Charlie Biton, Black Panther founder who fought for Mizrahi equality, dies at 76

With others from his working-class Jerusalem neighborhood, the activist and Knesset member shook up a country that had for years discriminated against non-European Jews

Israeli Black Panthers founder Charlie Biton as a Knesset member for the mostly Arab left-wing Hadash Party on December 22, 1988. (Ayalon Maggi/GPO)
Israeli Black Panthers founder Charlie Biton as a Knesset member for the mostly Arab left-wing Hadash Party on December 22, 1988. (Ayalon Maggi/GPO)

Charlie Biton, a founder of the Israeli Black Panther movement who helped bring Mizrahi Jews’ struggle for equality to the forefront of Israel’s political agenda, died Saturday night at the age of 76.

As a radical activist and later a Knesset member, Biton was the face of a movement that forced a national reckoning starting in the 1970s on long-entrenched discrimination against Jews of North African and Middle Eastern extraction, pushing the government to address pervasive economic inequality and disenfranchisement in politics, academia and other walks of life at the hands of the country’s Ashkenazi European elite.

Biton lived in the Jerusalem suburb of Mevasseret Zion at the time of his passing. He is survived by a wife, children and grandchildren.

No cause of death was announced, but Biton’s health had deteriorated steadily since 2021, when he suffered complications from a botched neck surgery that burst one of his blood vessels.

Though Biton’s Black Panthers never mobilized enough support to succeed electorally, many credit the movement with paving the way for the success of future Sephardi and Mizrahi political organizing, in particular the ultra-Orthodox Shas party.

“The establishment was awoken,” said Yisrael Katz, a Labor party minister who served with Biton in the Knesset. “This business that had been under the table rose to be on the table.”

The Black Panthers party ran for Knesset in 1973 but failed to cross the electoral threshold. Biton finally entered the Knesset in 1977, the same election that saw the Mizrahi-backed Likud sweep into power and transform Israel’s political landscape after decades of Mapai hegemony, though he was voted in with the far-left Arab-Jewish Hadash party, winning a seat he would hold for over a decade.

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.

Charlie Biton, second from left, demonstrates with other Black Panthers at a May Day rally on Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Street on May 5, 1973. (Moshe Milner/GPO)

Following the 1967 Six Day War and Israel’s capture of East Jerusalem, neighborhood residents suddenly found themselves living in the center of the city rather than its frontier, surrounded by rapid construction of  Jewish neighborhoods in the east as the government poured money into new developments while continuing to neglect Mizrahi neighborhoods.

It was in this milieu that Biton and other neighborhood youth banded together to form the Black Panthers. They borrowed the name from the American Black Panthers as a provocation, hoping to command the government’s attention by linking the Mizrahi struggle to that of Black Americans. They adopted the name of a group then at the forefront of radical racial politics in the US, though their ideological ties with the Black Panthers of Bobby Seale and Huey Newton were nebulous.

“We were 17-year-old boys who rose up against oppression, we didn’t even know who the oppressors were, and how they were doing it,” he said in a documentary interview in 2003. “Only through the struggle did we begin to see what’s happening with us, who is stepping on us and why they do so.”

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.

“All we asked was for a permit to demonstrate. In return they arrested us one by one. They plucked us from bed and kept us in jail,” recalled Biton.

At the designated time of the protest, around 300 people showed up at City Hall in the jailed activists’ stead. The arrests and demonstration received news coverage which the Panthers seized on when released from jail, leveraging their newfound media attention to pressure prime minister Golda Meir into meeting with them.

Charlie Biton during May Day demonstration in Tel Aviv on May 1, 1977. (Saar Yaacov/GPO)

In addition to rallies, Biton hatched a number of Robin Hood-style plans to redistribute basic necessities to Jerusalem’s poorer neighborhoods.

The most famous of these schemes, Operation Milk, played out in March 1972 when, in the dead of night, the Panthers, led by Biton, roamed through Jerusalem’s upscale Rehavia neighborhood and took milk bottles from doorsteps to distribute to lower-class residents of the Beit Mamzil transit camp in Jerusalem’s Kiryat Hayovel area.

On the Rehavia doorsteps, activists left fliers that read: “Operation Milk: for the children of poor neighborhoods. These children do not find the milk they need next to the door each morning. On the other hand, some dogs and cats in the rich neighborhoods have milk every day in plentitude.”

“I hope they weren’t offended, but I’m not so sure,” Biton joked in retrospect about the plan.

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.

Biton 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.

A staunch leftist, Biton was also one of the first Israeli politicians to meet with PLO chairman Yasser Arafat. When the two first met in 1980, government officials issued statements decrying the move and arguing for the revocation of his parliamentary immunity.

Charlie Biton (L), meets with fellow peace activist Latif Dori on June 14, 1987. (Sven NACKSTRAND / AFP)

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, praising Daphni Leef, a leading activist in the movement.

“We can be proud of the fact that an Ashkenazi girl set up a camp in Tel Aviv and that this struggle has become everyone’s, not just that of Mizrahim,” he said about Leef.

Today, Israeli politicians of varying political persuasions remember Biton as a force for equality in Israel.

Shas chairman Aryeh Deri called Biton a longtime friend, sending condolences to his family and noting that “he inspired everyone in his social struggles.”

“Charlie didn’t just pursue justice — he was justice,” wrote war cabinet minister Benny Gantz on X, formerly Twitter. “Even when he encountered enormous difficulties, he never stopped fighting for a more just and equal Israeli society… The protest he led for disadvantaged communities is a milestone in the history of the State of Israel.”

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