially for the purposes of this publication. In some documents parts have been omitted, for reasons of personal privacy.

The collection is divided into four parts:
A.  "Not nice people"? The Golda Meir government and the Black Panthers

A1. "Their background is terrible and pathetic": Golda Meir's meeting with the Panther leadership
A2. "We don't want to harm you, but we will not let you riot": Minister of Police Shlomo Hillel and the Black Panthers

B. Police activity regarding the Black Panthers
B1. "The group is composed of some 'marginal people'": the police response to the appearance of the Panthers
B2. "If you don't take what you're entitled to by force, you won't get it": police reports on the assistance provided to the Panthers by political organizations
B3. "Golda, Golda, get lost already, everyone's had enough of you": the police face  the escalation of the Panthers' activities

C. The Knesset and the Black Panthers

D. "The just struggle of those fighting their/our war" or "The black and fascist gang": the general public and the Black Panthers

List of Documents and Summaries

Editors and acknowledgements

A. "Not nice people"? The Golda Meir government and the Black Panthers

A1. "Their background is terrible and pathetic": Golda Meir's meeting with the Panther leadership
40 years have passed and Golda Meir's remark "people who do this kind of thing are not nice people", which was said about the leaders of the organization after a violent demonstration, still symbolizes the attitude of the Israeli government to the Black Panther organization, and especially the attitude of the prime minister, as it has been impressed on the public memory. However, the contact between Golda Meir and the Panthers began several weeks earlier, in a letter sent to her by the heads of the organization, in which they requested that she agree to a request they apparently sent her to meet with them, and announced their decision to hold a hunger strike until the meeting was held (Document No. 2). About a week later, on 13 April 1971, Golda acceded to their request and met with five of the organization's leaders: Ya'acov Elbaz, Rami Marciano, Sa'adia Marciano, David Levi and Reuven Abergil, with the participation of Minister of Education Yigal Allon and Minister of Social Welfare Michael Hazani. The meeting began in a relaxed atmosphere, with Golda Meir displaying great interest in the Panthers' life stories and even offering them cigarettes; however, it deteriorated into an exchange of harsh words and even shouting, which proved that the ministers found it difficult to understand the Panthers' motivation (see the minutes of the meeting on Golda Meir's memorial site, in Hebrew).

Several days after the meeting, the prime minister reported on it at a cabinet meeting. She presented her impressions of the Panther leaders who took part, dismissed their claims and rejected their demands, but displayed deep understanding for their home background. She added: "One thing is clear – their background is terrible and pathetic. The background is large families, impossible housing, a disabled father or, at any rate, one who doesn't work, and the eldest child takes to the streets and all the others follow". She hinted that political parties with interests of their own, such as Matzpen, a breakaway section of the Communist party, and opposition parties were exploiting them. Several ministers claimed that the Black Panthers did not represent all Israelis of Oriental origins, whose situation was much better than that presented by the heads of the organization (Document No. 3).

On 18 May 1971 a demonstration held by the Panthers in Jerusalem escalated into violence. Molotov cocktails were thrown and scores of demonstrators and policemen were injured. The police force reacted harshly, dispersed the demonstrators by force and arrested more than a hundred of them. Following these events the Rakach (Communist) faction proposed a no-confidence motion against the government. Knesset member Meir Vilner, the leader of the faction, who proposed the motion, claimed that the conduct of the police towards the demonstrators was brutal and excessive. The minister of police, Shlomo Hillel, was charged with responding to the motion and the government held a short discussion on the main points of his reply before the Knesset session. (The no-confidence motion was rejected by a large majority (see the discussion at the Knesset in Hebrew). However the Black Panther issue and their claims featured prominently on the public agenda, and two ministers declared in the discussion that the government should present an plan for action regarding the issues that the Black Panthers were protesting about, and not just condemn their activity (Document No. 4).

On 8 June 1971 the prime minister presented the government's stand towards the Black Panthers in more detail at a meeting of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defence committee. The meeting was held a day after serious riots by fans of the Bnei Yehuda football club, which originated in the Hatikva neighbourhood in south Tel Aviv, known as a poverty-stricken neighbourhood. The riots broke out due to claims by the fans that the Israel Football Association was discriminating against their team. It was said that the riots were ethnically motivated and had been encouraged by the Black Panthers.

Benjamin Halevi, a Knesset member of the Herut-Liberal faction (later to become the Likud party) asked the prime minister about the incitement against other ethnic groups revealed in the Black Panthers' actions which, (according to Halevi) benefitted Israel's enemies, and inquired if the security services had investigated this incitement by domestic groups or agents of foreign countries.

In her reply, Prime Minister Golda Meir rejected claims of police brutality towards the demonstrators in this and previous incidents and said:"The Panthers and poverty are being treated as if they are one and the same thing. They are not. War on poverty is war on poverty, and the Panthers did not invent it". She claimed that the press was blowing the issue out of proportion and distorting facts and therefore causing more riots and added "It is not true that all the governments in Israel did not deal with the poverty issue". Regarding incitement she stated that outside factors were encouraging the Panthers' actions. (Document 6a).

A2. "We don't wish to harm you, but we will not let you riot": Minister of Police Shlomo Hillel and the Black Panthers
As the minister responsible for the police force, Shlomo Hillel who was himself of Iraqi origin and a veteran immigrant activist, was at the centre of contacts between the government and the Black Panther organization. The minister of police was aware of the involvement of political elements in the organization of the Panthers' activities, including the assistance they received from members of the Kibbutz Artzi movement. In a letter to the prime minister, Hillel complained about the involvement of members of Mapam, the Kibbutz Artzi movement's parent political party, especially since Mapam was part of a parliamentary alignment with the Labour Party, and its representatives were members of the government (Document No. 6). Evidence for his claims was provided several days after the violent demonstration on 18 May. Hillel received a letter from Knesset Member  Chaika Grossman of the Mapam faction, in which she accused the police of beating demonstrators who had been arrested. After the investigation of events at the demonstration was concluded, Hillel rejected her claims, stating that in light of the extremely violent behaviour of the participants, the police acted with great restraint (Document No. 12).

Following the events of 18 May a meeting was held between a number of the Black Panther leaders and the minister of police together with the top ranks of the police force. During the meeting members of the organization complained about police violence towards them at the demonstration, and demanded an investigation. It was decided to establish a system of communication between the leadership of the organization and the top ranks of the police, which would prevent protest activities from escalating into violence (Document No. 5). However, the heads of the Panthers felt that nothing had been done and they repeated their demands to the minister of police to appoint a committee to investigate their claims of the violent attitude towards them at the demonstrations and in the police interview rooms (Document No. 7). Hillel replied that it had been decided to appoint only a single investigating officer (Document No. 8), and his reply incensed the leaders of the Panthers and even accused him of harsh statements about them, such as his comment on the name of the organization: "I don't talk to animals" (Document No. 10).
See also: Documents Nos. 9 and 11

B. Police activity regarding the Black Panthers

B1. "The group is composed of some 'marginal people'": the appearance of the Panthers and the police response

As stated above, at the beginning of February 1971 the police received a request from an unknown organization, 'The Black Panthers', to hold a demonstration in Jerusalem against the cost of living. With the support of the government the police refused to allow the demonstration, but it took place on 3 March. This was the Panthers' first demonstration in Jerusalem, and following it the police's attitude towards them began to change. The police took measures to obtain regular intelligence about their intentions (Document No. 14). Police headquarters of the Southern District recruited informers who supplied intelligence from inside the organization. Although intelligence evaluations that were circulated defined the group as marginal and described its leaders as Matzpen members, claiming that it was led from the Jerusalem café popular with journalists and radicals, Café Ta'amon, they warned that intelligence preparations should be made to prevent the possibility of its actions escalating and leading to events such as the Wadi Salib riots in Haifa in 1959. On 10 March 1971 Assistant Commander Aharon Chelouche, head of the Special Operations Division at Police Headquarters, sent a memorandum to the Inspector-General of the Police, Pinhas Koppel, in which he reviewed the background to the organization of the Black Panthers, and its establishment with the encouragement of the Matzpen movement and intellectuals. He reviewed the actions taken by the police, thanks to which - at present – bitterness and feelings of discrimination on an ethnic background had not snowballed as they did at Wadi Salib (Document No. 16).

B2. "If you don't take what you're entitled to by force, you won't get it": police reports on the assistance provided to the Panthers by political organizations
As time passed, the Black Panthers intensified their activities, and on the other hand, the police intensified its intelligence activity in order to obtain information about their plans. A detailed report from 12 April 1971 repeats police evaluations that the Matzpen group in Jerusalem had 'jumped on the bandwagon' in order to exploit the Panther group's feelings of deprivation for their own political goals and to convince them that "If you don't take what you're entitled to by force, you won't get it". In addition, the Panthers had obtained support from other political groups, from the Kibbutz Artzi movement and from university lecturers and students (Document No. 17). Approximately a week after the Panthers' meeting with Prime Minister Golda Meir (see above), the national headquarters of the police sent a detailed report to the minister of police, giving information about academics who had prepared the Panthers' representatives for the meeting. The report also contained information on what was said there and on continued activities by the Panthers' organization in the fields of protest and propaganda (Document No. 18). An additional intelligence report from 10 May reports on the Panthers' participation in a propaganda rally organized by Rakach, and at a cultural event organized by the actor and producer Uri Zohar, as well as support from intellectuals and artists such as Amos Keinan (Document No. 19). Further evidence of political support for the Black Panthers, this time from the right wing opponents of the government, is found in a police report from November 1971, about a meeting held by several of the Panther leaders with the chairman of the Herut movement Ezer Weizman, and the Herut Knesset member Haim Corfu, in which Weizman expressed his movement's identification with the Panthers' goals, and his readiness to offer them assistance. The report also tells of a meeting the Panthers held with Meir Vilner, at which they discussed sending a delegation of Panthers to Eastern Bloc countries (Document No. 24).

B3. "Golda, Golda, get lost already, everyone's had enough of you": the police face  escalation in the Panthers' activities
On 10 May 1971 an extended staff meeting of the police upper ranks, with the participation of the minister discussed the Black Panther problem. The inspector-general of the police reported on his meeting with several leaders of the organization, who had expressed the desire to work legally and to achieve cooperation with the police. At the meeting it was proposed "that the police try to assist the organization, whose declared goals are positive and seem sincere", and it was decided to take a liberal approach, which would be expressed by the granting of permission to hold demonstrations and in rehabilitation and assistance for marginal youth in slum neighbourhoods (Document No. 20). However, several days later, on 18 May, the Black Panther demonstration escalated to a riot accompanied by severe violence. This demonstration led to a new stage in the attitude of the authorities, including the police, to the organization. The police now perceived the Panthers as a dangerous organization that could disrupt public order, and saw it as necessary to take extensive measures against it, and among others, to try to moderate its activities. The Black Panthers, on the other hand, wanted to prove that they were not law-breakers and that their organization did not support violence. At the end of June a police report from an intelligence source reported on a clean-up campaign that the Black Panthers organized in the Musrara neighbourhood  in order to point out the municipality's failures and "to demonstrate that [the Black Panther organization] does not stand only for violence" (Document No. 21).

The police held meetings with the heads of the organization before demonstrations, in order to coordinate them and prevent them from escalating into violence (Document No. 22). However, on 23 August 1971 all limits were breached. The Black Panthers demonstrated at the Davidka Square in Jerusalem. That same day a review of the demonstration was prepared by the police intelligence department. From the review  it appears that at the demonstration there were signs with crude expressions, such as: "Golda, Golda, get lost already, everyone's had enough of you"; extreme speeches were made against discrimination against the Oriental community by the Jews of Ashkenazi origins, including expressions such as: "the war of the Black Panthers against the Ashkenazi government", in order to "root out of it (the government) all the Ashkenazis who practice discrimination"; and threats were made that "the Panthers would disrupt life in Israel". Later the demonstrators blocked Zion Square "and the illegal demonstration was dispersed by force" (Document No. 23) (see also Document No. 27).
For Section B, see also: Documents Nos. 13, 15.

C. The Knesset and the Black Panthers
Echoes of the Black Panther demonstrations also reached the Knesset. The accusations of Panther members regarding the brutal conduct of the police towards them at the demonstration of 18 May caused, as mentioned above, the Rakach faction to propose a no-confidence motion against the government. The Knesset Interior Committee was also involved and held two meetings to investigate the claims and discuss the events during the demonstration. The upper ranks of the police force, who participated in the meetings, reviewed the development of the organization and the circumstances that resulted in the police action. The members of the committee generally supported the police because of the violent behaviour of the Panthers; several of them even criticized the police for being too lenient. Most of the committee members strongly attacked the Black Panthers, and claimed that they were violent law-breakers whose activities harmed the presentation of their claims, but admitted that some of these claims were justified. Some of them blamed the government for not adopting a clear policy regarding the Panthers and their demands, and the media for exaggerated reporting of their activities which fanned the flames. Several of the committee members claimed that the Panthers were not the problem, but rather poverty and distress, and the crime they fostered among the disadvantaged, and they should be discussed (Documents Nos. 25 and 26).

A day after the Black Panther demonstration on 23 August 1971 Yosef Tamir of the Herut-Liberal faction, a member of the Knesset Interior Committee, initiated an urgent discussion of the committee regarding the events and police conduct at the demonstration. At the conclusion of the discussion the committee released a statement to the media, in which it severely condemned the conduct of the demonstrators and the means they used in their activities, and called on the public "to distance itself from and disavow these events" (Document No. 27). The committee's statement resulted in an outraged letter from a citizen who wondered whether it did not contain "an expression of prejudice and double standards" towards the Panthers, for instance, as compared with ultra-Orthodox demonstrations in Jerusalem. He claimed that the efforts of intellectuals of Oriental origin to bring about a change in the government's attitude to the Oriental community in accepted ways had failed, and this was the reason which prompted the Black Panthers to adopt violent methods, which had actually been relatively successful in bringing the problem to the attention of the public. (Document No. 28).

D. "The just struggle of those fighting their/our war" or "The black and fascist gang": the general public and the Black Panthers
The activities of the Black Panther organization elicited many reactions from the public. A small selection is presented here of letters sent to the minister of police's bureau and other institutions, especially after demonstrations, which show the marked differences of opinion between those who supported the Panthers and vigorously condemned the police measures to disperse the demonstrations, and those who gave full support to the police and attacked the Black Panther organization and its style of protest in strong language. (Documents Nos. 29, 30, 31, 32)

Editors and acknowledgements

Editing and introductions: Nurit Madar and Hagai Tsoref
Copy editing: Yehudit Shemesh
English editing: Louise Fischer
Content editing on the internet: Oranit Levi
Scanning: Shlomo Mark
Translation: Quality Translations

We would like to thank Alexandra Tumarinson of the Pinhas Lavon Institute for Labour Movement Research, Dan Hadani, the owner of the Ippa-Photos Agency, the staff of the Israel State Archives and all those who assisted in the preparation of this publication.

More links
Black Panthers (Israel)

Another publication by the Israel State Archives about social problems in Israel: Housing shortages in Israel, 1951

A Special Joint Publication by the Israel State Archives and the Center for Educational Technology (CET)