ANDREW ROSS: The central highlands of the West Bank does harbor some of the best dolomitic limestone in the world. Stone masonry is a venerable craft among Palestinians for centuries. They built villages, they built township, they built all the great cities in historic Palestine. And when other states in the region—Jordan and Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE—came calling, they got involved in nation-building in all of those countries. You know, it’s just sort of safe to conclude that Palestinians have built almost every state except their own in the region, which is the irony of the situation.
I’m Andrew Ross and I’m the author of Stone Men: The Palestinians Who Built Israel. And I’m a Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University.
A lot of what I do is labor reporting or labor analysis or ethnography, and I’d been involved in surveying and researching conditions of migrant workers in the UAE, in Abu Dhabi specifically. We’d run into a few problems there; I was barred from access to that country. And we started working in Palestine because a couple of my colleagues were making a film there, and they asked me to come and help them make the film by interviewing workers at checkpoints. In the course of doing the interviews, I realized this was something that I could do more exhaustively for myself. And I was more interested actually in the labor chain, ultimately, that stretches from stone quarries through the factories, across the Green Line, through the checkpoints and onto construction sites in Israel. That’s the journey that this stone takes, and also accompanied by labor. So I decided that a lot of my research for the book would involve interviews at every point in that supply chain. Interviews in the stone quarries, and the factories and workshops, interviews at the checkpoints, interviews on the construction sites; and also interviews with workers who are coming back at the end of the evening to the West Bank.
I had to figure out, first of all, if this was going to be a useful book. It’s an important question to ask before you write a book, and I always try to do that. So I did a little preliminary research and discovered that there’s not a whole lot of attention, scholarly or otherwise, to Palestinian labor; you know, to what Palestinians do on a daily basis to put food on the table. And I thought I could, uh, help to fill that gap somewhat with my work. The second major reason was I couldn’t really find one published study of the Palestinian stone industry, which surprised me greatly because it is the largest private sector employer in the West Bank. It’s the largest contributor to Palestinian GDP. It’s the largest share of exports from the Occupied Territories. And you know, for such a small population, Palestinians are the twelfth largest stone producers in the world, which is quite astonishing.
Earlier in the history of the Israeli state, there was more of an appetite for concrete. And one of the stories I tell in the book is a case study of the building of Tel Aviv. Because when Jewish settlers on the coastal region decided to build a suburb of Jaffa, the settlers were faced with the prospect of relying on Palestinian stone masons who were very skilled in using coastal sandstone called kurkar. However, at that time there was a massive campaign to only employ Jewish labor and that was very difficult to do given the monopoly of the labor market by Palestinian stonemasons. There was a need to invent technological materials that were a substitute for the sandstone—silicate brick initially, and then increasingly the use of cement and concrete—in the building of Tel Aviv. And this was basically an effort to substitute the workers, because for Jewish workers it was easier to work with cement and concrete. And over time a cult of concrete developed within the Israeli state. Concrete was seen as a building material that was a sort of signature mark of modernity. It was tough, enduring, unyielding—like this brave new nation.
There’s an important turning point after 1967 with the occupation of the old city of Jerusalem, when there was a renewed interest on the part of Israeli Jews in the historical birthright of Jewish antiquity. And so there was a newfound interest in old stones. This didn’t just happen in Israel, of course, and we associate that with gentrification now—this renewed interest in “seasoned” buildings. But in Israel it had a very particular political valence and it was driven largely, in Jerusalem, by religious interest on the coast, and in Tel Aviv, it was driven by a secular appetite for real estate value.
One of the enduring questions that I try to answer in the book is this question of Who built Israel? And typically the answer to that, in most people’s minds, is the settlers, of course; Jewish settlers. But the labor history is actually quite murky and it’s not that simple. What I uncovered, really, was a fairly unbroken history of preference for Palestinian labor in spite of the efforts to boycott Arab labor at the time. Initially it was because Palestinian workers were cheaper and more skilled; they had centuries of building experience in the region. They were also a little less strident in their labor politics than Jewish settlers, many of whom were socialists. Today, a lot of employers in Israel, in the building trade, have a choice between migrant workers, from many parts of the world, and the Palestinians in the West Bank. And one of the reasons why Palestinians are preferred is because they go home every night. Also, the Palestinians, many of them speak some Hebrew and they have long-standing relationships with employers and they spend their wages on Israeli goods at Israeli prices in the West Bank, because that’s what’s available in stores, unlike the migrant workers who send their wages and remittances to their home countries.
So there are many reasons why this is a win-win for the Israeli economy and Israeli employers. There are two others I would mention, which are not so obvious. One is that this policy of hiring Palestinian labor is used as a form of economic pacification: you will be offered a work permit on condition that you keep the peace. In addition, and this is more long term, the transfer of Palestinians off their land from agricultural livelihoods into wage labor in industry, especially in construction, has meant that over the course of decades, Palestinians attachment to the land has weakened and has made it easier for settlers to take over that land.
So what forms of restitution are due to this population that was fashioned into a compulsory workforce and has contributed so much? Is there a principle of political sweat equity that could be applied here and the principle that, you know, people who build a country earn the right to have civic and political rights within that country? The land-based claims are much greater, in my mind; this is Palestinian land after all. But the labor-based claim could be used as a supplementary argument if and when final status, final settlement negotiations ever commence again, which is, there’s a big if there.
Was that the main purpose of the book? Not really. I mean, this was a sort of conclusion I reached; it was fairly speculative. My main purpose of the book was really to try and document the daily lives of these workers, because I felt it hasn’t really been adequately done, and you know, really just to plum the texture and the obstacles and indignities and the resilience of these workers as they faced the daily grind. I was very struck by their resilience, and to me it was a form of what Palestinians call samud, which is a resistance philosophy of steadfastness, of staying in place, of not withdrawing and not fleeing, and sticking to a resolute path in life. That’s what came across for me, overall, in my interviews.
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Andrew Ross is Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University and a social activist. A contributor to the Nation, the Guardian, the New York Times, and Al Jazeera, he is the author of many books, including, most recently, Stone Men: The Palestinians Who Built Israel, Creditocracy and the Case for Debt Refusal, Bird on Fire: Lessons from the World’s Least Sustainable City, and Nice Work if You Get It: Life and Labor in Precarious Times. He lives in New York.
There are a ton of books on Palestine. Very little of it is on Palestinian labor. That’s one of the reasons I wrote my book. Leila Farsakh’s work is probably the most important.