Video: The historic role of “labor Zionism”

This is part 2 of Oaklandsocialist’s slideshow presentation of our pamphlet on the rise of Zionism and the founding of the State of Israel. This part will examine the role of “labor Zionism” in the 1920s and early ‘30s. Below the video you will find the text, if you prefer to read it. And if you find this helpful, we urge you to check out the full pamphlet, whose link you will find at the bottom.

This is John Reimann of oaklandsocialist again with the second part of my slideshow on The new apartheid, the rise of Zionism and the founding of the state of Israel.

In the first part of this series, we examined why Zionism never really resonated with the masses of Jewish people in Europe for many decades and the consequence for that – that Zionism always was a reactionary and pro-imperialist movement.

In this second part, we will discuss how of Zionism – and especially what was called “labor Zionism” – in Palestine divided and helped oppress the Arab working class of Palestine.

Before going any further, I have to make one note here as far as terminology: Nowadays we refer to the Palestinian people as such in order to counter Israeli propaganda and to emphasize that the Palestinian people will not be expelled to somewhere else in the Arab world. But back at that time, in the years immediately after WW I, the Arab people in Palestine referred to themselves as Arabs as we will see, so I will use that term here.

One final introductory note: I am going to focus on the role of the working class – of wage earners – despite the fact that it was the small farmers – the fellahin – who were in the majority. That is because it is the working class that really plays the key central role in organizing and driving forward any revolution. So, with that introduction, here goes:

The peoples of ancient Palestine lived side by side, without major conflict.

Contrary to what is commonly claimed, up until the rise of Zionism in Palestine, Jews and Muslims had lived peacefully side by side in Palestine. British colonialism and Zionism changed all that.

After Britain took the colony of Palestine away from the Ottomans through WW I, they encouraged a Jewish immigration into Palestine, but it was only a trickle. However, just like the European immigrants into other parts of Africa, they tended to take on the colonial mentality, which in Palestine took the form of Zionism.

And they gained increasing power for a couple of reasons: First, some of them brought capital with them. Second, under the protection of and in collaboration with the British colonial government, the Zionist organizations grew.

First and foremost was Labor Zionism and the labor Zionists organized what passed for a union federation, called the Histadrut, which had its founding conference in 1920, just a few years after WW I ended.

Now, the Histradut’s full name reveals its European Jewish supremacist intent. That full name was the “General Organization of Hebrew Workers in the Land of Israel”, and they meant that. While there were struggles around this issue, it was not until 1959 that the Histadrut accepted Arab, which is to say Palestinian, workers as full members. In other words, it literally was a form of Apartheid or Jim Crow unionism, which means it wasn’t really unionism at all. At times the Histadrut did organize Arab workers, but as we will see, they always made sure to do so under the control of the European Jewish supremacist Histadrut leadership.

The real purpose of the Histadrut and of labor zionism was to increase the percentage of Jews in the workplaces in Palestine. In order to do this, they had to make those workplaces attractive to Jewish workers coming from Europe and for that they had to strive to raise the wages of Jewish workers in Palestine. The Histadrut leaders realized that that would be impossible if the wages and conditions of the Arab workers remained so much lower than those of the Jewish workers.

So, the Histadrut did at times organize Arab workers to struggle for better pay, but with a twist, or we should say with several twists: Note that I said “they organized Arab workers”. What they did not do, and what they always opposed, was the self organizing of the Arab workers themselves. David Ben-Gurion, who was Israel’s first prime minister and was Labor Zionism personified, said that the creation of a labor front was – quote – “the mission of the Jewish workers”. Not the common task of both groups, just the Jewish workers.

The real attitude of the so-called left of Zionism towards Arab workers is revealed by, for example, the statement of Eliezer Shohat a leader of a “left” Zionist party Hapoel Hatzair, or “the Young Worker”. Shohat said (quote) “when we organize them (meaning Arab workers) we will be arousing them against us.”

In part, what he and labor zionism were referring to when he saw Arab workers as a threat was the fact that time and again the Histadrut organized to force Arab workers out of a workplace to be replaced by Jewish workers. Also, in part, like any people, the Arab people of Palestine – the Palestinian people – like all peoples did not want to be ruled by a foreign colonial power. They wanted their own independent nation, but Zionism at that time depended on the British colonial power and therefore opposed any sort of independence.

There was also another aspect to the Histadrut that meant it was not a real union. That was the fact that despite the fact that it organized Jewish workers, it also was a capitalist employment agency. It was directly involved in setting up some of the Kibbutzim, which were collectively-owned farms. And it was an employment agency. For example, it set up a Jewish construction employment agency to hire Jewish construction workers in the building of a deep water port in Haifa.

Not all Jewish workers were totally and hopelessly racist. There were a couple of political parties that expressed this drive for unity, but both of these parties tried to square the circle; they tried to align Zionism – the creation of specifically Jewish homeland – with working class unity.

The Palestine Communist Party – the only party who opposed Zionism

One working class party in Palestine unequivocally rejected Zionism and tried to help Arab workers organize. That was the Palestine Communist Party, which functioned as part of the Moscow-based Third International.

And here, international events played a huge role. The Russian Revolution had been an inspiration to tens of millions of workers throughout the world. And in the years immediately following the revolution there was something of a global revolutionary wave. This was the basis of the formation of the Palestine Communist Party. But, number one, that party had to swim against every single other political tendency in Palestine. And also by the early 1920s, that revolutionary wave was receding and in my opinion this lessened the potential for further growth of the Palestine Communist Party.

I have to add that the degeneration of the Soviet state and the domination of the bureaucracy also impacted the role of the Palestine Communist Party. Why the Soviet bureaucracy developed in the first place is, of course, important but beyond the scope of this presentation.

So, now, let us look at how these dynamics played out in the railway industry, which was very important in Palestine at that time. And there, a union developed, the Railway Workers Association. It was part of Histadrut, but it also directly recruited Arab railway workers as full members. And therein lay the problem: The Arab workers reacted to the fact that the parent body, the Histadrut, only accepted Jewish members. So, while some Arab railway workers did join the union, the apartheid position of the Histadrut was a barrier to major recruitment into the railway union.

There was a struggle within that union for it to leave the Histadrut. The two left Zionist parties advocated remaining. Only the Palestine Communist Party advocated leaving the Histadrut. This was an uphill battle if for no other reason than that the Histadrut played a major role in financing the railway workers union. The Histadrut leadership responded by expelling communists and then getting them fired from the railways.

Despite this, by 1924 of the 2400 railway workers, the railway union had 259 members of which almost half were Arab members. And the Arab members were integrated into the central leadership of the union. But ultimately, with the only ones really organized for true unionism – the communists – either expelled or marginalized, as we will see in the next part of this series, the majority of Arab railway workers felt compelled to turn elsewhere to fight for their rights.

Another really clear example of the role of labor zionism and the Histadrut is that of the construction and then operation of the Nesher Cement Plant.

Construction of the Nesher cement plant

Construction of that plant started in 1922 and continued through 1924. The construction crew was part Jewish and also part Egyptian Arab immigrants. The latter were of course paid much less. Through its divisive role, the Histadrut succeeded in getting that crew to be all Jewish.

But that was not the end of the story.

When Nesher opened in 1925, the plant employed only Jewish workers. But the quarry that supplied the raw material employed both Jewish and Egyptian Arab workers. The Histadrut organized tried to get that crew to be all Jewish. They faile at that time, but as we will see they did not give up.

Now here world events once again played a decisive role. In February of 1932, Hitler came to power in Germany. This resulted in a massive increase of Jewish immigration into Palestine. From the 4,000 Jews who immigrated in 1931, that number swelled to 62,000 in 1935 and the Jewish population of Palestine nearly doubled to 27% overall.

There followed an economic boom in Palestine. Global demand for oranges and lemons increased. The Histadrut campaigned to replace the largely Arab farmworkers with Jewish workers. There was a construction boom. The Histadrut campaigned for employment of Jewish construction workers. There was a boom in shipping exports. The Histadrut campaigned for replacement of Arab dockworkers with Jewish dockworkers. In all those industries, those campaigns included picketing work sites and even assaults on Arab workers.

Fast forward to 1936. By then the tensions had reached a breaking point and the Palestinian Arab masses could tolerate it no more – neither the oppression of British colonial rule nor the attacks by the representatives of that rule – Zionism. By that time, the Jewish population was close to becoming the majority in Palestine. Also, the construction boom had come to an end and unemployment started to rise, especially among construction workers. The Histadrut took advantage of the increased unemployment to become even more aggressive as far as replacing Arab workers with Jewish ones. The Arab masses rose up in a massive rebellion.

I will deal more extensively with that great rebellion and the rise of Arab nationalism in a following slideshow. But suffice it to say that the 1936 rebellion involved a six month general strike, one of the longest general strikes in history.

The main point of this history of labor Zionism was how it linked what became a majority of the working class of Israel/Palestine – the Jewish workers – with the Israeli capitalist class. How it helped create a Jewish supremacist consciousness. And how that created deep, deep divisions within the working class. Of course, those dynamics play a powerful role today.

If you found this helpful, be sure to check out the full pamphlet The New Apartheid: The rise of Zionism and the founding of the State of Israel

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