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A conversation with Ayala Sabag, Black Panther

by simone September 07 2008

Black Panther Tours

Social activist and Israeli Black Pantheress Ayala Sabag was born in Jerusalem's Musrara neighborhood, in the same house where the Israeli Black Panthers got their start. (Ayala's late brother, Sa’adia Martziano, was one of the movement's founders). Sabag continues to fight on the frontlines of the Mizrahi struggle, recently reviving the Israeli Black Panther movement, placing it once again on Israel's political radar. Sabag also fights for social equality for women and worked with Eli Yishai to defeat the Wisconsin Plan. Last year, as part of her work with the homeless, she helped to house 30 families. Because of her activism, Sabag has found it hard to find employment, but she remains committed to the cause, which has become an inseparable part of her life.

Was the Black Panthers a name you chose for yourself, or was it a name that came from the outside which you then adopted as your own? What considerations went into accepting the name, and what are some of the good and bad aspects of having aligned yourselves with the militant African American struggle? Sa'adia Martziano chose the name Black Panthers. In 1971, Angela Davis, one of the American Black Panthers, came to visit Israel where she met up with my brother, who then adopted the name. The inspiration behind the American Black Panthers was Kunta Kinte – they didn't want to be slaves any more, and they had to use violence because no one was listening to them. They were fighting for their lives. They had no choice. But it was a bad scene [in the United States] in the 1970s. It was a bad scene here too. Mizrahi immigrants were separated from their families, and they weren't sent to ulpan. These are people who kissed the ground when they came to Israel, only to be abused by the government. Is this how we reward Zionists? Ayala Sabag

The movement has changed since the 1970s though. We are not violent anymore. The time has come to move beyond violence. We need to talk face to face. We do sometimes encounter problems because of our name, but we are no longer violent. We use Torah, we use respect. When the Israeli Black Panthers first began, most of the movement's members were male. Now I'm in charge of the Israeli Black Panthers, and I am fighting for women's place in the movement. Respectful treatment is not a privilege. It's a right.

What are some of your personal memories of clashes with the police from the spring of 1971? We clashed with the police from 1971 through 1973. But I remember violence even before that. I remember violence directed at my parents; my brothers were constantly being stopped by the police. When the Black Panther movement began, we would just show up at a protest and already the police would be upon us. Even Golda Meir said "The Black Panthers are not nice people." She said this before we even did anything.

When the Panthers entered the arena, immigrants from Arab lands were unfairly perceived by the Ashekenazi establishment as brutish and unruly. Would you say that you basically fought fire with fire, and did it work? There is some truth to this claim. They said we're a certain way and we turned this perception on its head. But on the other hand, the establishment used violence and force against us, and we responded in kind. I think our strategy worked. The Panther movement helped begin the process of raising Mizrahi social status and creating some level of equality between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim. I'm happy to to say that today, there aren't problems between Ashkenazim and Mizrachim. My struggle today is the impoverished - not just the impoverished Mizrahim. Today I want to fight for all those who need help, for all those whom society has forgotten.

How has Jerusalem's cultural landscape changed since the formation of the Black Panthers in the early 1970s? When I was child there were no Mizrahi songs were on the radio. The radio stations didn't even want to play Zohar Argov until he died. Today, the scene is very different. There are a lot of Mizrahi singers and lots of Mizrahi music on both radio and television. The Black Panthers started this. We organized concerts for Mizrahi singers and put them on the cultural map. Today, you still have people who don't like Mizrahi music. We have Ashkenazi neighbors here who don't like when we put our Mizrahi music on radio, but I also know Ashkenazim that listen not only to Mizrahi music - they listen to actual Arabic language stations.

I think culture has a lot of power. I think that culture and music have the power to change society and bring peace. I think culture can link Ashkenazim and Mizrahim. In fact, I'm in the midst of working on a plan now to put together a cross-cultural show at Binyanei Hauma. I want to have a Moroccan oud player, a Kurdi zorna player, an Ashkenazi musician, an Arab musician - basically musicians from all different backgrounds playing their traditional instruments, but playing them all together in one band. Especially in Jerusalem, I think cultural events like this carry a lot of power.

With its many different cultural groups all in one tight, picturesque space, Musrara is a microcosm unto itself. In what ways is the neighborhood today emblematic of the issues and trends of the entire country? Something very special happened in Musrara in the 1970s, when the Black Panther movement formed. Nothing like that had ever happened before - there was no precedent for a social movement like this. Today, there's a new, negative trend happening in Musrara, and it's not just in Musrara - it's happening in neighborhoods aBlack Panther Tours in Musraracross Jerusalem. People came from North African countries and settled these neighborhoods, neighborhoods which were on the borderline before the 1967 war. These immigrants fought against the Jordan Legion and defended Jerusalem's more central neighborhoods, and now Ango Saxons are coming in and displacing the North African families who have strong roots in these places.

Even the music school in Musrara, the Naggar School, is a really nice school, but who goes there? Children of privilege. It's my music that they're playing, Mizrahi music, but it's not my children. Children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds who may be able to play music can't get in there because they couldn't afford all the private tutoring and lessons these wealthy children had. There are neighborhoods in Jerusalem where people don't even have food to eat. There's no way these families are going to be paying for music lessons. These sort of cultural things should be provided for free by the schools. There should be music classes and bands in all of Jerusalem's schools.

How are the Jerusalem Black Panther tours opening people's eyes? What spots on the tour resonate with people as the most poignant? The spots that people seem to find the most poignant are the wall that was built between Musrara and the Old City and places with a personal connection, like my house and my parents' house - places where the Panthers have strong roots but that were bought out from us.

Photos of Ayala Sabag leading a Black Panther Tour (top), and photo of the Black Panther tour of Musrara (bottom) courtesy of Rotem Mor; photo of Ayala Sabag (middle) at last year's housing protests courtesy of Baubauing No More.  

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