What's 'panther' in Russian?
Charlie Bitton is 60, but when he talks about his new protest movement, he sounds like a panther. That's right, the Black Panthers are returning, says the man who gave life to that mythical social movement, and then joined the establishment and became a Hadash MK from 1988 to 1992. Bitton says the movement's mission has remained unchanged - social justice.
Only the human makeup of the movement will be different, and because of this, it will have a new name. This time, the struggle against the establishment will not be along ethnic lines, and it will include not only North African immigrants and their descendants. In addition to mizrahim (immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East), the movement already has more than 200 activists from the former Soviet Union, as well as some from Ethiopia. Bitton says the movement's door will be open to everyone who has been wronged, including Arabs. He promises "a major social broohaha."
Once they finish drafting their political platform, they will launch their Web site and register the organization. Bitton and his colleagues, who include Tel Aviv lawyer Alex Margolyne and Jerusalem-based theater director Vladimir Tentzer, promise to present publicly the organization's hundreds of activists.
The two immigrants from the former Soviet Union say they have become enamored with the "Moroccan" panther, and convinced him to relive his youth. Tentzer met Bitton during a demonstration by immigrant artists this spring, and since then, they have been enlarging their circle of contacts, which now includes members of the Toda'a Hevratit (social consciousness) movement.
Margolyne, who was a parliamentary assistant for Roman Bronfman's Democratic Choice faction, says the group's common denominator is the will to unite forces in order to integrate Israeli society. He says their meetings include a few people who are disappointed with Yisrael Beiteinu.
Thirty-five years ago, Bitton and his Black Panther friends carried out a Robin Hood-style night raid. They took the milk bottles meant for the neighborhood of Rehavia, and distributed them in the tin-hut neighborhood of Kiryat Hayovel. On the bottle stickers they wrote: "Operation milk for the poor neighborhood children. These children do not receive the milk they need every morning. Unlike them, there are dogs and cats in rich neighborhoods that have plenty of milk every day." In June 1974, Bitton was sentenced to seven months in prison for assaulting a policeman, and went underground when the president refused to pardon him.
This time around, he is not planning any naughty tricks, like those that won the panthers the title "not nice" from prime minister Golda Meir. This time he will go to the streets, hand in hand, with academics, workers, artists and political activists. Margolyne says that it is still early to talk about a party that will run for the Knesset, but that it is an option.
Bitton declared the government of Israel "our No. 1 enemy." Shas - the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox movement, with its own social agenda - comes second.
"They are the obstacle that blocked the social development of the mizrahi communities," Bitton says. "We will target them, and we will expose them as frauds," he adds.
Instead of giving out food packages to the needy, and lowering the cost of plain bread by a few shekels, the new movement will focus on narrowing the enormous gap between wealthy and poor, and will work on reclaiming the lost honor of construction workers. "I am a pensioner," the energetic panther says, "but people told me that I had already cashed in their support checks, and that now I need to pay my dues."