Separate and Unequal: The History of Arab Labour in pre-1948 Palestine and Israel

Demonstration against the Wisconsin Plan in Nazareth, 10 December 2005 (Sawt el-Amel)


The following is the introduction to the December 2006 report by Sawt el-Amel (The Laborer’s Voice) entitled “Separate and Unequal: The History of Arab Labour in pre-1948 Palestine and Israel”:

The existence of an Arab labour movement in Palestine before 1948 has virtually been erased from the collective memory of at least the non-Arabic-speaking world. No archives or other comprehensive, reliable written sources survived the Nakba and the subsequent collapse of organised Arab labour in Israel. The historical narrative prevalent in the Western hemisphere presents political initiatives of indigenous Arab workers either as instigated and facilitated by the Histadrut or as a mere propaganda tool of the ruling Arab bourgeois “effendis”. Certainly, there was no labour movement and no working class consciousness in the largely rural, semi-feudal society of early 20th-century Palestine, but the local population adjusted quickly to the new challenges posed by mass immigration, industrialisation and Western colonial rule. Between 1925 and 1947, Palestine had a thriving Arab labour movement - though at times weakened by internal struggles - led by the largest union institution PAWS (Palestinian Arab Workers’ Society). The Palestinian Arab working class and their leaders displayed a diversity of political ideologies and different attitudes concerning the Histadrut and joint Arab-Jewish organisation. Palestinian Arab unions were also internationally recognised as legitimate representatives of the Arab workers in Palestine.

The state of Israel is built upon the sweeping success of two interlinked political campaigns ran by the Labour Zionist movement in the first half of the 20th century in Palestine: namely, the Conquest of Land and the Conquest of Labour. “Separate and Unequal” focuses on the latter - the conquest of labour - and how the local Arab population dealt with this challenge. Moreover, this report argues that the policy of “conquering” labour has never been abandoned by the Israeli labour movement and continues to be implemented by contemporary Israeli governments. Over time, this exclusive approach has created a separate, low-wage sector for a largely unskilled and unorganised Arab labour force in Israel, which is nowadays joined by migrant workers from South Asia and new immigrants from Ethiopia and the Russian-speaking countries. This low-wage, manual labour sector occupied by the Arab labour force is now in times of globalisation gradually being transformed into an unemployed labour sector, and growing poverty and unemployment are further exacerbated by economic policies eroding the last resort, the public social safety net. In its most recent poverty report, the National Insurance Institute revealed that 52% of Arab citizens of Israel live below the poverty line, as opposed to 16% of Jewish Israelis (National Insurance Institute, 2006).

In the early 20 century, when Jewish mass immigration to Palestine began, the local Arab population was overwhelmingly rural and many cultivated land owned by aristocratic families who resided in Jerusalem, Beirut or Damascus. There was no urban working class in Palestine and thus no labour movement. Hence, related political ideology was prevalent among the new immigrants who arrived mainly from Russia, which was on the verge of a Socialist revolution. In the context of Zionism, however, the egalitarian and internationalist components of Socialism were made to fit the colonialist nature of Jewish national aspirations in Palestine. Thus, Labour Zionism emerged as a distinct political ideology, which proved to be the most successful movement in the nation-building process and which has - though at first glance it seems more “leftist” and less openly aggressive towards the indigenous population - contributed largely to the continuous marginalisation, exclusion and expulsion of the Arab population from Palestine. After World War I, with growing Jewish immigration and a new colonial ruler, the British Empire, the local Arab population was confronted with a number of new and unknown challenges, including rapid industrialisation and large-scale colonialist settlement. Therefore, Palestinian Arabs almost simultaneously developed labour and national liberation movements, which often followed the same goals. Both national as well as working-class consciousness among Palestinian Arabs developed quickly, catalysed by the growing threat of dispossession.

“Separate and Unequal” is an attempt to provide an alternative view on Palestinian Arab labour history and the situation of the Arab labour force in Israel today. In order to complete the picture, the development of the Jewish-Israeli labour movement, its institutions and politics, and its attitude towards Arab workers are described as well. The report does not cover the labour movement in the occupied Palestinian territories because it would open a whole new range of issues that go beyond the framework of this report and need to be discussed in a separate publication. Chapter I provides a historical perspective on the period covered by this report as a broad overview of demographic and socio-economic developments is crucial to evaluate the events discussed. Chapter II reconstructs the history of the Arab labour movement in Palestine before the establishment of Israel and the Palestinian Nakba in 1948. Chapter III explains the basic goals and ideas of Labour Zionism and recounts the history of its main institution, the Histadrut. It further mentions attempts at joint Arab-Jewish organisation outside the framework of the Histadrut. Chapter IV describes the situation of the Arab labour force in Israel today and provides an assessment of the root causes of poverty and unemployment among Israel’s Arab citizens. The report further offers a brief timeline of relevant historical and political events and a glossary of important terms. During the writing of Separate and Unequal, Sawt el-Amel collected and processed information from a variety of sources in three languages (English, Arabic and Hebrew), from different (inter)national perspectives and contrasting political and economic ideologies.

“Separate and Unequal” concludes that the situation of the Arab labour force in Israel today bears striking similarities to the challenges and restraints it faced in pre-1948 Palestine, and that Arab workers are insufficiently represented by the general trade union Histadrut. They are in need of an independent institution that raises awareness about workers’ rights and that educates and organises them in a suitable and sustainable environment. The conclusions are informed by the available historic sources and by Sawt el-Amel’s extensive first-hand experience with Arab workers’ activism in Israel.

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