Reuven Abergil, one of the founders of the Israeli Black Panthers, the social movement who shook Israeli society at the beginning of the 1970s, now a member of Tarabut-Hit’habrut, talks about growing up in a poor neighborhood in Jerusalem and the beginning of the Black Panthers movement in Israel.
A neighborhood full of lepers
When we talk about the Black Panthers today, it is hard for us to imagine what is was like to get organized, how the people were. We think now about people with abilities, possibilities, basing their action on good knowledge of the terrain and texts that one encounters during one’s studies or elsewhere. But we had none of this. When the Black Panthers were founded, you had nothing like today’s press or communication. We had some basic knowledge and almost no real possibilities. We did not have phones (not to mention mobile phones). Back then, if you didn’t have connections at the right places (which obviously we did not), you could be waiting for seven or eight years for a phone landline. So our ability to communicate was also limited.
It was a world in which to know something was happening, you had to be by chance on the spot. Take me: I grew up in Musrara [a poor neighbourhood in Jerusalem] for 19 years, before the Six-Day War, and I did not know about Yeruham [a "development town" in Israel’s southern periphery, about distant places. I did hear about Eilat [down in the south of Israel, on the shore of the Red Sea] because young people in my neighborhood were sent there when they were caught on criminal offences. To us, Eilat was like a lepers’ colony – and there were many ‘lepers’ in our neighborhood. So we knew about Eilat.
As a young boy I could not quite grasp the idea that someone was screwing us. I always felt the pain, and I would go to my parents and ask them: "Why does it hurt?" and they would answer: "It’s all from God." I grew up in a religious, traditional household, where you really believed that if God has anything to do with it, then there is nothing you can do.
Then came the Six-Day War and a window opened for us, a new world. Until then, Musrara had been a kind of enclosure, a no-man's land, a place that is not part of Jordan, and does not really belong to Israel. The people who lived there were new immigrants who had been brought to all kinds of places by buses in the 1950s and were settled in the north and south [by the state]; they fled from immigrant camps, from Dimona and places in Northern Israel… They had put them on the frontier to fend for themselves against their new-found enemy – the Arabs. And they fled… and came to settle in this poor neighborhood, in the centre of Jerusalem, very close to the Old city.
Before we started, there had been struggles against the establishment by immigrants from North Africa. Back in 1948 they protested within the army, and made unsuccessful attempts to go back to Morocco. And then, of course, there were the Wadi Salib events in Haifa, in 1959.1
I was sixteen at the time. I joined by distributing leaflets during the day and hanging posters in support of the protesters at night. The papers called it "the Wadi Salib Rebellion". You see, there were demonstrations by the left, but they never called this a rebellion, except in Wadi Salib. What is rebellion? It’s challenging state power – and that was how the political establishment perceived our protest: "They should have been thanking us but instead they revolt."
There was a major difference between the Black Panthers and the Wadi Salib protest. There were Moroccans in Wadi Salib; the popular base of the Black Panthers was also Moroccan, but we also had young white left-wing activists joining us, and this presented a real threat to the establishment – the co-operation between Blacks and Whites. As long as there were only Blacks protesting in Wadi Salib, they could be pulverized, smashed. No-one with privileges was involved. Without such involvement, the authorities can smash such a group and portray it as it wishes.
"That thief who’s stockpiling the books"
They tried to do this to the Panthers, they tried demonization, denounced them as offenders… And they were right. We were exactly that. We were offenders who resisted the authorities. We were offenders who broke free of the enclosure. And we were criminals by necessity: where we found ourselves, we had to survive.
By the time I was nine, I already lost my childhood. I had to fend for myself, find food and shelter. Toward the end of 1947 I arrived as a child, seven years old; I had my parents until I was nine, in 1950 – two and a half years of suffering.
We didn’t know then what we know now. Back then, we didn’t know of the terrible process people were put through, what kind of processes gradually crushed their spirits, destroying their consciousness. I had known my parents as respectable people; we had lived in a patriarchal society. As a boy I would kiss my dad’s uncle’s hands, he was just a little older than I was. Until I turned thirty, I did not dare to smoke on Saturday in front of my elder brothers. I used to see my father or my uncle from a distance and hide the cigarette immediately in my pocket. And at nine years, in spite of this tradition and the respect we felt for our elders, we came to despise our parents. They began to fade. We perceived their fading as a readiness to abandon us. For many years, I held a grudge against my parents, especially my father. A deep grudge: How could he desert his baby birds?
I was isolated. Those who taught me to speak, whose professional language I took in, were probation officers, policemen, judges and social workers. I did not go to school. I learned my language in this way. I remember that once I was brought before Justice Bazak and he had several other cases to attend to. He asked for an intermission and I was left their on my own – the lawyers left to discuss something. I look at the bar: Israel’s Legal System. I took the book, slipped it under my shirt and left. I don’t know what the decision in this case was. I didn't return. I told myself: I have to understand how they screw me. I built my education creatively.
From the time I was nine years old I was saving penny after penny; I didn’t have a place to hide the money – what would happen if my parents found out? So we had a sort of a bank, the Feuchtwanger bank (who eventually set us up and took all our savings); I used to go there and buy little stamps for my money and paste the stamps in a booklet. I would save 100 mills and buy me a book. Go to a bookshop, buy two books and pinch four, buy one book and pinch two, and so on. I used to hide them behind my bed. Once, my mother was busy with the Pessach cleaning, she was about to move the bed – it was an American army bed. She was struggling to move it, and the bed didn’t move because of all those books hidden behind it. So she asks my dad to help her out, and lo and behold, piles of books came pouring down. Everyone hurried to grab that thief who’s stockpiling the books. I confessed my guilt and was punished as I was supposed to be.
There was a broadcasting station in Musrara, and not far from my neighborhood was the Communist Party club. When you leave the neighborhood, you reach this place – then comes the Russian Compound and then the forbidden area, the "white zone". We never got as far up as this. So the communists were mostly Jewish immigrants from Iraq; they wore keffiyeh, or hattah, on their head and had huge moustaches, you know – and there were some Ashkenazis [Jews of 'European' origin] as well. I was very young. I stumbled upon the place once, and Reuven Kaminer [a Communist Party activist at the time], I think, was standing outside. He said: Come in, boy, it’s raining outside. I went in. I saw many people sitting, really serious, and one person standing, talking to the rest. It was the first time in my life that I saw people sitting quietly in this way. And I'm a hyperactive boy, always on the run from the police, running here, running there. How could you sit quietly in this way? And the speaker was enthusiastic, waving with his hands all the time. While they’re speaking, I catch sight of a nice table, with cakes and hot drinks on it. I grabbed some cakes, got out, and ran to my friends. I told them: Come and see what we’ve got there, this is great. And so they would let us in, so that we won’t make trouble, and we would get some cakes and listen to lectures. I was perhaps eleven years old then, and used to watch movies there: Trotsky, Lenin, barricades, Russia’s development after the war, and Russian songs, you know.
Two years later, I was thirteen, and the Juvenile court had ruled that I could not stay in the neighbourhood and – like my brothers – I had to go a Youth Correction Centre. They gave them all away. My elder sister is fighting hard in the court, saying: Look, they put away all the brothers, they’re all in correction centers, give the youngest one a chance, what d'you say – can you send him to a kibbutz? So I was sent to mend my ways in a kibbutz. I’m going there and it’s a path of agony for me.
It left its mark on me. At Mishmar Hanegev [in the South of Israel] they assigned me tasks. Here is all the Bedouin Al-Houzayl tribe, and me, at the age of thirteen, riding a horse with two others, guns on our shoulders, roaming the desert, confiscating herds of cattle and imposing fines [on the Bedouins] for taking water from the kibbutz’s plantations. At the age of fifteen I was going with the others down to Jaffa in kibbutz trucks (you can see us in [David Ben-Shitrit’s documentary film] Eastern Wind, with red-laced blue shirts) bit supporters of [the Right-Wing] Herut Party and basically anyone who was opposed to [Israel’s governing party] Mapai. Yes, the thugs of the kibbutzim would go downtown…
And all these things – they permeated me, I was suffused with them, without actually according them a real place in my consciousness. I didn’t have any. I cannot tell you that at the time I acquired the means to distinguish between good and bad. I acted out of necessity, out of the situation I found myself in.
“Like in Noah’s Arc, Two-by-Two, An Arab and a Mizrachi”
In 1967 the war came [and unified by force Eastern and Western Jerusalem]. I break through the fences [dividing the city, between Musrara and the Eastern town], and I don’t run to the west but straight into the Old City of Jerusalem. The guns were still thundering, I break through the fence and reach one of the [Palestinian] children that I grew up with, in the same neighborhood but on the other side of the fence. I had such friends in the Armenian Quarter and around the Flowers Gate. The night before the [Six-Day] War ended I slept at his place, my childhood friend, Muhammad Isma'il al-Baitouni. He was so happy I came.
The war is over, and a flood of visitors crosses Musrara. Never have so many white feet crossed our neighborhood (apart from the policemen, and then, they were also black…). And in they all came, with bags and baskets, with family and friends. All eager to see the sky in the passage between Musrara and the Old City.
But for us it was different after the war. We begin to meet the Palestinian guys. I’m in my twenties, and I begin to do business one a somewhat larger scale than I had done in the neighborhood, because I have Arab associates, and we became partners. Under Jordanian rule, the selling of cannabis was legal in the Old City; even our [Israeli] cops went there to have a smoke. And on the other hand, we met our students from [the Hebrew University on] Mount Olives. They knew no Arabic and had money in their pockets – so we mediated between them and the Arabs. In this way, we made a profit mediating between the Ashkenazi [Jews] and the Arabs and suddenly a partnership came into being. Sometimes I would spend the night in detention in the [Police Station at the] Russian Compound with my Palestinian partners: They would bring us in Like in Noah’s Arc, two-by-two, an Arab and a Mizrachi. There was brotherhood and friendship between us. Life was mixed, you know.
In 1968 we went one step further and opened legitimate businesses together. These were mostly watermelon market stands, but unlike anything you know, with real feasts in Morroccan-Arabic and Real Arabic every night. We would be selling watermelons during the day and in the evening be feasting, with music, juice, and beer at Bab al-Amoud. All along this street, near the Old City Walls, the guys from the neighbourhood would be partners with Palestinians, every market stand – a partnership. And I, who was a bit older than the rest, thought to myself: Why should I be just selling watermelons? I decided I would open bars. I had three bars in Jerusalem, with partners: I called the one Leil al-Sharq, the other one Jungo, and the third - Tango, and one other place in Semiramis Hotel in Ramallah. I had Arab singers and musicians working with me from Gaza, Bethlehem, and Ras-al-Amud as well as Moroccan Jews. We had a good time.
Then the Israeli police and the Shabak [the Israeli Security Services] entered the scene. They decided to move in on our partnerships and dissolved the businesses, letting the places instead to local Palestinian collaborators who opened completely illegal businesses, casinos and brothels. This is how it all came to an end.
Our home is threatened
It was during this twilight zone, when business was getting very slow and the police very active, when two social workers arrived at Musrara to check the viability of removing the residents. The mayor of Jerusalem at the time – Teddy Kollek -- has already started emptying neighbourhoods all around Jerusalem and now he was eyeing Musrara. We decide that we should get organized, otherwise they’re going to evict us. They already did this to the residents of Mamilla [also residing across the former armistice line between West an East Jerusalem], gave it all to a real-estate developer who made millions, throwing the residents into new slums in Talpiot or Katamon. They did the same to Yemin Moshe, sold it to rich members of the Jerusalem Foundation and they live there for a week during a whole year.
So evictions come ever nearer to Musrara, and we still don’t understand the politics of things, don’t understand that there’s a real criminal making a big plan for us. When I was a child I would plan very carefully how to steal a new bike from the [rich] Rechavia neighborhood. I would think how to escape the cops and get back to my neighborhood... But I still did not grasp that on a higher level there were other, respectable people, who talk quietly and are making such a plan for me.
We make up our mind to demonstrate; it’s just a thought. But the police of course know about it, and they come immediately to the neighborhood and they have no qualms arresting people merely for wanting to get a group together. We haven’t even prepared leaflets, we haven’t written graffiti, nothing. And there we have our friends getting arrested, and the first demonstration is held on March 3rd, 1971.
So I come back to the nighboorhood – I was already married, with a child, older than the others – and people tell me: The police are looking for you, they arrested the others. I organize the guys from our neighborhood and we take our protest straight to the Mayor’s office [Teddy Kollek]. If he had been wiser, he would have acted differently, for he was an unstoppable bulldozer, I called him "The New Herod"… But instead, he was sitting on the fourth floor and we were demonstrating downstairs. He could have come down to talk to us but instead he goes out to the balcony and shouts: "Hey you, get off the lawn." These were his first words: Bums, get off the lawn.
At that stage, we didn’t even know how to write political things. The few signs we carried – these weren’t our slogans; they had been written by the leftists, and we were used to vent out all our anger on the police. In those times you could enter everywhere, straight into someone’s office, not like today, with bodyguards everywhere, a wire here and another there… So we go [the Police Center at] the Russian Compound to demonstrate, and there are some very important Ashkenazi figures with us that give us this sense of security that nothing would happen to us this time. You know, it’s like Peace Now demonstrations: you have professor Traktenberg and professor Traktentet and all that, and all these Trakts are in the demonstration, so the police behave properly, and the moment the Trakts move aside – they go for you. So we had Dan Ben-Amotz, Amos Kenan, Nathan Yellin-Mor, Baruch Nadel, Hayyim Gury as well – all part of the hegemony, and the police show us respect: If all these people are with them – who would lay a finger on them? So we are treated with respect, and they release our friends from jail and we felt that we have power.
The demonstration is over and we go home, to the neighborhood. Each to his own. For me – the struggle was over; I got my friends released, I don’t think about struggles or politics. I go to see my wife and child. I have a little shack that I had built in the neighborhood. Every unmarried guy would build himself something, a shack, like in the unrecognized Arab villages, so we had one too – because it was in the [former] no man’s land [between East and West Jerusalem].
I enter home and close the door. After ten minutes, perhaps a quarter of an hour I hear knocks on the door. I try to open the door – it won’t open. But we have a back door; when the police would come through the front door, I would vanish through the back door to care for my business. I leave the shack through that door and I see everyone enthusiastic, at least 200 of them, drunk with victory… You see, we had never won over the police, and this time we have. They are all standing there; somehow they got a piece of wood and some paint and wrote: Headquarters and pinned it to my door. At that moment I lost my home and my private life.
A talk given by Reuven Abergil at the 2009 Tarabut – Hithabrut Leadership Course. Transcript by Gadi Algazi.
|||The Wadi Salib Riots erupted in 1959 as a reaction to police harassments of North African immigrants in the area, but soon turned into a countrywide protest movement against the discrimination of Jewish immigrants from Arab countries.|