When American video artist David Cort arrived in Jerusalem in late 1971, he was surprised to learn of a local Black Panther group in the city.
He was well aware of the U.S. Black Panther Party, having interviewed Fred Hampton, the leader of its Illinois branch, just a month before law enforcement officials stormed his Chicago apartment and shot him dead in December 1969. Perhaps adding to his surprise was Cort’s realization that Israel’s Black Panthers were not what Americans would term “black.”
He had been sent to the Holy Land to shoot a film on behalf of the Hadassah Foundation, the hidebound women’s organization that presumably wanted footage of the city that would showcase its numerous charitable works for an upcoming exhibition marking its 60th anniversary.
If so, it chose the wrong man for the job: Cort was known as a guerrilla filmmaker, part of the video underground and an activist collective known as Videofreex. He had filmed at Woodstock and interviewed 1960s icon Abbie Hoffman. Cort specialized in capturing the countercultural zeitgeist, not corporate videos.
The Black Panthers Cort met in Israel were Jewish immigrants, or the children of immigrants, living in the slums of Jerusalem, hailing from places such as Morocco, Kurdistan and Iraq. In this city, they were seen as black and they identified as such.
They had spent their lives derogatorily being referred to as schvartze chaya (Yiddish for “black animal”). Now, though, inspired by the American movement of the same name, they had assembled under the Black Panther banner of the clenched fist, reclaiming the epithet that had been leveled at them by condescending Ashkenazim (Jews of Eastern European origin).
Inspired by the American movement, Israel’s Black Panthers had formed in early 1971 in response to the discrimination and marginalization experienced by Mizrahi Jews in Israel. In April 1971, then-Prime Minister Golda Meir met the group and famously described its leaders – including Reuven Abergel, Saadia Marciano and David Levy – as “not nice boys.” The group was a thorn in the Labor Party’s side for several years, eventually fading away when the right-wing Likud party gained power, for the first time, in 1977. But the Panthers have remained an inspiration to successive generations of Mizrahi activists.
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In the spring of 1972, the Jewish Museum in New York City screened Cort’s footage – all 12 hours of it – as part of an exhibition titled “The Word from Jerusalem.” Its curator, Allon Schoener, recalls that, unsurprisingly, the exhibition received a mixed response from the Hadassah staff who had commissioned it.
Other than a positive story on the front page of the Village Voice, the exhibition drew little media attention and Cort’s footage was then stored away in closets and attics, going largely unwatched for the next four decades.
It may have remained hidden but for the efforts of a modern Chicago archive called the Video Data Bank, which has just completed a mammoth 18-year project to digitize the Videofreex oeuvre and make it accessible to the wider public.
The discovery of the so-called Jerusalem Tapes was made by Bryan K. Roby, a historian at the University of Michigan who specializes in uncovering the forgotten history of the Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern or North African origin) in the 20th century.
Roby heard about Cort’s tapes by chance a few years ago and says he “begged” the Video Data Bank to digitize the tapes. Part of that desire was the fact that most of the documentation about the movement in Israel is newspaper cuttings and government records, not archival footage.
The Jerusalem Tapes actually cover a lot of ground, including an interview with then-Mayor Teddy Kollek; an archaeological excavation near the Western Wall, a gruesome scene from a slaughterhouse; and dozens of other fascinating encounters.
But the standout footage is the Black Panthers, with whom Cort spent several long days. It starts with Cort and his film crew sauntering through the tight alleyways of Jerusalem’s Nahlaot neighborhood, home to poor Kurdish-Jewish families and some university students living in one- and two-story housing.
His guide is Moshe Amuyal, an introspective, Israeli Black Panther activist with long sideburns and an Elvis hairstyle. A tall Ashkenazi teenager, Meir “Pink” Wigoder, provides English translations in-between taking drags on his cigarette.
Amuyal flags down a passerby on the cobblestone street and asks him what he does for a living.
“I’m a street cleaner,” the middle-aged man replies.
“How much do you make?”
“What does it matter?”
“We’re just conducting a survey. How many in your household?”
“How are you managing?”
“We manage more or less.”
Next, the group barges into a small home where an old Mizrahi woman lives. Her face marked by wrinkles and her head covered with a scarf, she asks, “Min bidak? Min bidak?” (Arabic for “Who are you looking for?”) Seemingly embarrassed that they’ve intruded, Amuyal and the entourage walk out.
They move on to film an old man on the street with his arm outstretched, begging for money.
Nowadays, these vignettes would rightly be dismissed as “poverty porn,” a voyeuristic invasion mitigated only by the fact the tour guide himself grew up in a similar environment. But whatever the contemporary resonance, these scenes provide a sobering contrast to the official image of triumphant Israel after the Six-Day War four years earlier.
Despite three years of healthy economic growth, a fifth of Israelis were living on or below the poverty line in 1971, according to government data. At the same time, Ashkenazi families were earning 30 percent more than their Mizrahi counterparts; some 55 percent of Mizrahi adolescents were not in school; and only 1 percent of university students were Mizrahim.
In Cort’s next shot, the group meets a teenager who says he’s also a Black Panther. Amuyal asks him how the police treat him. “They grab us for no reason,” the boy replies. “They beat us up, even on the balls. They grab you by the balls and take a small rubber tube and they hit you on the balls. So, you break and admit to having done things you didn’t even do.”
In those days, many Mizrahi youth complained of police beatings. At the time, though, their stories received little media coverage. Susan Bellos wrote about the Panthers for the Jerusalem Post, and in December 1982 explained in the paper that “any reference to police violence ... was simply removed from my copy. The Panthers, the editors felt, were bad news; they gave Israel a bad name abroad.”
In the next scene we see, Cort switches roles and hands his camera to Wigoder, who then assumes the role of interviewer. He asks Cort, “What are your impressions going through this area?”
The frame centers on Cort, who has large curly hair and a horseshoe mustache. He responds to the question with a boisterous laugh, as if amused by the reversal.
“I am beginning to understand but it’s still not as bad as the States,” he says. He then mulls the question some more, before adding, “In some ways, it is as bad.”
“Do you see Israel copying things from the States?” Wigoder asks.
“Oh yeah,” Cort says. “Everyone wants television sets, everyone wants cars. Everyone wants all the good things they want. The same as in America.”
Cort resumes control of the camera and turns to Wigoder, prompting him to talk about how “smoking hashish” helped forge a bond between Ashkenazi leftists like Wigoder and the Black Panthers.
“People from the bourgeois families and people from poverty areas came to parties,” Wigoder explains. “Drug parties, usually. They began trying to understand the problem together. That was the first communication.”
In the following scene, we meet Marciano, a strikingly handsome man with long black hair and piercing eyes. Wigoder introduces him as “the head of the Panthers.” (Marciano would go on to serve briefly as a left-wing Knesset member in the 1980s.)
The group approaches an apartment complex on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Children can be heard swarming around Marciano, but only wisps of their hair are seen on screen. Inside one of the apartments, they meet a mother of 10, Aisha, whose family subsists on the meager salary earned by their always-working father. Cort informs her he’ll screen her interview in a few days at a gathering of people who have “proteksia,” using the Hebrew term for having the right connections.
“I don’t want proteksia,” Aisha responds. “I want justice. Why? Because today you have it and tomorrow it’s gone.”
A few days later, Cort is indeed in a living room surrounded by academics (presumably Ashkenazim) and people from Israel’s state-run television channel. He has just screened the footage of Aisha. In American-accented English, an unidentified man says Cort was taken on a “trip that was as framed up as could be.”
Another woman backs him up, saying Aisha is faking her poverty. “She’s a known character in the neighborhood,” the salon woman, who is offscreen, says. “She’s articulate, too.”
These denials, outrageous as they are, came at a time when the Israeli government – forever anxious about the country’s image abroad – was repeatedly warning that the Black Panthers and talk of social injustice was making it harder to attract Jewish immigrants from the West. Politicians got especially riled whenever the Black Panthers mentioned plans to tour Jewish communities in the United States.
Preparing to protest
With limited editing, no narration and awkward angles, Cort’s footage feels raw and demands careful attention from the viewer. But for those who persevere, there’s a perceptible build-up of tension in the film: In the next scene, the Black Panthers are preparing for a demonstration.
Cort films the Panthers’ Jerusalem headquarters in the city center, which is known as “the Cellar.” The room is buzzing with activity: In one corner, Bitton – one of Israel’s best-known Black Panther activists (he also served in the Knesset for 15 years) – is crouched over a table, writing slogans on boards with thick brushstrokes of black paint. Meanwhile, Koko Deri, the youngest of the core activists, is talking to Cort, telling him that 5,000 people will likely show up at the protest.
Next, Wigoder takes Cort to a Jerusalem police station to see the cops preparing. Somehow, they’re able to walk right into the police compound and approach the crowd-dispersal vehicles that are stacked with shields and helmets. Wigoder offers Cort an insider’s tip on the cops and their “tricks with the sticks.” Police officers tuck their batons into their sleeves, sneakily unsheathing them when it’s time, he says.
In a sort of pep talk before the demonstration, the activists are seen gathering around Marciano, who predicts “a strong response” from the public. He warns that an informant within the police told him the cops plan to use tear gas on the protesters. He vows not to engage in violence unless the cops instigate a clash.
As the protest starts, Cort runs around frantically with the camera, probably because he’s scared to miss any of the action. Avraham Marciano, Saadia’s brother, tells Cort to prepare for the worst. “As soon as something happens, the cops come with horses, sticks, shields, and throw blows every which way,” he says
According to contemporary media reports, in the end about 700 people were present at the protest. From the footage, the crowd seems to be almost entirely young Mizrahi men. Cort captures only one speech, but it’s an important one that reflects the evolution in the Israeli Black Panthers’ rhetoric and ideology.
Kochavi Shemesh’s speech focuses on the World Zionist Congress, which would take place in Jerusalem two weeks later. “It’s clear the Zionist Congress does not speak for all the Jews in the world,” Shemesh is seen telling the crowd, adding, “The Zionist Congress cares only about Russian Jewry.”
The anticipated clash with the police did not happen during that day’s protest, but there were violent scenes at the subsequent Zionist Congress, when Black Panther activists fought with police outside the conference center.
Cort’s camera didn’t capture the Zionist Congress demonstration. By that point, he had finished his work for Hadassah and was spending a few weeks at an Old City yeshiva, studying Jewish mysticism.
The Jerusalem Tapes were a product of a technological revolution. Until the late 1960s, video production involved cumbersome equipment and required the resources of television and movie studios. Then, in 1967, Sony released the Portapak, a handheld video recorder that allowed instant playback.
“I was overwhelmed by the lightness of the portable video camera, the intimacy of it, the way you could talk from behind the camera to people, and they could talk to you,” Cort explained in Deirdre Boyle’s 1997 book, “Subject to Change: Guerrilla Television Revisited.”
Yet Cort’s success in embedding himself with the Israeli Black Panthers is not merely the result of technology. His footage is also the result of empathy with his subjects.
These days, Cort suffers from health problems and couldn’t be interviewed for this story. So the best witness to his work in Jerusalem is Shalom Gorewitz, an American artist who accompanied him on the trip and recorded the audio for the Hadassah exhibition.
“Where most of us are anxious and fearful, [Cort] seemed to find amusement in the human condition,” Gorewitz wrote in an unpublished essay about their endeavor. “His charm usually burst the reserve of those he interacted with on video, often transcending the superficial and formal process of question and answer into the deeper, more subjective issues of communication, social justice, and faith.”
Asaf Shalev is currently writing a book about Israel’s Black Panthers for UC Press.