Class Warfare: How 'Hebrew Labor' Destroyed Jewish-Arab Solidarity

In a new book, former MK Tamar Gozansky analyzes the consistent policy of the pre-state Labor Zionist movement and the Histadrut, which always preferred the benefit of the (Jewish) nation over social struggle.

Moti Milrod

“Bein nishul lenitzul: Skhirim Aravim – matzavam uma’avakeihem (“Between Expropriation and Exploitation: Status and Struggles of Arab Workers in Palestine and Israel”), by Tamar Gozansky, Pardes Publishing House (Hebrew), 231 pages, 60 shekels

We hear a great deal of talk about the Arab Spring that blossomed a few years ago. A different spring, one bearing Jewish-Arab buds, was long since left to wither on the vine. Tamar Gozansky, a former Knesset member from the Arab-Jewish Hadash party, brings it to mind in her new book, “Between Expropriation and Exploitation.” She recounts a large-scale strike that erupted in Mandatory Palestine on April 9, 1946, initially by 500 postal workers in Jaffa and Tel Aviv. “The next day, they were joined by the postal and telegraph workers in other cities,” she writes. “Subsequently, the 7,000 railway workers joined the strike, and within a week it encompassed the entire [Mandatory] civil service.”

According to Gozansky, the strike was “unprecedented in its scope and in its [Arab-Jewish] unity. The government ordered the army to break the strike by forcing the postal and telegraph workers to return to work. This effort failed, however. During the strike, there were joint Jewish-Arab picket lines outside the post offices, and the strikers gained broad public support.”

The strike also unleashed all the sleeping demons. The communist leader Eliahu Gozansky (the author’s father-in-law) wrote, while the strike was going on: “The Arab and Jewish reactionary forces, sensing a grave danger in the combination of a general strike and a political-class struggle, mobilized unreservedly behind the government. ‘Palestine’ [an Arabic-language newspaper] declared the strike to be Zionist, while Dapei Tzaharyim and Yedioth Ahronoth [Hebrew-language papers] screamed that the strike was fomented by ‘the Arab League.’”

Two years after the huge strike came the 1948 war. Is it possible to trace the evolution of events from that heroic struggle, in which workers from both nations battled the British authorities, to that war? Gozansky reconstructs the destroyed bridge between the two nationalities, and sets out to shed light on a dark zone: the struggle of the Palestinian Arab working class. If this realm remains unknown, it will be difficult to quarrel with the notion that the tragic developments that followed the 1948 war were necessary and natural, because, if the events are examined from a real-time perspective, it turns out that this force of nature was actually man-made.

Tomer Appelbaum

Conquering labor

The extensive joint activity of Arab and Jewish workers was not aborted only by the armed conflict but, in large measure, by the policy of the Histadrut, the Jewish labor federation founded in 1920, which pushed for separation between Arab and Jewish workers. Indeed, in both government-owned and private enterprises – almost the only venues where Jews and Arabs harbored common interests – the Histadrut, which was closely identified with the Zionist party Mapai (forerunner of Labor), did its best to undermine the necessary cooperation. The Mandatory government was the country’s largest employer at the time, and if the Zionist movement wished to do battle against British rule, as it declared, it should have cultivated Jewish-Arab unity.

However, the problematic term “Hebrew labor” was coined in this period, and soon translated into the no-less-problematic term “conquest of labor” – meaning to conquer it from the Arabs, of course. These chauvinistic slogans supplanted the era of “labor solidarity” and “class struggle.”

Here’s a blatant example of the “conquest of labor.” In 1937, Solel Boneh, a Histadrut company, undertook “to function as a contractor for hauling work in the port [of Haifa], collecting from the port administration the same rate as the Arab contractor had received To cope economically with this rate and still be able to employ Jews, the Histadrut and the Zionist institutions agreed that the salaries of the Jewish laborers would be subsidized by the Jewish Agency by means of the purchase of mechanized equipment for the haulage work.” For the Histadrut, this meant losing money on the contract, with the reward being the elimination of Arab workers from hauling work in the port.

Gozansky’s book thus explodes the Zionist myth that it was the Arabs who launched the hostilities against the Jews. As we see, in the realm of organized labor, at least, it was the Zionist movement that initiated the confrontation. Thus, all the glittering theories that had been disseminated abroad, to the effect that Zionism would work to release the Arab workers from their feudal bonds, were smashed to smithereens on the ground in Palestine. The Zionist leadership did not take action merely to discriminate against Arab workers, but to uproot them altogether. From this point of view, feudalism was more merciful. In order to accomplish this policy, the Histadrut sought “domestic harmony,” as Gozansky puts it, between Jewish workers and the authorities of the British Mandate.

The Histadrut’s segregation policy was viewed askance by groups of Jewish workers, most of whom were from Eastern Europe and possessed a highly developed class consciousness. To persuade them to support it, Gozansky writes, Histadrut agitation set out to cast the Arabs in monstrous terms, per the following: “The Arab worker is in the thrall of nationalism and religious fanaticism, and is not opposed to unorganized labor.”

The healthy class sense of some communist Jewish laborers induced them to object to the expulsion of Arab workers from their work in the orchards in Nes Tziona. David Ben-Gurion, the secretary-general of the Histadrut at the time, ordered these 31 dissenters to appear before the Histadrut’s internal “labor tribunal” and also argued the prosecution’s case at the trial. Their protest was termed “illegal” by Ben-Gurion. The opponents of the expulsion had distributed a leaflet stating that Mapai’s intention was “to displace the Arab workers, but the Jewish workers decline to build themselves up on the ruins of the Arab workers.” In another case, when the communists tried to establish a joint labor union for Jewish and Arab rail workers, they were also hauled before a labor tribunal, accused of “breaching Histadrut discipline and acting disgracefully against it [the labor federation].”

Acts of solidarity

On more than one occasion, Gozansky notes, the class struggle led to acts of solidarity between workers of the the two nationalities. For example, under pressure of the workers, “the Histadrut supported the strike of 35 Arab workers in the Wieland brothers’ tile factory.” The buds of a cooperative struggle were discernible as early as the 1920s – in a joint drivers’ strike in 1924 and in strikes by workers in orchards in Nes Tziona and Rehovot that same year.

There were also sad cases. In the early 1920s, the private Nesher cement factory, near Haifa, employed Jews along with 30 Arab workers from Egypt. In 1924, the 274 Jewish workers declared a strike, demanding higher wages, and convinced the Egyptians to join them. After a two-month strike, the owners agreed to meet some of demands of the Jewish workers. But the Egyptian workers, instead of gaining improved work conditions, were deported back to Egypt by the British administration.

The case of the railway workers is particularly instructive. According to Gozansky, their labor organization, established in 1919 (a year before the Histadrut), was the first to unite Jews and Arabs. Realizing that Arab workers were the majority among the railway staff, the Histadrut, to ensure that the Jewish employees would not leave their jobs in the railway shops, was initially compelled to consent to episodic cooperation with the Arab workers. After several years, though, the Histadrut became committed to splitting the joint union. At first, “The Arab railway workers rejected Histadrut’s suggestion to establish two [distinct] organizations that would cooperate, and insisted on an independent [integrated] union that would not be connected to the Histadrut,” Gozansky writes.

She quotes the secretary of the Jerusalem branch of the organized railway workers, a communist, as saying, “Following a discussion, we decided in the party’s branch to organize the Arab workers and establish, together with them, a trade union of Jewish and Arab railway workers.” Ben-Gurion, who attended the meeting with the Arab workers, “declared that he supported the initiative.” In practice, though, as the secretary described, Ben-Gurion did “nothing to actualize his fine words, and the Histadrut leadership acted to thwart every plan to establish an internationalist workers organization.” In the end, the rail workers’ unions split on ethnic lines.

The social status of the Arab workers grew apace as a result of the British occupation – the British administration built a modern port in Haifa, rail lines and army bases. Tens of thousands of impoverished Arab farmers worked in those enterprises, where they encountered union activity, which heightened their political and class consciousness and enhanced the international context of their struggle.

Whereas the unions among the Jewish workers were an integral part of the Zionist movement and were exploited for its purposes, the Palestinian labor movement enjoyed relative freedom of activity. It was led by left-wing activists, for whom a joint struggle was a basic principle. The Arab Workers Congress, established in 1945 (under the leadership of the Communists) would eventually have 30,000 members.

Prey for profiteers

After 1948, the great majority of the Arab workers who continued to live in Israel, found themselves unemployed. The Haifa oil refineries, for example, allowed only a few Arab employees to return to work via a temporary employment agency, that is, as contract workers and at substandard terms.

Israel’s Arab population was under martial law from 1948 until 1966, and because of military rule, together with extensive expropriations of private, Arab-owned land, tens of thousands of Arab inhabitants were forced to seek work outside of their villages and towns. In order to leave the confines of those villages, they required an exit license. Burdened by these restrictive conditions, Arab job-seekers were easy prey for labor profiteers. The fact that Arab workers needed transit permits in order to move about, and were barred from joining the Histadrut, was exploited by Israeli authorities for political purposes.

Gozansky tells the story of 14 workers from the village of Nahaf, in the north, who worked as contract laborers in a quarry for three years. When they asked for a raise, the contractor informed the police that they were working without exit permits, and they were brought to trial and fined.

The Histadrut cooperated systematically with the apparatus of the Military Government in apprehending unlicensed Arab workers. On the other hand, notes Gozansky, “in January 1949, when new Jewish immigrants in Ramle went on strike for four days” – to protest inferior work conditions in the citrus groves – “the Histadrut labor bureau recruited unemployed Arabs from Ramle to pick citrus in Rehovot.”

Decades of a democratic campaign for class unity finally paid off: In 1966, the Histadrut approved full membership for Arab workers, and afterward, in the wake of another struggle, elective labor councils were established in Arab communities.

Gozansky tells a heroic story of people who refused, even under the harshest conditions, to submit to the reality of exclusion and discrimination. The struggles of Arab workers during the Mandatory period paved the way for today’s salaried Arab employees in Israel taking active part in unions that were formed over the past decade in communications companies (Cellcom, HOT), at transportation companies and elsewhere.

The special role of Arab women in trade unions is noteworthy. Gozansky quotes Aida Rass, head of the workers committee in the Kalansua local council, who told her in a 2014 interview: “Women in the leadership possess similar traits: collective thinking, looking after the individual, social cohesion of the workers, ensuring that no one is left behind.” Nisreen Abed Alhai, who was elected head of the workers committee of the Taibe Municipality in 2013, puts it even more bluntly: “Women are stronger and struggle more.”

Maybe the time has come, after 69 years, to establish the “Ninth of April Movement,” and, if that date is taken, then “The 1946 Movement.” How splendid it would have been for our common history if it had continued on the path of 1946, the year of workers’ unity, and not on the path of 1948, the year of separation. It’s not too late to redress the situation even now.