Forgotten in the Promised Land

Sometime in the early 1970s, an outcast ethnic-minority posse of youths rose to fulminate against their country’s barren promise of colour-blind opportunity for all. Seamlessly blending political activism with social programs to uplift their community’s lot, these militants dodged the draft and denounced the nation’s militaristic culture for distracting away from the domestic iniquities of police abuse and de facto segregation. When given the chance, some of them ran for office on an avowedly Marxist platform, either merged into the wider left or as a standalone party. Yet due to their past record of petty criminality and their refusal to rule out armed struggle, they were soon enough vilified by the press and the wider public. Upon being infiltrated and spied upon by the government, they ultimately disbanded. If you’re thinking “Black Panthers,” your guess is only nominally right.

Coeval with—and largely modelled after—Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton’s namesake American party born in 1966 in Oakland, the lesser-known Israeli Black Panthers were a more diffuse yet longer-lived platform through which Mizrahi (Hebrew for “Oriental”) Jews fought discrimination of various kinds that was inflicted by the country’s Ashkenazi majority. Founded by second-generation high-school dropouts from Morocco, ages 18-20, who had done time in juvenile jails, the movement launched early in 1971 out of Musrara. This neighbourhood north of Jerusalem’s Old City had gone from being a wealthy Arab quarter prior to the 1948-49 War of Independence to being a neglected, mine-sown no-man’s land on Israel’s border with the Jordan-occupied West Bank. Thousands of Mizrahi Jews fleeing the rising antisemitism across the Arab world settled there throughout the 1950s and ’60s. 

When Israel moved to reunify the city on the heels of victory in the 1967 Six-Day War, Musrara, once peripherally bordering the Jordanian side, suddenly became a central nexus connecting the Jewish and Arab-dominated halves of the Holy City. Seizing on this spatial reordering, the Israeli government had sought to resettle several thousand Soviet Jews to planned high-rises in Musrara, which would have involved displacing the Mizrahi locals. Initially set up as an activist outlet to oppose the government’s plan, the Panthers soon became a wider platform channelling the Mizrahi community’s every grievance, from police abuse and racial profiling to poverty rates and inequality—and everything in between.

The movement’s shows of force ranged from gathering a few hundred people against the Musrara redevelopment plan in front of Jerusalem’s City Hall in early March 1971, to rallying several thousand in the so-called “Night of the Black Panthers” in May that year—neither authorized by police, and both proceeding despite the government’s efforts to placate the demonstrators by committing vast sums money to underserved neighbourhoods. Several weeks before the latter, then-Prime Minister Golda Meir had famously labelled the movement to the press as “not nice people.” This image of the Panthers as a gang of outlaws was noticeably reinforced by the several hours of clashes with police throughout the day-long march, the three Molotov cocktails hurled at them towards the end, and the more than 100 arrests made overall. Yet in the days following the Night of the Black Panthers, Meir’s government felt forced to heed the movement’s claims, setting up an independent committee and assigning even higher sums to social programs. In the 1973 elections, the Panthers won over 13,000 votes but fell just short of the 1% threshold for entering the Knesset. Four years later, the movement’s first MP, Charlie Biton, ran on the list of Hadash—a far-left anti-Zionist coalition that exists to this day—and was re-elected three times before establishing the Panthers as an independent group in 1990. Other Panthers remained active politically also, beating a steady drum about Mizrahi rights throughout the 1970s and ’80s.

Among the Panthers’ top brass was—not to be confused with Biton—Charlie Boganim, the father of 45-year-old filmmaker Michale Boganim, whose latest title premiered earlier this year at the Venice Days and was released this month in France. The Forgotten Ones (2022) at once surveys the status of Israel’s Mizrahi Jews across three generations, whilst also recounting the Boganim family’s experience of that status in each of those generations, from that of Michale’s father—who left for Morocco in the 1980s before returning to Haifa ahead of Michale’s birth—to her own life and that of her teenage daughter. 

The filmmaker goes about this part memoir, part documentary not without a tinge of wokery. From Boganim’s film emerges a one-sided portrait of Israel as a society in pathological thrall to a form of systemic racism that places brown-skinned Jews at the bottom of the pecking order in schooling, the labour market, housing, the culture and beyond. Boganim is zealous to expose the certainly jarring—but even then, marginal—persistence of socio-economic disparities between the declining share of Israel descended from Europe and its rising share originating in the Arab world and Africa, each estimated respectively at around 30-70% of Israel’s total as of this writing. In doing so, she altogether omits the remarkable progress experienced, on the whole, by the country’s Oriental Jewry over the past five decades. Granted, gaps do persist, but by the end of the 20th century the Mizrahim had nearly caught up with the Ashkenazim in rates of small business formation, wealth, homeownership, and university enrolment.

According to the Adva Center, a non-partisan think-tank, whilst by 2015 Israeli-born Ashkenazis had incomes 31% above average, their Mizrahim counterparts were also above average by 14%, whilst the more recent arrivals of Soviet Jewry netted close to average, Arabs earned two-thirds, and Ethiopians barely half. Whatever lingering forms of discrimination do endure are unlikely to directly affect Boganim, anyhow. The filmmaker grew up in France and descends, on her mother’s side, from Ukrainian Jews.

Indeed, while Boganim’s documentary seems to suggest—contra the combined evidence of her mixed background and the success of her movies—that Mizrahi Jews endure some sort of apartheid, the reality is that they’ve become an indisputable presence, on equal terms with the country’s white minority, across politics, culture, the arts, and the bourgeoisie—including through films like this one. Intra-Jewish discrimination by government, individuals, or companies is so rare as to be swiftly exposed whenever it happens. When, for instance, Ethiopian youth Jajaw Bimro had yelled at him, “go back to Africa!” following a Passover night brawl in 2012, Israel’s police oversight body was made to pay him the equivalent of $2,851 when its investigation was found lacking by the Justice Ministry. This is a far cry from the period between 1948 and the early 1970s, when 850,000 Jews fleeing the rising tide of antisemitism sweeping across the Arab world were met in Israel with a less than munificent welcome. 

Boganim’s father himself arrived from Morocco “with the hope,” she recounts in the documentary, “that all Jews would be brothers on the promised land.” That land, however, was governed by the same political establishment that had advocated for Jewish sovereignty under the rule of the Ottomans and the British, and that establishment was almost exclusively European. Mizrahi Jews, in Boganim’s tale, are to Zionism what blacks are to America’s Founding in Nikole Hannah-Jones’ 1619 project—a token of diversity on paper, yet an underclass in practice. Boganim highlights that upon arriving to Haifa’s harbour, the Jewish Agency’s staff met Mizrahi immigrants with a spray of DDT, fearing that they carried transmittable diseases. These immigrants often fared no better in jobs, where many an eminent family was demoted to mere subsistence for its inability to translate home-obtained qualifications to the Israeli job market. Boganim also interviews an orthodox rabbi who helped uncover a case of de facto segregation at a local school, where Mizrahi pupils were kept apart from their white classmates and made to wear a different uniform.

These immigrants were also often simply deluded as to the future that awaited them in Israel. Boganim interviews elder migrants who daydreamt of Jerusalem but were instead crammed into buses and ferried to so-called “development towns” (euphemism for “social housing”) in the middle of the Negev desert—places like Yeruham, Ashkelon, Ashdod—or, worse still, sent to resettle in the empty homes of Palestinian families who had fled in the Nakba. Although the film barely touches upon the Palestinian question, one is left with the impression that Mizrahi Jews lie, in the minds of the Ashkenazi bourgeoisie, at the bottom of the hierarchy along with Palestinians. 

The Israeli government’s disregard for the welfare of Mizrahi immigrants went a lot further, too. Boganim interviews a group of Yemenite elder women who are among the self-professed victims of the so-called Yemenite child affair. Upon being airlifted to Israel with American and British support and housed temporarily in refugee camps as part of the so-called Operation Magic Carpet, women like these and their families allege—and these allegations number between 1,000 and 5,000 cases between 1948 and 1954—that their children were stolen from them by Israeli authorities, likely to give them up for adoption to families of Holocaust survivors. As part of his government’s move to reckon with the abductions scandal, then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the issue in 2018 as “an open wound that continues to bleed.” Yet the political leanings of Mizrahi Jews—most of whom vote for secular right-wing parties like Netanyahu’s Likud or the religiously orthodox Shas party—are mostly overlooked in Boganim’s documentary.

The documentary, on the whole, seems purposed to recount past instances of prejudice and discrimination with the ultimate aim of painting a gloomy picture of Israeli society in the present. That picture of Israel as an evil, systemically racist, and oppressive state has more often been painted by the borderline anti-Semitic Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign in the context of the Palestinian question, but these two distinct narratives echo one another in that the brown-skinned—whether Jewish or Arab—are the purported victims of this “apartheid.” Those instances may well be jarring and certainly too frequent, but they shouldn’t obscure the story that Boganim altogether omits: Mizrahi Jews are now thriving in Israel. Though their high-rise development buildings in the cracked desert soil should remind us of the difficult journey from being refugees out of the Arab world to becoming first-class Israeli citizens, the restless activism of the Black Panthers has outlived its purpose. The country strives—and by most accounts, succeeds—to live up to the ideals of a colour-blind democracy, but is consistently portrayed in woke discourse as somehow racist. In this respect, Israel is not unlike the U.S.A.

Jorge González-Gallarza (@JorgeGGallarza) is the co-host of the “Uncommon Decency” podcast on Europe (@UnDecencyPod) and an associate researcher at Fundación Civismo (Madrid).