Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver Became a Zionist
From Communist Revolutionary to Defender of Israel and Democracy
On March 25, 1968, at one of his final public meetings before his assassination, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the honored guest at the convention of the Rabbinical Assembly. At the convention, the rabbis asked Dr. King about the growing voices of antisemitism and anti-Zionism among the young Black militant members of the civil rights movement. In the late 1960s to mid-1970s, none of those militant voices was louder and more widespread than that of Leroy Eldridge Cleaver, Minister of Information for the Black Panther Party (BPP).
Eldridge Cleaver was born in Wabbaseka, Arkansas in 1935. As a child, he and his family moved to Phoenix and eventually to Los Angeles, where he grew up and was in and out of reform schools. Cleaver’s father physically abused his mother, which young Cleaver witnessed. As a teenager, he committed petty crimes, leading to his time in a youth detention center. As he got older, Cleaver began committing more violent offenses, including serial rape, which he confessed to in his bestselling book, Soul on Ice. He was convicted of assault and served time in Folsom Prison from 1958 to 1966. Like many who’ve followed similar paths, Cleaver’s political views were greatly shaped by his time in prison. According to him, prison is where he was introduced to Marxist-Leninist philosophies, and fully embraced Communism and a desire for violent revolution against the U.S. and its allies.
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In 1966, Cleaver joined the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP) [in Oakland, California] and a year later married fellow member Kathleen Neal…Being a prominent member of the Black Panther Party allowed Soul on Ice to gain popularity among those interested in the BPP and provided Eldridge with international notoriety. He utilized his fame and success to run on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket during the 1968 U.S. presidential election.
How one views the BPP of the 1960s and 70s is a matter of perspective. The BPP was a radical, Marxist, anti-Western organization dedicated to the violent overthrow of the U.S. government. Cleaver repeatedly said he wanted to “take Richard Nixon’s head off.” At the same time, the BPP fought for what they viewed as the just treatment of all people—especially the poor—of all ethnicities. The irony, of course, is that the BPP fought what they saw as totalitarianism while espousing an even deadlier form of totalitarianism: Communism. This ideological contradiction would help forge Cleaver’s transformation.
The BPP was heavily, legally armed according to the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. At that time, California’s gun laws were much more lenient as open carry was legal—a right the BPP took full advantage of as a show of strength and intimidation. In 1967, California lawmakers, along with then-Governor Ronald Reagan, passed the Mulford Act making it “a felony to publicly carry any firearm—either openly or concealed—in public places without a governmental license to do so.” In 1981, Cleaver told the audience at the BYU Freedom Festival, “we used to call Ronald Reagan the father of the Black Panther Party because it started under his administration.” During his Freedom Festival speech, Cleaver shared other crucial details about his life’s journey.
In 1967 was when the first shootings started between the [BPP] in the Oakland Police Department. The first time there was any shooting, there was one policeman who was killed. The man who founded the [BPP], Huey Newton, was arrested and charged with killing the policeman and wounding one other policeman, and [Newton] was wounded in the shooting. And it was six months later I was involved in a shooting incident. This was two days after Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated and was really part of all the uproar that took place in the aftermath of [Dr. King’s murder].
Cleaver was arrested for shooting the police officers and sent to “San Quentin prison as a parole violator.” He was soon released based on a legal technicality. After being released from prison, Cleaver and his friends went to New York to meet with their comrades from Cuba at the United Nations. In the meeting, Fidel Castro’s surrogates encouraged the BPP members to flee to Havana, where they would receive asylum from the U.S. authorities and be trained in military weaponry and combat. Cleaver took the Cubans up on their offer and, with their help, was smuggled to the Communist island.
Once Cleaver arrived in Cuba, Castro’s policemen began a long, deceptive process of giving him multiple guided tours while providing cases of rum and cigars. This lasted for several weeks until Cleaver grew impatient and wanted to “get down to work.”
I didn't realize it at first, but after some time went by I understood that the Cubans really didn't have any intention at all in giving us the facility we had been promised in New York. In New York, they were making promises to everybody because what they were really trying to do was influence the antiwar movement into taking a pro-Cuban line against the American government. And so they were promising everybody everything.
Cleaver explained that the Cubans reneged on their promise of a military training facility because they feared a group like the BPP would join the revolutionary struggle against the Castro regime. Whereas idealistic young Black Americans like Cleaver, Angela Davis, Huey Newton, and Stokley Carmichael had been sold on Cuba’s post-racist propaganda, Cleaver then learned it was all a lie. Under Fidel Castro’s rule, severe racism, oppression of the poor, constant government surveillance, and the jailing, torture, and execution of political opposition were (are) all regular occurrences. But his education and transformation were just getting started.
I felt that, “well, I'm sure that Communism is different in other parts of the world.” So, I made arrangements to leave Cuba and go to Algeria. And I went to Algeria because [it] was the center for all the revolutionary movements around the world. They were all welcome there and they were all allowed to function there.
It was in Algeria in 1969 that Cleaver and other young Black militants connected with the newly appointed Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Yasser Arafat. As noted by the late Lt. General Ion Mihai Pacepa in his book Disinformation, the PLO was a creation of the KGB. Just as the Communists in Cuba sought to exploit the antiwar movement in America, the Soviets sought to exploit racial tensions in America. Arafat was committed to destroying Israel and the Jewish people, using young, naive Black Americans and Black Africans to cloak his Jew-hatred as a movement for justice. It was after the meeting with Arafat that Cleaver’s rhetoric turned against Israel.
The [American Jewish] Committee study quotes . . . Eldridge Cleaver, in a December 1969 interview in Algiers, as stating that “Zionists, wherever they may be, are our enemies. We totally support the armed struggle of the Palestinian people against the watchdogs of imperialism.” The report also quotes a news story from the International edition of the Herald Tribune, which reported on December 29, 1969 in a story from Algiers that El Fatah leader Yassir Arafat and Cleaver hugged and kissed each other at a meeting with Palestine refugees here, then Cleaver climbed the rostrum to deliver a fierce attack on American Zionists. The study quotes the Jan. 30, 1970 report of CBS correspondent Richard C. Hottelet from Algiers on an El Fatah-Black Panther alliance. The El Fatah guerrilla organization, Mr. Hottelet declared, “is discussing training Black Panthers in actual combat against Israel to prepare them for a sabotage and assassination campaign in the United States.”
However, while in the Arab Muslim country of Algeria, Cleaver witnessed another level of human suffering for which he was completely unprepared: African slavery. “I saw slaves in Algeria. They have slaves in Mauritania. They have slaves in all those countries.”For a total of seven years, including his time in Cuba, Cleaver traveled to Communist countries in Europe, Africa, and Asia and was consistently mortified by the human rights abuses that he saw firsthand.
The more I saw…what was going on in these Communist countries, the more I understood that it wasn't just in Cuba that things had gone wrong—things were wrong in every one of those countries.
When I found out about that at first, I would try to accept it by using the rationalizations that the Communists give, that they were doing this to the enemies of the people. They were doing this to the enemies of Communism. The closer I looked the more I saw that they were doing this [for example] to students. They were doing this to [journalists].
It's one thing to study Marxism on paper, living in a capitalistic country where you have individual freedoms and so forth—you don't really see the relationship between the ideology and the form of government that comes out of that ideology. Now, when I had a chance to go and live in Communist countries, this individualism came into conflict with the state apparatus, and that's when I recoiled against it. But when I was [in America] I was looking at Marxism-Leninism as a weapon, as a tool, to fight against the status quo, and you know, it's just a quality of human beings that when they are trying to tear something down they don't pay enough attention.
In a 1986 interview with Reason Magazine, Cleaver explained how and why he learned the truth about the glorified Communist revolutionary struggle that deceives so many others.
REASON: A lot of American intellectuals have gone, say, to the Soviet Union or China and come back full of praises. What you saw in Cuba, Algeria, China, or the Soviet Union, somehow they just overlooked. Do you think it's because usually these things are short, they just scurry right through? Or what was it that made you able to perceive…
Cleaver: It was exactly that—the shortness of it, the duration of their experience and the depth and quality of it. See, I lived in those kinds of places and I got to know people and made friends. I got to know the governments, the people in the military, people in the Communist Party or whatever they called it. That gives you a different perspective.
When I first went to those countries boy was I impressed. If you would read some of the things I wrote then! I was full of praise, because I got that standard tour that they give people to impress them. I took the same tour that Barbara Walters took in Cuba, and Senator [George] McGovern, but after the tour I had a chance to meet other people and have a different experience. If I had gone only on the basis of how the governments treated me, I would have continued praising them, because really they did treat me well. They gave me a red-carpet treatment in those countries. But when you get off the red carpet and step down in the mud where the people are, you get a chance to talk to them and hear the stories that they have to tell, over and over again.
In 1975, Eldridge Cleaver returned to the U.S. and surrendered to the authorities to face charges of attempted murder.
In a three-hour taped interview in the Alameda County jail in Oakland, California, with two reformed Jewish leaders, and in letters to them, Cleaver said his ideological transformation resulted from experience with communism in Cuba and elsewhere from living in the Arab world.
Once a supporter of the Arab world against Israel, he now calls the Arabs flagrant racist, defends Israel and extols the launch of a struggle for racial justice.
Cleaver became a Christian and later joined the Mormon Church. He used his platform to defend democracy, warn against Communism, and show solidarity with Israel and the Jewish people. When leaders of the civil rights community formed B.A.S.I.C. — Black Americans to Support Israel Committee to defend Israel against U.N. Resolution 3379 Zionism is Racism, Cleaver also raised his voice.
Two aspects of the recent UN resolution labeling Zionism as racist both shocked and surprised me. Shocked because, of all the people in the world, the Jews have not only suffered particularly from racist persecution, they have done more than any other people in history to expose and condemn racism. Generations of Jewish social scientists and scholars have labored long and hard in every field of knowledge, from anthropology to psychology, to lay bare and refute all claims of racial inferiority and superiority.
To condemn the Jewish survival doctrine of Zionism as racism is a travesty upon the truth.
Secondly, I am surprised that the Arabs would choose to establish a precedent condemning racism because it can so easily and righteously be turned against them. Having lived intimately for several years among the Arabs, I know them to be among the most racist people on earth.
Though denounced by his former colleagues as a traitor, Cleaver bravely continued to write, speak, and promote democracy, freedom, and true justice. He warned against the anti-Americanism, Socialism, and Communism that was growing in the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s and that was wholly embedded in the political establishment by the 1980s. In reality, Cleaver never stopped fighting for justice and liberty. He just learned what the true enemies of justice and liberty really were. His transformation can best be summed up by his comment about the police.
Nothing that I'm saying is meant to sweep anything under the rug. I'm not trying to apologize for any of the behavior of the police that is excessive. I think the worst thing in the world is a crooked policeman or a policeman that violates his oath of office or his duty. But I’ve reached the point where I think the best thing in the world is a good policeman who does not violate his oath of office and who fulfills his duty to the public.
Eldridge Cleaver died in 1998 in Pomona, California.
stunning and so helpful. never knew any of this, wow.
Great work. Cleaver was obviously a far from perfect human being, but he was a talented and honest writer. That last quote from Cleaver does a pretty good job of summing up where I am these days.