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Charlie Bitton: Fighter for the weak

Black Panthers. Wikipedia, Dan Hadani collection

Charlie Bitton passed away yesterday (Sat.) at the age of 76. Biton was a social activist and later a member of Knesset, and although he disappeared from the public arena in recent decades, his influence on Israeli society and the public discourse is immense, and his signing is evident on many levels even today.

Bitton was born in Morocco in 1947 and immigrated to Israel with his family in 1949. The family settled in the Musrara neighborhood in Jerusalem – then considered as one of the poorest and most neglected neighbourhoods in Israel, and Bitton’s childhood and youth weren’t very enjoyable. In 1971, Biton was one of the founders of the ‘Black Panthers’ movement, which protested institutional discrimination towards people of Mizrachi descent. The movement was inspired by the movement of the same name in the United States fighting for African American rights (only less violent) and led stormy demonstrations against the Mapai government (then led by Golda Meir).

The Black Panther protests helped raise the social issue and ethnic deprivation on the agenda in Israel; they did not cause immediate change in Israeli society, but they sowed the buds of change in preparation for the amendments made in the following decades. Even today, they are witnessed a certain element of national politics, though in a completely different temperament.

Bitton himself turned to continue his influence where the decisions are made – the Knesset, to which he was elected in 1977 by the Hadash Party (then a semi-communist movement), and worked for minorities and for the promotion of peace arrangements with the Palestinians. Even in the Knesset, Bitton was never ashamed of his “popular” origin and even used it as a branding – a means that is very common today. Due to the nature of his party, Bitton never sat in the government, but he succeeded in promoting many laws for the weaker sectors of society.

Bitton ended his political career in 1992, feeling that he had done his job, and since then he has avoided the spotlight. In recent years, he has retracted many of his extremist views (mainly on security issues) and has expressed consistent support for the Shas party. With his death, he can be pointed out as a positive change-maker in Israeli society.

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