Sunday, May 19, 2013

Golda Meir: The Israeli Black Panthers Aren't Nice

More than 30 years after her death, Golda Meir is still remembered fondly by many of America's Jews, or at least those old enough to have such memories. More than 30 years after her death, most Israelis still dislike her, and many dislike her intensely. This animosity has three main sources. The most important of the three is the Yom Kippur War, which Golda's government failed to foresee or prepare for; the lesser of the three is the perception that she failed to seek peace when Egypt's Sadat was seeking it.

The second most important reason Israelis still dislike Golda is because she once said of the Black Panthers that "they're not nice".

The year was 1971, and the day was May 17th. The previous evening there had been a violent mass demonstration of angry young men, mostly from families who had immigrated from Morocco, and not successfully integrated into Israeli society, and had provocatively given themselves the moniker of the angry young blacks of America. Their program was to shock the Israeli establishment into taking them more seriously than their immigrant parents had been taken, or so they claimed. When on May 17, 1971, Golda visited an assembly of Jews from Morocco, it was inevitable that the riot of the previous night would be discussed. Shaul Ben Simchon, one of her hosts and a fellow Laborite, commented that he had met some of the young men who had been arrested, and found them to be "nice guys" (bachurim nechmadim). To which Golda responded that "People who throw Molotov Cocktails at Jewish police aren't nice guys."

It was a statement identifying people by their actions; it was picked up and endlessly repeated and amplified and engraved into the national psyche as a statement identifying people by their ethnicity and divergence from that of Israel's ruling elite--hurting young uncouth Sephardi men being derided by elderly complacent and out-of-touch Ashkenzi power-brokers. It may be that Golda and her generation had partially earned the anger directed at them, though not as fully as it was presented at the time; yet even if so, it wasn't what she had said nor intended - and, to be fair, given her life-long record of actions - it was also unfair to present her that way. Yet the power of a soundbite can't be undone, and it can live on for decades even after it was never really said.

Months later, on November 1, Golda sent an open letter to "Comrade Ben Simchon" remonstrating with him for never speaking out in her defense as the rumour of her nasty (mis)quote spread far and wide. A few days later he responded ("Comrade Golda Meir, the Prime Minister"). Yes, her version of the event was accurate. He hadn't spoken out because he hadn't noticed the misquote had taken on a life of its own, and anyway, no-one had asked for his opinion on the matter. However, now that he had her attention, he would welcome her participation in various activities of Moroccan Jews, and this would undoubtedly be good for her as well as for the cause.

So that's done. Now that we've corrected the historical record (also on our Hebrew blog), the unfortunate story will disappear from history and never be cited again. Perhaps.

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