Thursday, May 24, 2018

Review of 'Comrades and Enemies: Arab and Jewish Workers in Palestine, 1906-1948'

This is a really, really good book. It's meticulously researched, with lots of primary and secondary sources. It's on top of the literature, acknowledging the contributions of others but maintaining a critical distance from earlier work and showing its limitations. It's primarily an academic rather than a popular or polemical work, so sometimes (mainly at the beginning and the end) there are some rather dry theoretical sections - I'm sure I would have loved those once, but now I sort of skimmed them. There are also some places when the detail became a bit overwhelming - sometimes in the alphabet soup of the various Palestinian-Arab groupings, for example.

For me, the book is most important in finally laying to rest any residual identification that I might have had with 'Socialist-Zionism'. It's clear that Labour Zionism, as practised by Mapai and its predecessors, as not a kind of socialism - not even of the Second International flavour pursued by social democratic parties in Europe and elsewhere, but rather a strand within the self-avowed colonialist project that was Zionism. Labour Zionism and its institutions, especially the Histradrut which was not a trade union movement or organisation as anyone else would recognise it, was a necessary element in delivering the Zionist project that involved the mass immigration of Jews from Europe - because it was a means to ensure that there was an economy and a labour market fit to absorb them.

In so far as it was interested in cross-communal solidarity with workers from the majority Palestinian Arab community, this was almost always with the intention of ensuring that low-wage Arab workers became less able to compete with their higher-paid Jewish counterparts. Most of the time it was utterly uninterested in such solidarity, though, and sought to build a differentiated labour market for Jewish workers through 'the conquest of labour', which included boycotts and campaigns for employers to dismiss Arabs and hire Jews instead. Reading some of the details of this, such as the campaign for construction companies to only use 'Jewish Stone', it is impossible not to feel more than a little uncomfortable.

Nevertheless the Histradrut and the various Jewish Labour parties dressed themselves in the clothes of socialism, with May Day rallies and singing of the Internationale, and appeals to Arab workers to show solidarity. Labour Zionism claimed that the mass immigration of Jews would benefit Arab workers too by raising their living standards, at the same time as it called for them to be dismissed from their jobs. This was rarely lost on the Arab workers, some of whom nevertheless showed remarkable forbearance in distinguishing between Jewish workers and the Zionist project.

Lockman resists the temptation to suggest that the professed socialism of the Zionist Socialists was merely cynical. He writes with some sympathy of the contradictions of the further reaches of the Zionist left, including first Poalei Ziyon Smol and then Hashomer Hatzair; he acknowledges that the colonialist perspective towards 'native' workers was not unique to the Zionist labour movement but characterised other imperial trade unionists too. Nevertheless, he also resists the temptation to suggest that with more goodwill and better luck the clash between Zionism and Palestinian Arab nationalism could have turned out well, or even turned out better. The trajectory of the Zionist project was always to take over the territory and to 'transfer' its then inhabitants, the Palestinian Arabs, to somewhere else. And that's what happened.

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