Stone Men

The story of the role played by Palestinian stonemasons and construction workers in the building of Israel.

We do not want to create a situation like that which exists in South Africa, where the whites are the owners and rulers, and the blacks are the workers. If we do not do all kinds of work, easy and hard, skilled and unskilled, if we become merely landlords, then this will not be our homeland.” David Ben-Gurion to Palestinian nationalist Musa Alami, 1934, quoted in Ben-Gurion and the Palestinian Arabs: From Peace to War (Shabtai Teveth, Oxford University Press, 1985, p. 140)

I am writing this review in my Jerusalem apartment, which was strengthened and upgraded by Palestinians as part of Israel’s Tama 38 project to earthquake-proof older buildings. Next door, Palestinian laborers are busy reinforcing another. Throughout the day, bursts of Arabic ring out amidst the scaffolding. The workers are there when I take my daughters to kindergarten in the morning, and stand waiting for the minibus that will take them back to their homes in the West Bank by the time I pick the girls up in the afternoon.

It is no exaggeration to say that Palestinian workers like them are literally building Israel. In the first quarter of 2017, 140,000 Palestinian contractors, carpenters, plumbers, and unskilled laborers were working inside the Green Line, with another 24,000 working in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank; this makes up nearly 20 percent of all those working in the Israeli construction industry. These official figures do not even provide the whole picture, as many more are working illegally, without permits.

This may be news to those familiar with the Zionist slogan “we come to the land to build it and be built by it,” but the attempt to build the State of Israel by relying solely on Hebrew labor has been a failure. Despite efforts to achieve ‘Hebrew Labor,’ Palestinians have always helped build the homes, cities and infrastructure of the Jewish polity. This contradiction is explored by Andrew Ross, Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University, in his new book Stone Men: The Palestinians Who Built Israel. Both a historical survey and an assessment of the role played by construction in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Ross seeks to uncover the history of what he calls “unfair labor utilization.”

Israel has been the biggest beneficiary of Palestinian manpower and raw materials,” he writes. “Despite efforts, early and late, to exclude them from the building trades, Palestinians have played an essential role in the physical and economic construction of the Zionist ‘national home.’” Ross, who is a supporter of the BDS movement, views this as the inevitable result of Zionist “settler colonialism,” which he argues destroyed efforts in the pre-1948 period to create Jewish-Arab solidarity in the labor movement.

The historical survey begins in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The idea of the “conquest of labor” (in Hebrew, kibbush ha-avodah) was coined by A. D. Gordon, a Zionist thinker who emigrated to Palestine during the Second Aliyah of 1904 to 1914. He linked Jews’ abandonment of bourgeois urban life and their return to productive labor and working the land with spiritual and national renewal. This idea had implications for the Arab population as well; Ross calls it “a militant strategy to win and then consolidate an exclusively Jewish share of the labor market.”

However, while Zionist leaders wanted Jewish workers and promoted the ideal of Jewish labor, in practice most Jewish employers preferred hiring Arab workers, who were cheaper and more efficient. First Aliyah agricultural settlements like Rosh Pina, which at first tried to rely solely on Jewish labor, failed, and many Jews left the country. In the late 1890s, the Jewish Colonization Association (JCA) began offering support to Jewish farming communities, with the aim of making them more profitable. Arabs were now hired as laborers. Only with the establishment of kibbutzim during the Second Aliyah, and the practice of collective agriculture, did Jews succeed in working the land themselves.

Not only were Palestinian agricultural laborers superior to Jewish ones. In building, Arabs also had a monopoly on stone quarries and the craft of stonemasonry. The story of construction in Jaffa and Tel Aviv in the pre-state period, which Ross explores in detail, provides an illuminating case study. Jaffa was built from kurkar, a calcareous quartz sandstone that is prevalent on the country’s coast. When Tel Aviv was founded in 1909 (its original name was Ahuzat Bayit), Aryeh Weiss, chairman of the planning committee, called for the exclusive employment of Jewish workers. However, Weiss’s move was resisted by the organizing committee, and a compromise was reached. The Hebrew labor requirement was written into the bylaws, but it was only informally encouraged. Arab masons came to build most of the first villas, while Jews built the public buildings (including the Yechiely Girls School, whose roof collapsed during a storm).

According to Ross, Jews tried to resolve the “Battle of Tel Aviv” by using materials and techniques that were alien to the local architecture, both in order to avoid the use of Arab labor and because they wanted their urban environment to reflect their vision of a modern, non-Oriental society. Crucially, this meant avoiding the use of the most plentiful local building material, stone. Instead, concrete was the material of choice, a move that had been anticipated by Herzl himself: “The plan for building a homeland for the Jewish people must take into consideration the founding of a Hebrew cement factory as well,” he wrote in Altneuland.

This new technology did not require kurkar quarrying or skilled Arab stonemasons. One of the origins of Tel Aviv’s moniker the “White City” is the factory-produced, white silicate brick used for much of the city’s construction from the 1920s. By 1925, around 45 percent of Tel Aviv’s Jewish workforce were engaged in construction. The 1930 Hope Simpson Report, commissioned by the British to analyze the causes of conflict between Arabs and Jews, was critical of the Hebrew Labor policy. Ross argues that this “technological disemployment” became a key factor in the conflict between Jews and Arabs. It’s ironic, given the crucial role played by Palestinians in Israeli construction today.

What did the battle over labor mean aesthetically? As Amir Mahmoud-Jabarin argued in the last issue of the Tel Aviv Review of Books, stonework has played an important part in Palestinian culture since Ottoman times. But the builders of Tel Aviv preferred “the clean lines and the white plaster facades of Bauhaus functionalism,” meaning that the new Jewish city (other than its earliest villas) looked nothing like neighboring Jaffa.

In recent years, though, there has been a return to traditional stonework. Among Israeli Jews, local architecture is back in fashion because it evokes a “biblical-Oriental aesthetic” that promotes Jewish claims to the land. Jaffa was preserved as a Jewish artists’ colony—a move that Ross scathingly criticizes. The city has also undergone rapid gentrification and Arab tenants have been the primary losers. In an ironic reversal, given the rejection of kurkar by the Zionist movement in the pre-state period, this requires the use of kurkar stone for the restoration of older buildings and synthetic stone bricks that look like kurkar for newer ones. Meanwhile, in another reversal, Palestinian activist Sami Abu Shehadeh, one of the founders of Darna: The Popular Committee for Land Protection and Housing in Jaffa, tells Ross: “Kurkar has its problems, with humidity and water penetration, and it does not insulate so well against winter cold. Palestinians have modern needs and deserve modern buildings. We have not exactly benefited from being associated with antiquity.”

Jerusalem faces a different situation. In 1917, the British enacted an ordinance requiring that all buildings in the city be constructed with “Jerusalem stone,” the name given to the area’s traditional limestone. Israel continued the policy, applying it as well to the Palestinian neighborhoods captured after the 1967 Six Day War. As the Jerusalem Municipality 1968 master plan for unification states: “The value of the visual impression that is projected by the stone…[carries] emotional messages that stimulate other sensations embedded in our collective memory, producing strong associations to the ancient holy city of Jerusalem.” Ross argues that the use of Jerusalem stone is designed to promote the myth that the city is unified and eternally Jewish.

Most of this stone comes from the West Bank, home to some of the best quality dolomotic limestone in the world; no West Bank town is more than 50 kilometres away from a quarry. The limestone industry is the Palestinian Territories’ largest private employer and revenue generator, accounting for 25 percent of national industrial production. By 2014, the Palestinians were the twelfth largest stone producers in the world, placing it just behind the United States and ahead of Russia. It is no surprise that Palestinians call limestone “white oil.” More than 70 percent of Palestinian stone reaches the Israeli market, making up more than half of Palestinian exports across the Green Line. All of this despite Israel expropriating land for its own quarries and often denying Palestinians quarry permits.

Palestinian houses in the West Bank are also being restored – albeit in smaller numbers – but for different reasons. Instead of being driven by gentrification, there is an interest in restoration as a form of resistance. A number of NGOs have begun to restore heritage buildings in villages like Beit Iksa or Abwein near Ramallah; restoration begets national pride. “Buildings like this show that we were here and still are,” one Palestinian tells Ross. “These are our facts on the ground.” “When I work on this,” another Palestinian tells Ross, “I am working for my people, for Palestine. Sure, I could earn more money in Israel, but you are working for the oppressor there.” Or as Ross quotes another interlocutor: “We don’t throw stones, we build with them.” The extent of this interest in restoration should not be exaggerated, though. Elsewhere, wealthier Palestinians build McMansions close to their villages of origin, cities like Ramallah imitate “the profile of modernity set by the Gulf states,” and Rawabi, the first planned city built for and by Palestinians, mimics Israeli suburbia.

After this historical survey, Ross turns his attention to the place of labor in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict today. He interviews some of the Palestinians building Israel, showing the difficulties they face. Seventy percent of his interviewees had to pay for work permits, at a cost that could consume one-half of their wages (there are now efforts to stamp out this phenomenon). At the same time, Israeli employers’ have used various tactics to avoid paying social security payments to Palestinian workers – the Palestinian Authority are pressuring Israel to hand over the money. Israel also has a terrible record on workplace safety, with an accident rate more than twice the European average, and non-Israeli workers are twice as likely to lose their lives as Israeli ones. “As in the Gulf countries,” Ross argues, “the increasing reliance on cheap casual labor means that construction methods and technologies have not kept up with upgraded standards and innovations elsewhere.”

Ross argues that the contribution made by Palestinian construction workers during the pre-state period, and the exploitation of Palestinian laborers since 1967, needs to be addressed as part of any solution to the conflict. He argues that Israel’s reliance on a “transborder working class with no civil rights or pathway to citizenship” means it has more in common with the United Arab Emirates than it does with the United Kingdom. He sees hope in the rise of new labor organizations like Koach LaOvdim (Power to the Workers) or WAC-MAAN, arguing that they are the descendants of a proud tradition of Jewish-Arab labor solidarity that was decimated by Labor Zionist separatism and exclusion.

This is only part of the story, however. Pre-1948, Jewish-Arab cooperation was no more popular among Palestinians than it was among Zionists, which is why Palestinians rejected binational solutions almost as emphatically as they did uni-national ones. Ross is right that “the record of labor contributions outlined in these pages” should be taken into account in final status talks, but his endorsement of Omar Barghouti’s idea that “the settlers are accepted by the indigenous population as legitimate residents on the condition that they give up all colonial privileges” suggests that his understanding of the history of the conflict is lacking. This is a shame, because, while the idea of addressing the inequalities of labor is an important one, Barghouti’s call is really for Israeli-Jews to live as a minority in a Palestinian-Arab state, making it no solution at all. Overall, though, Stone Men is a fascinating book that sheds light on an under-explored aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

*Andrew Ross, Stone Men: The Palestinians Who Built Israel, Verso Press, pp. 320.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Articles

Against Analogy

Daniel J. Solomon

Masha Gessen's likening of the Gaza Strip to a Nazi ghetto is a master class in Holocaust inversion and distortion. These statements were made in the heat of a polemical debate, but moral outrage should never call the tune. There is a word for when it does: demagoguery.

Road to Nowhere

Alex Stein

A new book about Zionist land purchases in the Jezreel Valley/Marj ibn Amir reveals the incompatibility of the settler colonial and Zionist paradigms of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.

The Splendor of Cities

Yaser Abu Areesha

A personal assessment of the Palestinian situation following the tumultuous events of 2021.

A Typology of National Liberation Movements

Olga Kirschbaum-Shirazki

Why otherwise competent scholars get Zionism and Palestinian nationalism wrong.

A Question of Priorities

Abe Silberstein

Two ostensibly very different books shine an illuminating light on debates surrounding Palestinian political goals and identity.