Sa’adia Marciano, Black Panther leader, dies at 58

The Sephardi Perspective blog pays this tribute to the late Sa’adia Marciano, whose Black Panther movement in the 1970s tried to put Sephardi deprivation on the political agenda:

“Last week, Saadia Marciano, 58, a former member of the Israeli Knesset who got his start in public life as a leader of the “Israeli Black Panthers” movement of poor Sephardi Jews, died in a Jerusalem hospital. Marciano died in the type of poverty that he fought against on behalf of all Sephardi Jews throughout his life.

“Marciano, who left his native Oujda, Morocco, after anti-Semitic pogroms and riots there in the wake of Israel’s establishment in 1948, helped start the Israeli Black Panthers in his early 20s, along with other Sephardi Jews living in Jerusalem’s Musrara neighborhood.

“Although largely forgotten today, the Israeli Black Panthers protested “ignorance from the establishment for the hard social problems”, and wanted to fight for a different future. Other founders of the movement included Charlie Bitton, Reuven Abergil and Eli Avichzer. However, it was the face of Marciano that became recognizable after being brutally beaten by the police during a demonstration that was organized without a permit.

“This was the early 1970s and those that arrived from Arab countries saw that the ‘establishment’ did not treat them equally to other immigrant groups. After meeting with the Black Panthers in 1971, Prime Minister Golda Meir referred to them as “not nice people”; this was consistent with the patronizing attitude many in the Ashkenazi elite had for the Sephardi, socially underprivileged working classes. The Jerusalem mayor at the time, Teddy Kolek, called out to a demonstration in Kikar Safra from his office window, “Get off the lawn, you bastards!”

“The Israeli Black Panthers’ main goal was to raise awareness of the discrimination that they felt. A particularly violent protest in May 1971, forced the government to seriously discuss the Panthers’ claims and a public committee was established to find a solution to their distress.

“According to the conclusions of that committee, discrimination did indeed exist against certain immigrant groups on many levels in society. In accordance, the budgets of the offices dealing with social issues were enlarged significantly. However, the Yom Kippur War soon changed the government’s list of priorities, and most of these resources were turned, again, towards security needs.

“Marciano would say in a 2003 documentary The Black Panthers Speak, “We raised the social struggle flag in spite of the difficult security conditions. Moshe Dayan argued that you can’t wave both flags of security and social affairs simultaneously. But we strongly believed that a weak society could never be strong in its security.”

“The turning point for Marciano, and many other Israeli Black Panthers, was the realization that to properly affect change, they needed to enter the political establishment. Like all once-great militant leaders, Marciano had decided that there was a point in time when political life was preferable to a life of militancy and as a fugitive. Comparing him with the likes of Menachem Begin and Nelson Mandela would not be out of place, even without the overt nationalistic context.

“The Israeli Black Panthers had served as a vehicle to raise consciousness of their struggle and more Sephardi politicians were entering the corridors of power. Of course, one would be remiss not to tie this phenomenon to the electoral victory of the Likud at the end of the 1970s, who owed much of their victory to the Sephardim. However, the Sephardim were soon to realize that their chances for power were only slightly improved than under the almost uniformly Ashkenazi Labor party.

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