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Comrades and Enemies: Arab and Jewish Workers in Palestine, 1906-1948.

Reviewed by David Finkel

In what now seems a bygone age, November 1946, an internationalist Marxist group wrote that:

As demonstrated by every other democratic revolution of our epoch, the only class in Palestine that will prove itself capable of leading a thorough-going revolutionary struggle against British imperialism is the Palestinian proletariat. The proletarian class struggle against economic exploitation unites all toilers and serves as the bridge across all reactionary nationalist barriers.

This revolutionary optimism, however misplaced it may be read in retrospect, was not completely lacking in material foundation. The immediate postwar period in Palestine had witnessed a resurgence of union struggles, sometimes based on joint Arab and Jewish worker action, as worker militancy recovered from the brutal suppression of the 1936-39 nationalist uprising (in which Jewish labor was systematically recruited to replace Arab strikers).

Placing their hopes in this development as the alternative to the hegemonies of Zionism and half feudal, half bourgeois Arab nationalism over their respective communities, the Marxists continued their argument:

The inspiring unity of the Arab and Jewish railroad workers in their recent strike is an example of how the proletarian class struggle can cut through all national barriers. (The strike of the civil service employees which followed likewise demonstrated this.)(*)

It is of course impossible for us to read such texts without some knowledge of what followed. Only a year later ETZEL (Irgun) terrorists would throw a bomb into a crowd of Arab workers outside the Haifa oil refinery; a sequence of reprisal and counter-reprisal communal massacres would ensue, and soon thereafter historic Palestine - and any possibility of a peaceful, democratic, let alone working class solution - would be consumed in the upheaval of the creation of the State of Israel.

Yet however fragile, or even nonexistent, that possibility may have been, anyone who desired it had no choice but to act as if it were possible. Zachary Lockman validates the fact, even under the shadow of the impending catastrophe, of "an unprecedented level of joint struggle among Arab and Jewish workers in pursuit of common economic goals, along with strenuous (if ultimately futile) efforts by various Arab and Jewish political forces to seek a peaceful resolution of the deepening political crisis. Lockman writes:

In retrospect, it seems highly unlikely that events could have taken a different course. But for Arabs and Jews in the Palestine of those years there could be no way of knowing precisely what the future would bring; and not a few individuals and groups sought to actively shape that future by participating in the political and socioeconomic straggles of the day (pp. 3223).

Comrades and Enemies offers a nuanced account of the multifaceted forces who sought to shape that future, not only those who emerged victorious to sponsor, among other things, the writing of the official histories.

As such, the work is valuable on several levels. The first two chapters, "Zionism and Palestine Before the First World War" and "Labor Zionism and the Arab Working Class, 1920-29," comprise a compact introductory text on the origins and contradictory realities of political Zionism.

To be sure, this is a story that has been told many times before, from numerous points of view; but Lockman here emphasizes the confrontation of Labor Zionism, with its fervent desire driven both by ideology and practical politics to create a Jewish working class in Palestine, with the realities of the existing Arab society and its emerging labor movement.

One of the author's themes is that, from the very beginning, the movements of Jewish and Arab labor mutually conditioned each other's development. Even before the formal foundation of the Zionist labor federation Histadrut, Labor Zionism faced a host of thorny issues of policy toward Arab workers.

Was Arab labor so "backward" that it should be ignored in favor of a separate Jews-only economy with a South African-style "color bar?" Or was it crucially necessary, at least in some instances, to organize Arab workers lest wage levels be so low that Jewish workers would be kept out?

Under these pressures, David Ben-Gurion argued (often eloquently) on the "brotherhood" of Jewish and Arab workers - both of whom would reap the benefits of Zionist development, he insisted - so that Arab workers should be incorporated into Labor Zionism's structures as a kind of auxiliary. (This attitude seems similar to one of the white union federations in the days of South African apartheid, TUCSA, which organized separate unions for Black and Colored labor under liberal white officials.)

On the left wing of Labor Zionism were those forces (basically the predecessors of Hashomer Hatzair) who demanded, futilely, that the Histadrut separate its function as a Jewish national institution from its economic role as a trade union movement, so that Arab workers could participate fully and equally in the latter. (Communists, opponents of Zionism in principle, had been marginalized and after the intercommunal killings of 1929 turned their attention toward Arab society.)

Despite these vigorous debates, the Histadrut rarely backed up its verbal commitments to organizing Arab labor (through its Palestine Labor League) with sufficient funding, much to the anguished distress of those of its organizers who dedicated great personal energy to the effort.

The third and fourth chapters comprise essentially a monograph on "the railway workers of Palestine," a particularly remarkable story inasmuch as the railways themselves are now extinct. In their day, the railway workshops in Palestine as elsewhere were a crucible for the formation of a working class vanguard.

Through a complex of fascinating detail too rich to summarize here, Lockman explores the fact that unified union organization never materialized, yet that "the dream of unity remained alive. . . and that time and again rank and file pressure compelled the Arab and Jewish leaderships at least to go through the motions of seeking to achieved it."

Beyond the daily need for workplace unity, Lockman suggests here, "the notion of integral unity, rather than just cooperation between separate Arab and Jewish unions, was nourished by the web of personal relations that developed among these workers, who made up Palestine's oldest, largest, and most stable mixed workforce, especially at the Haifa workshops (whose experience) seems to have not only helped moderate conflicts between the two unions but also to have nourished a unique sense of possibility among the workers themselves." (pp. 1778)

The final five chapters pick up the story of the Arab workers and the Histadrut, the disintegration of cooperation during the 1936-39 revolt, the revival of labor activism during World War II, notably in the mass workforces assembled around the British military camps, and the postwar struggles with their initially bright promise and the tragic outcome.

Throughout the book, Lockman also relates the largely untold story of how Arab workers, for their part, showed considerable tactical sophistication in approaching Jewish unions when they felt it met their own needs to take advantage of the latter's technical and organizational expertise.

From the standpoint of conventional historiography, of course, even that of most western Marxist students of the question, Arab workers' organizations were barely incipient formations in comparison to those of the Jewish workers with their incomparably superior resources and experience (to say nothing of the British Mandate authorities' general willingness to pay Jewish workers three or more times the wages of Arabs).

Yet for this reviewer at least, it emerges clearly from Lockman's account - although he might have stated the point more explicitly - that the domination of the Arab labor movement by agents of the wealthy and opportunist elites, although a real problem, never matched the extraordinary stranglehold of Zionism over the ostensibly far more "advanced" Jewish labor movement.

Of course the weakness and dependence of Arab labor was real and should not be romanticized, yet at the grassroots level we see from the beginning a powerful impulse among Arab workers to reach out to Jewish counterparts, not only for much-needed aid but also for mutual solidarity, even as they resisted the "Hebrew labor" campaigns and the underpinning ideology. There were exemplary moments in which their initiatives were reciprocated, but too rarely.

In the more typical and instructive case of the Nesher cement plant in 1924-25, for example, "the Histadrut could simultaneously launch a straggle to deprive non-Jewish workers of their jobs while supporting another strike nearby [the Yajur quarry] by non-Jewish workers demanding higher wages," in the one case fighting for "Jews-only" labor and the other seeking to avoid being undermined by low Arab wages. (p. 88)

In short, the possibility for an ideologically and organizationally independent labor movement to break away from the tutelage of what we now call "narrow nationalism" would seem to have been much greater on the Arab than on the Jewish side. But whatever buds of intercommunal solidarity existed were never allowed to flower, as the catastrophic events of world war, Nazi holocaust and the precipitous collapse of the Mandate plunged the territory into an unequal struggle in which the Palestinian Arabs never stood a chance.

Lockman, writing with genuine empathy for a number of the activists on all sides (his personal sketches indicate that he might like to do full-length biographies of some of them) is fully aware of the heartbreaking character of the final result:

So it was that in the summer of 1948 Efrayyim Krisher, a Hashomer Hatza'ir activist employed at the Haifa railway workshops who had worked closely with Arab unionists for a decade and owed his life to their quick thinking and personal bravery on December 30, 1947 [in the murderous violence instigated by ETZEL's Haifa refinery outrage], was busy trying to round up enough Jews who knew something about railway work to get what was now the Israel Railways up and running again. . . jobs which until a few months earlier had been held by Arabs, most of whom had lost their homes and their homeland and were now beginning bitter new lives as refugees (p. 355).

Lockman's conclusion summarizes his main themes: the peculiarities of labor Zionism as a movement combining colonial mentality with a certain form of class politics - itself a relic, it might be added, since today's Israeli Labor Party is virtually unique in the world for its lack of a working class base, as Israel's Mizrahi workers transferred their allegiance from the stagnant and racist Ashkenazi bureaucracy to the Likud and religious parties - and the complex intertwining of Arab and Jewish nationalisms.

It is mildly regrettable that in his conclusion, the author lapses somewhat into the jargon of "discursive fields." This reader, at least, would have preferred some comparative discussion of the Arab-Jewish worker interaction with the questions of labor and race or nationality in the United States, South Africa or northern Ireland, with their distinctive yet parallel histories of pain and hope.

Nowhere does this slightly obscure language, however, reduce the power and importance of Lockman's account. Comrades and Enemies would be worthwhile even if it only told the tragedy of Arab Palestine once more; but by restoring to our consciousness the lives of Arab and Jewish workers, their movements and their conflicting yet interwoven aspirations and dreams, and the ways in which they tried to intervene in history, the book is invaluable

* Resolution by the Independent Socialist League, "Marxism and the Jewish Question," New International, November 1946. Reprinted in the Independent Socialist Clippingbook, "Zionism, Israel and the Arabs: The Historical Background of the Middle East Tragedy," Hal Draper, ed. (Berkeley, CA, 1967). This collection of contemporaneous documents and articles has been republished by the Center for Socialist History, Berkeley, California, 1997.

David Finkel is an editor of the journal, Against the Current. ATC is sponsored by Solidarity, a socialist organization founded in 1986 and dedicated to building an effective U.S. socialist left.
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Author:Finkel, David
Publication:Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1997
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