Israel Pulse

Israeli protest movements fighting for the money: Settlers win, Black Panthers fail

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Article Summary
A new Israeli television series tells the contradicting stories of two parallel protest movements that erupted in the 1970s: the Black Panther movement with its social protests, and the Gush Emunim settlement movement.

“When all is said and done, if you take a look at your protest and their protest, you really have to salute them. They’re consistent. They followed their protest, their beliefs. … Where there is belief, people succeed. They always win.” The speaker is Yamin Suissa, a leader of the “tent protest” of 1977. His penetrating look at himself and his fellow protesters in the 1970s, compared to the settlers’ protests at the same time, is the most telling moment in the first episode of “The Right to Shout,” a new series that begins March 11 on Channel 8.

This outstanding series by Uri Rosenwaks documents the main protest movements in Israel, using authentic archival material. The first episode, “From Musrara to Sebastia,” tells the stories of two protest movements that emerged in the early 1970s: the social protests of the “Black Panther” movement, founded by young Moroccan Jews living in Jerusalem’s poor Musrara neighborhood, and the protests of the religious nationalist settlers of the Gush Emunim settlement movement, whose Israeli-born founders came from well-to-do Ashkenazi families. One of their first attempts at settlement in the West Bank took place in 1974, near the Arab village of Sebastia.

The Panthers wanted to provide a megaphone to the cries of the Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern origin), who were suffering from discrimination. They wanted to force the government to redirect resources to them in order to improve their lives. Gush Emunim fought to settle the West Bank despite the government’s opposition. They acted out of an ideological belief in the integrity of the Greater Land of Israel.

The series tells stories of these two protest movements in tandem, following the chronological order of events. Ostensibly, there is no connection between these two groups of young people. They came from different backgrounds and fought for different goals. From the very beginning, however, the leaders of the Black Panthers made a point of comparing the vast government investment in thriving settlements to the people of the “Second Israel,” who were left behind when it came to government budgetary considerations.

What is especially impressive is that this connection was made as early as the mid-1970s by the leaders of the Black Panthers themselves: Charlie Biton, Saadia Marciano and, later, Suissa. Despite their young age, they had already managed to identify the mistaken priorities of the various Israeli governments whether of the Likud or the left, both of whom spent vast sums on creating the enormous settlement enterprise.

In one interview from 1977, the young Biton looks directly into the camera and says: “I also want to address the party known as Gahal [the forerunner of the Likud], which gets all its votes from the Mizrahi community. What are you doing to get all those votes? You focus on Hebron, on [not] returning the territories. What about the people who support you? What about them?”

The question that Biton was asking back then is still being asked today, at least on the left of the political spectrum. How is it possible that Mizrahim continue to vote for the right? After all, it does not put their well-being at the top of its agenda, certainly not when compared to the vast sums poured by the right wing over the years into the construction of the settlements.

The archival footage of the Black Panthers is inspiring. It is riveting to see how innovative and innocent they were at the time. Those young people, the children of Moroccan immigrants, showed remarkable inner strength as they faced off against the establishment. And while courageously facing off the establishment, at the heat of their struggle, they came to the realization that Gush Emunim and the settlements succeeded in their campaign, while they failed to make any meaningful changes to the reality of their lives.

The Panthers watched as the settlements prospered. They could only wish that the government would invest the same amounts of money in their sector. Meanwhile, the leaders of Gush Emunim never considered the Panthers to be a threat or even worthy of comparison, for that matter. The Panthers were invisible — nothing more and nothing less — as far as Gush Emunim was concerned.

From its very beginning, news reports and interviews with the group’s leaders show that Hanan Porat, Uri Elitzur, Benny Katzover and Rabbi Moshe Levinger showed that they could pressure the government effectively. They went from being a young group of extremists that clashed with the Israel Defense Forces to an effective and articulate leadership that negotiated with the government from a position of strength as “Masters of the Land.”

In an interview from 1976, Hanan Porat told a reporter covering the various evacuations of the Sebastia outpost, “The prime minister does not determine whether there will be settlements in the Land of Israel or not. It is the heartbeat of Zionist fulfillment.” Later in the interview, he asked the reporter: “Have you ever seen what happens when a bird is chased away from its home? It returns again and again. It doesn’t give up until it gets back in. We do not intend to give up either until there is a Jewish settlement here.”

What sounded at first like the arrogant and overbearing rhetoric of a young man in a Jewish skullcap and military parka became the new reality. It happened during Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s first term in office (1974-1977). Defense Minister Shimon Peres was assigned to negotiate with the leadership of Gush Emunim and eventually gave the green light for the establishment of the settlement of Elon Moreh in 1976. One year later, there was a change of government, with right-wing Likud winning the elections for the first time since Israel was established. Menachem Begin, the new prime minister, announced that in the very near future there would be many more Elon Morehs. He fulfilled his promise, giving his support to the settlement enterprise led by late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

The settlers announced from the very start that their protests would not consist of demonstrations. They would establish settlements instead, and they have been doing so faithfully and consistently, regardless of who was in power. Meanwhile, the Panthers may have been an outspoken group that managed to make waves, but over the years they failed to create a cohesive leadership. Even when Biton and Marciano were elected to the Knesset in 1977 and 1980, respectively, they were seen as little more than provocateurs. They failed to spearhead a pressure group that could force the government to accede to their demands. The first tent protest, led by Suissa, fell apart in much the same way.

Suissa realized how successful the settlers’ protests were while they were still taking place. He called his protest Tent Ohel Moreh (Tent of Moreh), referencing the settlement of Elon Moreh. Nevertheless, he and his friends failed to get the message across that billions of shekels were being poured into the settlements at the expense of the weakest sectors of the population.

Suissa and Biton didn’t speak in terms of occupation and the political left. Though they were both members of left-wing parties, they preferred to focus on the social agenda. The problem they had was that their claim that money for the settlements came at the expense of starving children in the country’s impoverished neighborhoods never caught on. Almost four decades later, with anti-occupation nongovernmental organization Peace Now marking the 40th anniversary of its founding, it is safe to say that Gush Emunim’s victory is absolute in just about every parameter. Not only do 400,000 settlers now live in the West Bank, they are also established politically and hold the reins of power in government.

Found in: Settlements

Mazal Mualem is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse and formerly the senior political correspondent for Maariv and Haaretz. She also presents a weekly TV show covering social issues on the Knesset channel. On Twitter: @mazalm3

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