Saadia Marciano: Founder of Israel's Black Panthers

Saadia Marciano, social activist and politician: born Oujda, Morocco 1 May 1950; married Vicky Tarabulus (one son); died Jerusalem 21 December 2007

Saadia Marciano was one of the founders of the Israeli Black Panthers, a band of young North African immigrants who thrust the grievances of their under-privileged community on to the national agenda in the early 1970s and forced successive governments to treat the Mizrachim (orientals) as subjects not objects.

The Zionist establishment was thrown by the challenge. Golda Meir, the Labour prime minister who briefly put some of them in prison, said after meeting a delegation that they were "not nice people". Teddy Kollek, the mayor of Jerusalem, bellowed at them to "get off my lawn, you bastards" when they demonstrated outside the town hall. Marciano was hailed as the "face of the Black Panthers" after he was given a black eye by the police.

Although the movement fragmented and petered out after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, it marked the beginning of the end of deference on one side and patronising on the other. To the dismay of some of the Panthers, it paved the way for Menachem Begin's right-wing Likud to win the 1977 general election and for the emergence of Shas, a backward-looking religious party, as the voice of Sephardi emancipation.

The young rebels took the American Black Panthers as their model. Marciano said: "Either the cake will be shared by all or there will be no cake." But the Israeli Panthers were more Robin Hood than Eldridge Cleaver, more violent in their rhetoric than their deeds.

Early one morning in March 1972, they stole bottles of milk from the doorsteps of the middle-class Jerusalem suburb of Rehavia and delivered them to those of the poor with a label reading: "The children in the poverty stricken neighbourhoods do not find the milk they need on their doorstep every morning. In contrast, there are cats and dogs in rich neighborhoods that get plenty of milk, day in, day out."

Although the Panthers allied themselves with the radical left, their aim was to shock the Ashkenazi elite rather than overthrow it. Kochavi Shemesh, another Panther leader, said on the 30th anniversary: "Saadia came up with the name Black Panthers. The idea was to frighten Golda. She said that this name wouldn't let her sleep. That was what we wanted. With this name, we changed the discourse between the social movements and the establishment."

Saadia Marciano was born in the Moroccan town of Oujda in 1950. His family moved to Jerusalem later that year. He grew up in the impoverished Musrara neighbourhood on the border between the Jewish and Arab parts of the city.

After the collapse of the Black Panthers, he continued to campaign for social equality and ran a rehabilitation centre for drug addicts. In a brief, but unhappy, foray into electoral politics, he joined Sheli, a small left-wing party, and was elected to the Knesset in May 1980. He soon broke away to form his own Equality in Israel-Panthers, but resigned from parliament in June 1981.

Other activists lamented that he was stuck in his past, that he failed to acknowledge the revolution that he himself had helped bring about. Anat Hoffman, a former left-wing member of the Jerusalem city council, said: "He retained his bitterness and the rhetoric, but not the compassion. Every Ashkenazi was guilty, every Mizrachi was innocent. That made him less effective as a social activist."

Eric Silver

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