Monday, January 15, 2007

Separate and Unequal: The History of Arab Labour

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.

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