In Hebrew, the Wadi Salib riots are not called riots. In fact, the series of violent disturbances, demonstrations and numerous acts of vandalism that occurred in July 1959 in the Haifa neighborhood of Wadi Salib are simply called “the events of Wadi Salib.” True, this could be a euphemism, just Israelis falling into their familiar habit of papering over nasty things, or it could be something else: It could be that the events of Wadi Salib, brief as they may have been, were so powerful and so meaningful that to dismiss them merely as “riots” would be wrong.

The events started in the formerly Arab neighborhood of Wadi Salib. During Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, the Arab residents of Wadi Salib deserted their homes. After the war, the government placed newly arrived Jewish immigrants, mostly from North African countries, in the derelict houses the Arabs had left behind. The residents of Wadi Salib were largely unemployed and the neighborhood suffered from poverty, neglect and crime, a victim of the Ashkenazi establishment’s discrimination against the Mizrahi Jews from North Africa and the Middle East, whom they viewed as their inferiors.

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Years of pent-up rage finally blew up on that July 9, after the shooting of a Wadi Salib resident called Yaakov Elkarif. Known as a local drunk, Elkarif had been acting wildly, throwing empty liquor bottles at the policemen who had come to arrest him. From that point on there are conflicting testimonies about what exactly transpired – some say Elkarif provoked the cops, some say he did not – but in any case, he was shot and seriously wounded.

Residents of Wadi Salib, who saw the shooting as yet another act of arrogance by the establishment, reacted with violence. The next day, in the wake of rumors - that were later disproved - that Elkarif had died of his wounds, hundreds demonstrated outside the local police station. A few hours later, the demonstrations developed into full-scale riots, with protesters throwing rocks at the police and blocking roads on their way to Haifa’s wealthier Carmel neighborhood, where they torched cars and looted local shops. The police tried to disperse them, even by violent means, but to no avail. On July 11, riots broke out in other cities and towns with large Mizrahi populations, including Tiberias and Be’er Sheva.

As the first act of rebellion in the life of the young country, the events of Wadi Salib shook Israel to its very core. The country was only 11 years old then, but still, the riots disturbed a status quo that many Israelis felt had already been set in stone.
The events of Wadi Salib were the template on which every civil protest in Israel was based for many years to come, largely because many of the problems that triggered the uproar – like discrimination against Mizrahi Jews and development towns in Israel’s south – were not solved. Indeed, some remain unsolved to this day.

For better or for worse, Israel’s only civil protests until 2011 were much like the Wadi Salib events. They were limited to poor Mizrahim and had little effect on the overall population. But that changed with the social justice protests of 2011 that were led by middle-class 20-somethings with their tent encampments, huge rallies and an unabashed element of fun. This represented a new form of protest, very different from the violent, bitter anger that prompted the events of Wadi Salib. This shift, seen by many Mizrahim as an attempt by privileged Ashkenazi kids to hijack their “field,” contributed to the bitter arguments that eventually brought the 2011 protests to an end.

Still, it is not hard to imagine many of today’s demonstrators agreeing with the demands of the Wadi Salib protesters, as articulated by one of their leaders, David Ben Harosh, while he was in jail: Individual freedom, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, an end to discrimination, free high school education for gifted students, ensuring that every person has the means to support himself and eradication of poverty. Some 53 years after the fact, that message is still frighteningly relevant.