Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Israeli Black Panthers

On Friday, July 25th, I attended a tour of the Musrara neighborhood in West Jerusalem (the Israeli side of Jerusalem) where the Israeli Black Panther Party was born. We were lead by Ayala Sabag, born and raised in Musrara, and one of the leading figures in the Mizrahi (Jews of Middle Eastern/Arab descent) struggle today.

The neighborhood of Musrara was originally developed by Palestinians in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. During the war of 1948, the Palestinians residents fled or were expelled. One million Jewish immigrants from Middle East countries (Mizrahi Jews) were settled in the new Israeli State in the 1950s; many were settled in neighborhoods like Musrara. These Mizrahi communities lived in poverty. They were put into special schools to learn trades needed to build the State. There were fights to integrate Mizrahi children into Ashkenazi (Jews of European Descent) schools which had better and more resources.

Israel settled Mizrahi Jews in neighborhoods like Musrara that were positioned close to the border dividing Jerusalem before 1967- and so suffered much violence between Jordan and the new Israeli State. When Ayala was young, when there were shots into her neighborhood, her mother would gather up all the children from the courtyard. Ayala told us that at one point her mother was running with Ayala's baby brother away from bullets and she dropped him making him permanently brain damaged.

The Israeli State never fully recognized these neighborhoods, so the Mizrahi familiers were always considered squatters. In 1967, when the Israeli State knew the violence would subside they convinced Ayala's family and their neighbors to purchase an apartments in new apartment projects. When they accepted, the homes that had been built by Palestinians and that these Mizrahi Jews had then lived in for almost 20 years were sold for a lot of money to Ashkenazi Jews. Today, the Musrara neighborhood is mostly inhabited by Ashkenazi people, though many are still poor and live in bad conditions.

In late 1960s and early 1970s, conditions in the Musrara projects were very bad. Conditions were worse because people had so many children in such small apartments. Families were actively encouraged to have any babies by the State to increase the Jewish population. Ayala recalls when Ben Gurian himself came through the neighborhood with a megaphone telling people to have more children to help build Israel.

From out of this reality emerged the Israeli Black Panthers, one of the most influential Israeli social movements dedicated to social and economic justice. Ayala's brother was one of its founding leaders. Ayala recalled one of the most famous actions when the Israeli Black Panthers stole bottles of milk from the doorsteps of a middle-class Jerusalem suburb and delivered it to poor Mizrahi families. Ayala told us they used a military truck which belonged to one of the Black Panthers who was also in the Israeli military. Ayala recalled that to the rich people, they left a note that said "sorry you won't get your milk today..." and then I found a record that the notes said: "The children in the poverty stricken neighbourhoods do not find the milk they need on their doorstep every morning. In contrast, there are cats and dogs in rich neighborhoods that get plenty of milk, day in, day out." And to the poor people, with the milk, Ayala said they included a note that said "We hope you enjoy the milk, but don't get used to it, this is a part of a one-time action..."

After 1967, when Israel claimed all of Jerusalem, Ayala's family began having more connection to Palestinians, though not all Mizrahi Jews supported this. She recalls being teased in school for having Palestinian friends. Today, many Arab Jews, Ayala said, are not in relationship with Palestinians and are in fact Right Wing. However, the Israeli Black Panthers have always been connected to Palestinian struggle. They were aware that even in their impoverished conditions, they had taken the homes of Palestinians; and they could see that the Palestinians in East Jerusalem were in even worse distress than their own communities. The Israeli Black Panthers helped to re-plant olive trees that were destroyed from the first Settlement (not certain I wrote this down correctly?), where in fact many poor Jews were being transferred to live. This was one of the first actions with Jewish Israelis protesting for Palestinian rights.

The Israeli Black Panthers ended after a short time- some say it was related to the 1973 Yom Kippur war, others because the Israeli Authorities infiltrated and created conflict amongst its members. Today, the Israeli Black Panthers is re-surging. The differences now, Ayala says, are that they have a greater focus on economic justice, not just with Mizrahi Jews, and it will be headed by women and focus on women. Also, the Israeli Black Panthers are working against harsh effects of the Wisconsin plan (the Welfare to Work program that has been imported to Israel from the U.S.) which effects 48 Palestinians (Palestinians with Israeli citizenship) most of all. They are currently registering as a party and running for municipal elections.

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