Saadia Marciano, 58, a former member of the Israeli Knesset who got his start in public life as a leader of the radical “Black Panthers” movement of poor Sephardic Jews, died Dec. 21, 2007, in a Jerusalem hospital.

Marciano, who left his native Oujda, Morocco, after pogroms and riots there in the wake of Israel’s founding in 1948, helped start the Israeli Black Panthers in his early 20s,along with other Sephardic (Oriental) Jews living in Jerusalem’s Musrara neighborhood (The area, just north of today’s Safra Square, a renovated area that includes the Jerusalem city government, is an older, poor community that had housed many immigrants, as well as Jerusalem Arabs. Today, the neighborhood is increasingly ultra Orthodox.).

Social, economic justice

The Israeli Panthers pushed hard for equal political, social and economic rights for Sephardic Israelis, who faced discrimination, limited economic opportunities and even official opprobrium from Israel’s founders, European immigrants who controlled the levers of power in pre-state Palestine and the new State of Israel.

In a 2003 documentary, “The Black Panthers (in Israel) Speak,” Marciano said:

“We understood that we’re responsible now. That it’s not a game to play with. We became representatives! We raised the social struggle flag in spite of the difficult security conditions. Moshe Dayan argued that you can’t wave both flags of security and social affairs simultaneously. But we strongly believed that a weak society could never be strong in its security.”

Founders of the movement included Charlie Biton, Reuven Abergil, Eli Avichzer. Early rallies often turned violent, as police refused to give parade and protest permits. Marciano was often arrested and spent some time as a fugitive.

Israeli Black Panthers political rally, Jerusalem, early 1970s

Attorney Avi Bardugo told Haaretz newspaper Marciano was the face of the Black Panthers.

“The day the police took him and beat his face swollen it shocked the public. That was when everybody started asking why they went up against us so harshly,” Bardugo said.

Marciano’s Panthers’ song

Documents from the Panthers found on an archive of Israeli leftists included a song Marciano wrote:

We are all Panthers.
We are deprived by the Jewish state

We are all Panthers
We will eliminate poverty with Sephardic power

We are all Panthers
And the brotherhood of the Sephardim
Will bring national equality in the Jewish State

In the discriminating state
There is a noisy commotion
The police wear their uniforms
To go out to the protest
And at the head of the battalion
Marches Hillel the traitor

(In My Heart Editor’s note: Translation by In My Heart. The original Hebrew includes clever plays on words and rhymes. The last line’s reference is to Shlomo Hillel, then-police commander, who was Iraqi-born, and was sending out the police against the Black Panthers)

Marciano went into mainstream politics as an affiliate of several left-wing parties, and made it to the Knessest as a representative of the short-lived Sheli Party. He then established what was essentially a one-man party, Equality in Israel-Panthers, which later became the Unity Party.

Marciano left the Knesset in 1981, but he never gave up his efforts to raise the status and position of Israel’s poor and Sephardic communities, friends and family members told the media after Marciano’s death. He established a drug rehabilitation center. Pensioners Party MK Itzhak Galantee met Marciano less than two weeks ago to discuss plans to supply food and radiators to Jerusalem’s needy.

“He wanted to help every needy person,” Galantee told Ynetnews. “He always spoke of the poor residents of Jerusalem, and never mentioned his own situation.”

Marciano’s sister, Ayala Sabag, a social activist, told Haaretz her brother was working to reestablish the Black Panthers movement.

Marciano’s financial struggles

“We must raise the banner that Saadia Marciano raised; we must continue the struggle,” Biton said at Marciano’s funeral.

The Knesset Guard placed a wreath on Marciano’s grave, but the Knesset was apparently unable to help Marciano financially during his final years.

A special committee examined whether the government could help support Marciano, as he was ineligible for pension funds, because of his short term in the Knesset.

Knesset Member Nadia Hilou told Ynetnews the committee was unable to help Marciano because of legislative constraints.

(In My Heart Editor’s Note: The spelling of Saadia Marciano’s name in English has several variants, which we include here for completeness and search engine support: Sa’adia, Saadiah, Sadia, Marziano, Martziano)