Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Charlie Biton, Israeli Black Panthers founder and long-time Hadash MP, dies at 76

Charlie Biton, former Hadash member of Knesset for more than 15 years and one of the founders of the Mizrachi protest movement Black Panthers, died on Saturday evening, February 24, aged 76. He was the first Israeli MP who met the historic leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), Yasser Arafat, in 1980. 

Biton founded the Israeli Black Panthers in 1971 in response to class and ethnic discrimination faced by Israelis of Middle Eastern and North African descent.

Biton was born in Casablanca, Morocco, in 1947 and immigrated to Israel with his family when he was 2 years old. He grew up with six siblings on Jerusalem’s pre-1967 border in the impoverished neighborhood of Musrara, which was then home to hundreds of North African and Iraqi Jewish families. Life in Musrara entailed cramped living spaces, rampant unemployment and a direly underequipped education system. On top of economic destitution, explosives planted along the hostile Israel-Jordan border and occasional gunfire from Jordanian sharpshooters meant that residents lived in constant tension.

The Panthers attempted to hold their first demonstration on March 3, 1971, outside Jerusalem’s City Hall. When they requested a permit for the protest, the police not only denied them the permit, but carried out preventative arrests of the young leaders, taking Biton and 16 others into custody. In May 1971, the Black Panthers led a rally with an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 people that began in Jerusalem’s Davidka Square and proceeded toward Zion Square. Clashes broke out between protesters and the police, and about 70 people were arrested.

Biton served in the Knesset with Hadash from 1977 to 1990, when he split from the list, serving for two years as an MK for the Black Panther faction he founded. In 1992, he ran on a list he named Hatikvah, but fell far below the threshold and lost his seat. He frequently made use of gimmicks in the Knesset to illustrate his points and capture the public’s attention. During one of his speeches, he turned to face the wall, claiming that no one was listening to him anyway. In another instance, he chained himself to the Knesset podium.

In September 1980, Biton and Tawfik Toubi were the first MKs to meet publicly with the leaders of the PLO, including Yasser Arafat. They met in Bulgaria, and Biton said he had a mandate from his constituents to seek peace. In 1987, Biton led an Israeli delegation to Budapest, where he met with Fatah’s Mahmoud Abbas, the current president of the Palestinian Authority. Government officials issued statements decrying the move and arguing for the revocation of his parliamentary immunity.

After losing his spot in the Knesset, Biton slowly drifted away from politics, though at times lent his support to various Israeli social movements over the next few years. When Israel erupted into nationwide protests in 2011 over the steepening cost of living, Biton joined one of the largest demonstrations that year.