The Sephardi Perspective: A Sephardi hero dies

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.

Sephardim like Marciano then created the Sheli party, while other panthers helped form Tami and Shas. Charlie Bitton became a member of Knesset with the Israeli Communist Party and was re-elected four times.

Marciano left the Knesset in 1981, but he never gave up his efforts to raise the status and position of Israel’s poor and Sephardi communities, friends and family members told the media after Marciano’s death. He established a drug rehabilitation center. Pensioners Party MK Itzhak Galantee met Marciano less than two weeks ago to discuss plans to supply food and radiators to Jerusalem’s needy.

“He wanted to help every needy person,” Galantee lamented. “He always spoke of the poor residents of Jerusalem, and never mentioned his own situation.”

This was Marciano’s legacy. Although Sephardi politicians like Amir Peretz, David Levy and Shaul Mofaz have held high positions in the Israeli political echelons, the Sephardim are still highly unrepresented in Israel at the highest level. The situation amongst the Sephardim has, if anything, taken a turn for the worse as of late and there were rumors that Marciano was attempting to reinstitute the Israeli Black Panthers.

Marciano’s death should serve as a timely reminder to the establishment that there is still much to be done in terms of equality and social affairs in Israel. The income gap in Israel is greater than in any western country, and it appears as if the Sephardim are still disproportionately represented at the wrong end of the spectrum. The group Hakeshet Hademocratit Hamizrahit’s (The Mizrachi Democratic Rainbow) latest report shows that there is still widespread discrimination in the fields of land distribution, employment and unemployment and education between Ashkenazim and Sephardim. According to another study, Ashkenazi immigrants of post-high school age are up to 10 times more likely to study in a university than an Israeli-born Sephardi.

Israel has rarely seen a time of peace and the last few years have witnessed multiple threats. However, as Marciano related, even in times of conflict there is still a need to face the social reality.

The Sephardim have come a long way since the days of the panthers, and Israelis are less willing and likely to take to the streets consistently for a particular cause. However, there is an increasing number of signs that indicate that Israeli society is heading in the wrong direction. It is men like Marciano who will be missed for their forthright activism and willingness to fight for a cause. Marciano, a hero to many Sephardim will be sorely missed. He fought the battles whether on the streets, in the Knesset or in the needy communities.

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