An Israeli Black Panther’s call for true democracy

Reuven Abergel 

+972 Magazine  /  May 8, 2023

We did not get to taste one drop of the promises in the Declaration of Independence. Now we must gather all the oppressed groups we have ignored.

The following is an edited transcript of a speech delivered by Reuven Abergel, of the founders of the Israeli Black Panthers and a long-time activist, at a demonstration against the far-right government’s judicial overhaul plan in Jerusalem’s Paris Square on April 29, 2023. 

“The State of Israel … will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.” [Excerpt from Israel’s Declaration of Independence]

You make me laugh. You really make me laugh.

Fifty-two years ago, I founded the Mizrahi Black Panthers movement together with my comrades. We did not get to sip or taste one drop of these wonderful promises that appear in the statement with which I opened my words, from Israel’s Declaration of Independence. So what does a Black Panther do when asked to recite the Declaration? I told you it’s funny, but it is also very sad.

Today is the 17th consecutive week of demonstrations dominated by the slogan “democracy.” But I never got to enjoy the idea of democracy. So now that we are at the height of the struggle, and I am sure that you will continue, I have a proposal. Let’s act together to realize these wonderful ideas one by one, and gather all those whom we have ignored: the Panthers and the Mizrahim, the Ethiopians, and the Palestinians — the latter two making up 22 percent of the state’s population, and the millions more in the occupied territories whom we brutalize from morning to evening. This is our opportunity.

In 1971, we, the Black Panthers, went out to protest because we saw how our parents were oppressed, humiliated, crushed, and lost their humanity as a result of the violence of those in power. I did not see many of the hegemonic group come to demonstrate with us; a few, but not many. Those who weren’t suffering with us did not shed a tear for our pain, and did not come to comfort us.

When neighbors avert their eyes as if they don’t see the injustices inflicted on another group, those in power realize that they can carry on oppressing that group, striking us mercilessly. Only when other people stand up against the violence caused to another do those in power realize that they can’t keep oppressing them.

In recent weeks, with Yom Hashoah, Remembrance Day, and Independence Day, we’ve heard an awful lot of the slogan “the nation of Israel lives.” Well I want to say: the nation of Israel lives in la-la land. The nation of Israel does not see the oppression of millions of Palestinians who live here. Does that not bother anyone celebrating with that slogan? There is another people living here.

I want to request that we change our language standards, because this has an influence. In our national anthem, we sing: “A Jewish soul yearns.” Why not “A human soul yearns?” You have the Psalms, the Bible, the prayer book — no one is asking you to change a word from there. But we are talking about a country that has other citizens, not just Jews. And when the language is nationalistic all the time, it loses my trust as a citizen.

I support this place and want my children to be happy, but I don’t support nationalism. In the shadow of the days of remembrance for the Holocaust and those killed in Israel’s wars, we don’t stop pummeling each other. By force of habit, violence has engulfed us, as if it were a birth defect that cannot be cured.

Seventy-five years of a country which, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, is committed to patience and tolerance, freedom of religion and worship, and human rights regardless of religion, race, and gender — supposedly a “democracy.” But what actually happened after David Ben-Gurion and the others signed the Declaration?

Jews from the Muslim world were dispersed to the borderlands. The Palestinians who remained within the state’s borders were placed under martial law. In the Knesset there was a selective democracy: without Herut [the predecessor to the Likud party] and without the Israeli Communist Party [supported by many Palestinian citizens]. In the new state’s society, the top priority was given to those who belonged to Ben-Gurion’s Mapai party, and a form of apartheid and oppression was created with the help of a legal system beholden to the government.

Over the following years, there were Mizrahi uprisings: in Haifa’s Wadi Salib in 1959, and the Black Panthers in 1971, a heroic struggle of young people from Jerusalem’s Musrara neighborhood. In 1977, the predominantly-Mizrahi development towns and neighborhoods voted en masse for Likud, creating a revolution. Menachem Begin became prime minister, and what did the Development Towns and neighborhoods receive in return? Contempt, disdain, and condescension. One side strikes us with whips, and the other with scorpions.

Let us come back to the word “democracy.” Every day, journalists bring us statistics about racism and growing antisemitism in the United States, our good friend. But I haven’t heard of any study done, or any journalist who decided to talk about racism here, within Israeli society. So in our renewed pursuit of democracy, I want to request that we find a medicine to cure the evil disease that Israeli society has contracted: racism toward Mizrahim, Ethiopians, and Arabs.

In the Jewish texts it is written: “Rebuke your fellow man, so that you will not bear sin on account of him.” If you reprimand someone strong for hurting someone weak, do not fear, you will not sin by doing so, nor will you pay a price for it.

On the other hand, if the hegemonic group averts its gaze from injustice when I am beaten, or Ethiopians are beaten, or Palestinians are beaten; when we are humiliated, starved, and members of the powerful group see that we in the oppressed groups are excluded from their schools and their universities, you have to ask yourselves why this is happening.

So here is an opportunity today to change that, and to give new meaning to the word that is being shouted without always being fully understood: “democracy.” That way, we can tell future generations how hard we worked to bring about true democracy here.

Reuven Abergel has been a social and political activist in Israel/Palestine for more than 50 years. After co-founding the Israeli Black Panthers, Abergel participated in numerous movements for social and political justice in Israel-Palestine, including the Peripheries Bloc of the 2011 social uprisings in Israel, as well as the Tarabut movement, which links social and political struggles in Israel; he lives in Jerusalem.