Gershon Shafir, Land, Labor and the Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, 1882-1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

Gershon Shafir has written a meticulously researched, theoretically informed and tightly argued study in historical sociology. The origins of the conflict between the two peoples, he argues, is their struggle over the land and labor markets on the frontier of Zionist settlement in Palestine during the last years of Ottoman rule — the period corresponding to the first and second waves (‘oliyot) of modern Zionist immigration. Shafir enhances this analysis by outlining the broad historical processes — the integration of Ottoman Empire territories into the world capitalist market, Europe’s overseas settlement drive and the rise of nationalism in Eastern Europe — which constitute the context of the Zionist settlement project in Palestine.

Basing his work on the typology of European overseas expansion elaborated by D. K. Fieldhouse (The Colonial Empires from the Eighteenth Century) and George Fredrickson (White Supremacy: A Comparative Study of American and South African History), Shafir contends that Israel is not “completely different from some of the other European overseas societies that were also shaped in the process of settlement and conflict with already existing societies.” This careful formulation allows him to make judicious use of a wide array of historical comparisons between the Zionist project and other colonial-settler societies (the United States, South Africa, Australia, Algeria, Kenya, the eastern marches of Prussia) while remaining rooted in the specific historic, geographic and demographic features of Zionism and Palestine.

Although the correspondences are, as they always must be, partial and suggestive, employing the language of comparison enables a momentous conceptual breakthrough. It recasts the conflict from a morality tale about the forces of good and evil in the world — a consequence of the close association between the attempted Nazi genocide and the establishment of the state of Israel much encouraged by many Zionists — and situates it in the realm of real human history.

This book is also a further expression of the moral and epistemological crisis of the Israeli intelligentsia that has been gathering intensity since Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. It has much in common with the writings of the revisionist Israeli new historians — Simha Flapan, Benny Morris, Avi Shlaim, Charles Kamen, Ilan Pappe — some of whom have been discussed previously in these pages. Like the new historians, Shafir scrupulously amasses prodigious quantities of documentary evidence from previously unresearched archives to validate an alternative historical narrative.

Shafir has also been connected to the small group of Israeli sociologists, including Deborah Bernstein, Avishai Ehrlich, Lev Grinberg, Michael Shalev and Shlomo Swirski, who have been influenced by Marxism to varying degrees. Their interests and approach are apparent in books by Bernstein (The Struggle for Equality: Urban Women Workers in Pre-State Israeli Society) and Swirski (Israel’s Oriental Majority); and in the now defunct journal, Mahbarot lemehkar ulebikoret (Notebooks for Research and Criticism). The successful fusion of critical social theory and empirical archival research gives Shafir’s work enormous power and poses a substantial challenge to the received wisdom in Israeli academic circles, where all currents of radical social thought have been historically weak. In particular, as Avishai Ehrlich first noted, Israeli social scientists have avoided the Arab-Israeli conflict as a subject for investigation until relatively recently.

The scope of Shafir’s work is broader than that of the new historians because, in addition to providing a carefully documented counternarrative, he explicitly elaborates a new conceptual framework for understanding the conflict. Shafir begins by rejecting the analyses advanced by the dominant Israeli sociological paradigms — the functionalism of Shmuel Eisenstadt and his disciples and the elite theory approach of Yonatan Shapiro. The functionalist school, by emphasizing the formative role of ideology in Israeli state and society to the exclusion of all material factors, is excessively voluntarist, while elite theory, though more realistic, is too restricted in its conception of politics. Eisenstadt and others, like Martin Buber, who idealize and romanticize the early Zionist settlers and ignore the actual conditions of their lives, render the conflict with the Palestinian Arabs invisible. In contrast, Shafir convincingly asserts that “what is unique in Israeli society emerged precisely in response to the conflict between the Jewish immigrant-settlers and the Palestinian Arab inhabitants of the land.” Following a lucid summary of recent literature on the economic and social history of late Ottoman Palestine, Shafir argues that the preconditions for Zionist settlement in Palestine were the existence of a land market brought into being by the integration of the Ottoman Empire into the world capitalist market, and the sparseness of the Palestinian Arab population in the coastal plain and inland valleys, though not in the central mountains. The history of the first ‘aliya (1882-1903), then, is presented as a drive to establish a pure settlement colony. After an initial defeat, settlers resorted to the strategy, financed by Baron Edmund de Rothschild, of developing a monocrop plantation colony based on viticulture and employing cheap Palestinian Arab labor. The second ‘aliya (1903-1914) marked a renewed pure settlement drive characterized by the determination of immigrant Jewish agricultural workers to drive Arab workers out of the labor market — “the conquest of labor.” Although the strategy of total exclusion failed, the labor market was successfully split. Jewish wages were established at levels higher than Arab wages, though the plentiful supply of cheap Arab labor continued to exert a downward pressure on Jewish wages, making them inadequate to support a family.

Following the Jewish workers’ failure to conquer labor, the leader of The Planters’ Society (Agudat Netaim) initiated an effort to encourage the immigration of Yemeni Jews to Palestine — “Jewish workers who were to be paid Arab wages.” The discussion of this attempt to satisfy both capitalist and Jewish nationalist interests and its ultimate failure is one of the highlights of the book, in which metaphysical abstractions like the “unity of the Jewish people” are subjected to considerable strain. Shafir suggests that the status and class position of Oriental Jews are historically linked to the perception that their “national value” was less than that of Europeans once the key task of the Zionist settlers became establishing exclusively Jewish settlements on scarce plots of land — “conquest of the land.” Since it was only in the older mixed agricultural settlements (moshavot) that the Yemeni Jews could usefully be deployed to displace Arab labor, they could be, and were, excluded from the kibbutz — the collective farm developed to allocate scarce land to Ashkenazi Jews and enable them to maintain a European standard of living in the face of downward pressure on wages. The first Yemeni Jewish settlement was established only in 1930, an expression of “the formation of a split national movement.”

Though the tale of the Yemeni Jews is disconcerting enough to prevailing Zionist mythology, Shafir further deploys his analytical framework and historical data to slay a veritable herd of sacred cows — the origins and early policies of the labor Zionist parties (Hapoel Hatzair and Poalei Tzion), Jewish armed self-defense (Hashomer) and collective agriculture (the kibbutz). Rejecting the prevailing Israeli historical consensus that these institutions were primarily creations of the early Zionists’ prior ideological commitments, he argues that they were forged in the course of the conflict between Zionist settlers and indigenous Palestinians on the frontier of settlement.

Among the more significant of Shafir’s conclusions is that the Jewish labor movement’s strategy of “conquest of labor” exacerbated the national conflict and allowed the workers to use the national conflict to advance their struggle for economic survival and simultaneously establish their particular interest as the general interest of the nation. Thus, Labor Zionism established its hegemony over the Zionist movement despite the preponderant role of bourgeois German Jews in the World Zionist Organization until the 1920s. The bourgeois Jewish planters, who wanted to hire cheap Arab labor, developed a more moderate nationalism than Jewish workers. But pursuing their settlement strategy of establishing a plantation colony would not have provided jobs for many new Jewish settlers, and immigration would have been slowed down. Similarly, Jewish farmers with a bourgeois orientation opposed the labor movement’s attempt to set up an exclusively Jewish agricultural guard unit (Hashomer) because it involved aggressive and provocative actions toward Arabs. But the labor movement saw “the conquest of guarding” as related to the “conquest of the land.”

The success of Labor Zionism was rooted in the contradiction between capitalist and nationalist objectives in the Eretz Israeli/Palestinian context. Labor’s strategy of moderating Zionism’s territorial aspirations while establishing Jewish exclusivity over the territory it could control was more feasible and more acceptable to Zionism’s international patrons than the bourgeois vision of territorial maximalism. “But by bowing not to Palestinian national aspirations but only to the compelling facts of Palestinian demography,” writes Shafir, “the labor movement perpetuated the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and left the door open to territorial maximalism.” Shafir argues convincingly that the particular form of the Israeli national movement was shaped by its confrontation with the indigenous inhabitants of the land it sought to occupy while the Palestinian Arab national movement was in turn shaped by its encounter with Zionism. Today, both societies remain locked in this mutual embrace.

How to cite this article:

Joel Beinin "Shafir, Land, Labor and the Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict," Middle East Report 164-165 (May/June 1990).

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