Brick by Brick: Deconstructing the Use of Palestinian Labor

'Foreigners Among Us' deals with the complex status of Palestinian workers in Israel. There’s only one gripe - it should have been held 20 years ago.

Galia Yahav
Galia Yahav
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A still from the video 'Working Day.'
A still from the video 'Working Day.'Credit: Courtesy
Galia Yahav
Galia Yahav

The new exhibition “Foreigners Among Us” does not deal with all immigrants, just those close to home – the Palestinians who are exploited for incidental work in Israel, the ones treated like foreign workers in their own country, those expelled from their homes and who build homes where they won’t live, participating against their will in the erasure of their people’s history.

As opposed to the public discussion now being held in industrialized countries about the status and rights of foreign workers who are not citizens, in 1990s Israel – after the first intifada – this importing of foreign labor was part of a deliberate policy to push the Palestinian workers outside the job market, says curator Dor Guez. He calls it “a kind of de facto separation fence that preceded the construction of the wall.”

Until then, there was a unique model of foreignness in Israel. The “foreignness” existed only in the sense of cheap labor and a lack of responsibility for the worker’s welfare, according to the worldwide model of exploitation – but without these resulting from initiated migration or geographical displacement, but as a kind of active creation of second-class citizens and low-status laborers.

Guez’s exhibition at the Beit Hagefen Art Gallery in Haifa examines this concept of foreignness in its local context, and compares it to the burning international issue of immigration and citizenship. Many of the works deal with a demonstration of the present-absentee from the field of vision. Other works deal with construction work that has become a creative praxis, which has lost functionality or whose purpose has been diverted to a political statement – distorted art.

There is an emphasis on the image of the brick – the basic unit of construction, of architecture – which also offers a vague hint of stone throwing, of an uprising.


In a video by Syrian artists Fahed Halabi and Ala Farhat called “Working Day,” construction laborers are seen in close-up, their work resembling sculpture and other activities of an artist in a studio – delicate stonemasonry, cleaning a putty knife, polishing it with a disc, mixing clay in water, etc.

A still from 'The Double' by Michal Heiman. Photo by Courtesy

Occasionally, a part of the luxury building they are working on is exposed: Corinthian columns, a pediment, classical magnificence being built among drab housing project buildings. This is a synagogue in Ashdod. During a noontime conversation, one of the workers tells the story of “The Most Amazing Death,” a version that even trumps the Cain and Abel story: A man carries his brother’s beheaded body and is shot.

Israeli artist Michal Heiman presents the video “The Double” (case study, 2003-2006), which was filmed from her balcony. Construction workers paint the external wall of the neighboring building, one of them hanging between heaven and earth, whitewashing the wall while being held by only a thin rope by the other worker. He is without scaffolding or safety harnesses, like an acrobat. Heiman turned on the camera and left.

At the foot of the image there is a caption: “What didn’t you see?” What Heiman didn’t see in real time was the worker’s fall. Only in later observation, in “looking at the materials,” does she “see” the fall. The camera becomes alive, moves down the wall at pace, searching for the body that is no longer in the yard. The cycle of becoming nonexistent, the disappearance and the impossibility of seeing was completed. But the whitewashing was not finished.

A still from 'Working Day,' showing a newly built Ashdod synagogue. Photo by Courtesy

The subject of foreign labor and immigrant cultures has already been discussed innumerable ways. In the past decade, the plastic arts seem to have taken it on as a cause. “Foreigners Among Us” lends it a local angle, and thereby adds another nuance to the discussion, which is related to institutionalized discrimination against Arab labor.

One of the exhibition’s weak points is also, conversely, its strength: It should have been held two decades ago, when the workers from the territories were expelled beyond the wall, banished when they were no longer needed.

Guez does not entirely succeed in explaining the difference between “foreign labor” and “Arab labor.” But he has successfully gathered excellent works that flood one’s awareness with the point of view of the occupied. In this, the exhibition is a kind of a well-orchestrated, small-scale summary of the political situation.

“Foreigners Among Us” is at the Beit Hagefen Art Gallery, Haifa, until August 16. Sun-Thur 8:30 A.M.-4 P.M.; Fri-Sat 10:00 A.M.-2:00 P.M., until August 16.

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