Double Take / From nation-builders to racism: 'No one wants Mohammed hanging around'
'Hebrew labor' has its roots in early Zionism, but in modern-day Israel, the practice of employing Jews only is against the law.
JERUSALEM – Back in the pre-state era, "Hebrew labor" was a vaunted Zionist goal. The nation's forefathers wanted to create a Jewish labor force in manufacturing and fields, and to eliminate the need for Arab workers.
Creating a "Hebrew labor" force was part of the greater effort to forge a new society here. David Ben-Gurion declared that Hebrew labor was "not a means, but a sublime end" that could transform Jews into creative workers by building their country with their own hands.
The idea persists today, but with a new twist: Hebrew labor as a means to boycott Palestinian workers.
You can find it on the trucks of Eliezer Movers, a Jerusalem-based company, which declare that they offer "blue-and-white work." On their English-language website, they are blunter: "Israeli labor only."
In southern Jerusalem, homemade ads stuck to lampposts proffer painting jobs, home renovations, plumbing and tile work, done by "100% Hebrew labor," and jobs "done by skilled and experienced Jewish hands."
Fear is a major motivating factor.
"A lot of women are afraid to have Arabs come into their homes," says Bruce Kline, who made and posted the ads. Kline, who describes himself as a nationalist, lives in the West Bank settlement of Maon. "People are afraid they’re going to be robbed [by Arab workers]. They case the house, and the next thing you know your stuff is gone. People are afraid for their physical safety. No one wants Mohammed hanging around."
A nervous Jewish family looking for non-Arab labor has plenty of choices. On the Internet, you can find a company called "Hebrew Labor," based in the settlement of Tapuah and offering work "by Jewish workers only."
Rather than support a gentile
There is also the Hebrew Labor Board at www.avoda-ivrit.org, offering a place for Jewish-only businesses and Jewish job-seekers alike to connect. The site's mission, displayed on its home page, says that it is preferable "to provide a place of work and a livelihood to a Jew rather than to support a gentile." It also lists a warning against "the security risk of employing our enemies and the problem of assimilation created through daily contact" with non-Jews.
The site has received 3,000 hits since it launched three months ago, says Yehonatan Drori, who directs the Hebrew Labor Hotline advertised on the site. Drori, an activist from the settlement of Yitzhar, is currently barred from the West Bank by military order. The network of Hebrew Labor, he says, is a return to "a basic value in Zionism." Not to mention, he says, that it is "moral and humane to give work to your jobless brothers rather than to employ foreigners."
The "Hebrew labor" ethos is particularly strong among West Bank settlers, who often describe their enterprise as an extension of Zionist settlement in the pre-state period. But the promotion of a boycott of Palestinian labor raises legal questions for modern-day Israel.
Dan Yakir, chief legal counsel of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, points out that a 1988 equal job opportunities law makes it illegal to discriminate on the basis of nationality when hiring. A businessman who advertises that he employs Jews, he says, "is incriminating himself by acknowledging that he does not hire Arabs simply because they are Arab."
A tactic that was employed by the pre-state Zionists in their bid for statehood now looks very different in an established country with laws that seek to guarantee equal opportunity for all.
Drori says there is nothing racist about the "Hebrew Labor" website, which he says serves merely as a clearing house for people who prefer to employ fellow Jews.
Kline, who posted the lamppost ads, said he is catering to the preferences of his clients. He is also, he says, following the directive of Rabbi Dov Lior, chief rabbi of Hebron and its neighboring Kiryat Arba settlement. Several years ago, Lior issued a rabbinical decree that Jews should not employ Arabs under any circumstances.
"As a result," Kline said. "I get a lot of work. The shoe fits."