There was something awe-inspiring about the dark red rainclouds that covered the sky of the Arabah on April 13. Precipitation is rare in this section of the Great Rift Valley, which lies below sea level and hundreds of miles from the Mediterranean. When it does come, the rain rushes down the wadis of the Israeli Negev and from the high mountains of Jordan opposite, flooding the dry bed of the Wadi ‘Araba, prying loose the landmines buried decades ago when the two states were in a state of war. Rarer still is rain in April, the month in which fresh days and cold nights begin to give way to the stifling 24-hour heat of summer, and the month in which the bell peppers that have brought prosperity to the Israeli side of the Arabah begin to wilt and rot.

The thirteenth, moreover, is not just any day in April: It is Songkran, the Thai new year, one of four annual legally mandated days of rest for the thousands of Thai migrants who make up the bulk of the agricultural work force in the territory of the Central Arabah Regional Council. In Thailand, Songkran marks the beginning of the end of the dry season, and locals greet the hottest days of the year with exuberant tossing of water and talcum powder in expectation of the monsoon rains that will come in May or June. As far as the Thais of the Arabah were concerned, then, rain was no reason to put off celebrating; on the contrary, it may have seemed to promise something other than the bleak, suffocating summer ahead.

Soon after 9 am, I joined the workers of the Arabah community of Ein Amal (not its real name), in their holiday procession. Ruddy rainclouds were piled ominously in the sky, but the workers were engrossed in the parade. Each farm’s employees sat on a tractor-drawn, flower-garlanded trailer, drinking beer and brandy, sometimes dancing to the music blaring from the makeshift sound systems displayed next to plastic sports trophies, sometimes slipping off to cover friends on nearby tractors with talcum powder. But the performance had no audience: Work in the community had been brought to a halt by the holiday, and apart from the odd passerby, Israelis seemed to be taking shelter from the storm indoors.

Thunder was already rumbling across the desert and fat raindrops were slamming into the dust when the parade came to an end in a small lot near the soccer field at the center of Ein Amal. My car and I, both caked with talcum, were commandeered to take home a worker who had passed out from drink. By the time we parked in the tractor shed of the family farm where I was doing my fieldwork at the time, the drumming of the rain on the high corrugated-metal roof of the shed was earsplitting. Upon entering the nearby quarters, we found that the roof was leaking directly over the bed of one of the two workers who had come with me to help carry their friend home.

After doing what I could to help contain the damage, I drove back to the celebration. Huge puddles were already forming on the roads, and I made it through the biggest one at the cost of a license plate. The day had turned dark, lit but intermittently by streaks of lightning, and the rain showed no sign of letting up. But the party was still going full blast, under the flimsy jerry-rigged canopy of a tractor-drawn wagon. I hung around for a few minutes, and then headed home. No other Israeli was in sight.

A Niche for Self-Labor

The colonization of Palestine began in the late nineteenth century with the First Aliyah, or Zionist immigration, and the establishment of plantations worked by Palestinians under the management of Jewish settler-owners. A generation later, the “socialist” or “labor settlement” wing of the Zionist movement began its ascendance to hegemony via the “conquest of labor,” with the demand that Jewish-owned farms employ the Jewish proletarians who were streaming into the country in the wake of World War I. The battle ended with a commitment of the central Zionist institutions to the financing of land purchases for communal and collective farms (kibbutzim and moshavim, respectively), which would provide a prestigious if not luxurious livelihood for these European worker-pioneers. The new communities prided themselves on their commitment to labor qualified as “Hebrew”—that is, exclusive of Palestinians—and “self-”—that is, rejecting of “exploitative” wage relations.

Most communities of the “labor settlement” movement swiftly abandoned both principles after the creation of the state of Israel and the 1948 war. The transfer of lands confiscated by the state from Palestinian refugees provided these previously land-poor settlements with vast new fields to cultivate, and the Military Government imposed on Israel’s new Palestinian citizens, as well as the immigration of hundreds of thousands of Middle Eastern (Mizrahi) Jews, supplied a pool of cheap labor. Rejecting these “temptations” out of fidelity to the values of their movement, many young kibbutzniks and moshavniks looked for ways to continue the pioneering quest. Some found it in the Arabah.

The Arabah (in Hebrew, Arava, in Arabic, ‘Araba) is a low-lying, hyper-arid valley stretching from the Dead Sea in the north to the Gulf of ‘Aqaba in the south. Separated from the rain-giving Mediterranean by the mountains of the Negev and Sinai and scorching hot in the summer, it has been a zone of transhumance and transit for thousands of years. Long-distance travel was cut off as the Arabah became the militarized border between Israel and Jordan in the course of the 1948 war, and as many of the locally resident Bedouin were forced over that border into Jordan. Following the opening of the Israeli port of Eilat in the early 1950s, the border zone gained in strategic importance. Nevertheless, officials were skeptical of the plausibility of agriculture there, and it took the direct intervention of titanic ex-Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion to gain government support for the establishment of the Arabah’s first moshav, Ein Yahav, in 1959, by a “nucleus” of settlers born and raised in the communities of the labor settlement movement.

A number of factors converged to make reliance on Hebrew self-labor plausible in the Arabah long after it had ceased to be so in the rest of the country. Government investment in irrigation infrastructure made it possible to tap the region’s deep aquifers, and the high temperatures made it profitable to grow summer vegetables in winter. The extreme climate and distance from cities attracted a population of adventurous youth while making cheap labor power hard to come by. When, following the 1967 war, agricultural enterprises in the rest of the country became heavily dependent on Palestinian day laborers from the Occupied Territories, this form of employment was precluded by the impracticability of commuting to the Arabah from anywhere in the West Bank, and the point-blank refusal of local farmers to consider letting West Bankers reside in the area. Arabah farmers were, however, amenable to employing the labor of young volunteers, mostly from Europe and North America, who were fascinated enough by the settlers’ way of life to supply their energies in exchange for the opportunity to participate in it.

The exodus of second-generation youth from the rain-fed valleys of Israel’s north and center to the desolation of its southern desert, and their subsequent self-policing to ensure adherence to the principle of self-labor, suggest a subjective orientation that I venture to call “exploitation anxiety.” These Labor Zionists perceived exploitation of the work of others, especially non-Jews, as an evil less because of its effect on the exploited, and more because of its ostensible impact on the exploiters. Raised on the writings of Ber Borochov and Joseph Haim Brenner, they saw work—and especially agricultural work—as a means of redemption and a pathway to an organic relationship with the Land of Israel. The employment of others, especially Palestinians, signaled a return to the “upside-down class pyramid” that had supposedly characterized the “parasitic” and “unproductive” Jewish society of the diaspora.

The decision of these young pioneers to flee the regions of the country where cheap agricultural labor was abundant may seem absurd at first, but in fact it reflects an intuitive understanding of capitalist market rationality. The employment of Mizrahi and especially Arab labor was not just a temptation to “regress” toward a more comfortable, bourgeois existence; even if a farm or a community managed to resist the lure, it would find itself besieged by price competition from exploitative neighbors. Short of complete withdrawal into autarky, it was only possible to maintain self-labor by forming an economic enclave in which bourgeois exploitation was not feasible. This niche was carved out in the 1960s, and it held its own until the 1980s.

Bell Peppers and Thai Migrants

The Jewish settlers of the Arabah did not carve out this niche entirely on their own, of course. Besides land grants and heavy government subsidies for irrigation, their livelihood also depended on the protection afforded them by high tariffs, which prevented the flooding of Israeli markets with cheaper vegetables from abroad. Settler self-labor survived by moving into the Arabah and enlisting its climate for comparative advantage in the winter market, but remained sheltered from competition with countries with similar climates and cheaper labor forces. This protection was eroded as the Israeli state embraced neoliberal economic policies beginning in the mid-1980s. As tariff barriers were lowered and unit prices fell, Arabah farmers were faced with the need to overhaul their methods and target markets.

After a period of experimentation, a new pattern began to emerge. Beginning in the early 1990s, the wide range of vegetables that had been cultivated in the Arabah for distribution in Israeli markets was increasingly replaced with a monoculture of bell peppers destined for export to Europe. But with rapid expansion of the area under cultivation came a thirst for labor that could no longer be satisfied by the settlers themselves. Fortuitously for them, the transformation of the local economy coincided with a major, rapid shift in national labor policy. In response to the first Palestinian intifada, the government of Yitzhak Rabin began to replace cheap Palestinian labor with migrant workers imported from around the world. The country chosen as a pool for agricultural laborers was Thailand.

In other parts of the country, Thais replaced Palestinian farm workers as Romanians and later Chinese replaced construction workers; in the Arabah, on the other hand, they replaced no one, but catalyzed a massive upheaval in the local mode of production. This upheaval, of course, could not but have consequences for a local culture predicated on “exploitation anxiety.” When Thais began arriving in the Arabah in the early 1990s, they were slotted into the pre-existing bureaucratic category of “volunteers,” with ramifications that went beyond the purely formal. Holidays like Songkran became community festivals, with employers and their families feasting on pad thai—a tourist favorite prepared especially for Israelis despite its complete absence from the cuisine of Isaan, the northeastern region of Thailand where the vast majority of migrants originate. Including not only dances and beauty pageants but also “best boss” contests, these rituals attempted to bridge the gap between the pioneering ideology of Israel’s “labor settlement” movement and the traditions brought by the workers whose very presence flew in the face of this ideology.

In those years, it seems, the farming community resolved the conflict between its self-image as a self-laboring pioneer collective and the employment of migrant workers by cobbling together a sort of paternalism. Today farmers speak of “the Thais of olden times (shel pa’am)” with nostalgia, praising their primitive innocence—“they had just come down from the trees”—as well as their hard work and their deference. Many assert that “they called us ‘mother’ and ‘father’”—a vocabulary of legitimated domination that has its place in Thai culture, but must have struck these Oedipal, youth-worshipping Zionists as odd before they provisionally accepted the obligations it entailed.

Yet all of that truly seems like “olden times” today. As the number of Thai workers grew from two or three to up to 20 per farm, new relations of production and patterns of life were established that made the paternalism difficult to uphold. Today workers are packed into barracks, two or four to a room and sharing a kitchen; on every farm, they form a miniature community with an internal hierarchy based on age and seniority. Of an evening, cooking, eating and drinking are social activities carried out by the miniature farm community; on weekends and holidays, soccer and takraw tournaments integrate the mini-community into a larger one that includes all Thais resident in the vicinity. This community is the one that carried out the Songkran procession in Ein Amal, on its own and in almost total isolation from the Israeli community in which it is embedded.

The Wellsprings of Alienation

The failure of the early attempt to integrate Thai migrants in a paternalistic relationship with their employers can be understood as the effect of changes in the migration regime and the underlying socioeconomic forces that it mediates. This regime has always been a draconian one, dominated by the “demographic” imperative of preventing the permanent settlement of migrants in Israel and any diminution of Jewish predominance in the population. Migrants arrive in Israel on five-year visas that cannot be renewed; married couples are barred from migrating together; and the few women among the migrants are subject to immediate deportation if they become pregnant and choose to keep the child. But whereas in the 1990s and early 2000s enforcement was lax, with many migrants simply replacing their passports and returning to Israel for ten years or more, in recent years it has been tightened significantly.

The state, moreover, has found an ingenious method of fighting undocumented migration by forcing employers themselves into becoming privatized enforcers of migration policy. Employers are granted a quota of workers, spoken of as “visas,” according to an index based on the area and crops they cultivate and calculated in such a manner as to keep the labor supply tight. Workers are “bound” (literally, “chained,” kvulim) to their employers, such that if any worker outstays his allotted time or leaves his employer, the latter forfeits his “visa,” leaving the farm short of labor. As social media and other electronic means of communication make it easier for workers to find out about jobs on other farms, every worker becomes a potential liability as a “fugitive” (barhan), and employers are pushed to use illegal methods such as withholding passports or even kidnapping to ensure that their workers stay put and go home when they are told to.

A further impediment to paternalism is the policy reform agreed to by Israel and Thailand in 2013, in an effort to reduce the exorbitant fees theretofore paid by migrants to Thai middlemen working with Israeli counterparts. Fees have dropped steeply, but as middlemen were eliminated employers lost the ability to choose which workers they would import. Whereas previously employers were able to reward workers by bringing over their brothers or sons, thus building relationships with entire families in Thailand, today employers must accept whatever workers they are assigned, much to their chagrin.

The state’s political need to prevent the permanent settlement of migrants thus creates an extremely rigid labor market, in which neither partner in the transaction has much choice. Practically, there are two corollaries. On the one hand, since leaving one’s boss is so hard, employers can get away with paying extraordinarily low wages (on average about 70 percent of the Israeli minimum wage, to which migrants are legally entitled) and providing substandard living arrangements. On the other hand, since dismissing workers is equally difficult, workers enjoy considerable autonomy. The work is hard and monotonous, but workers retain a great deal of control over its organization and rhythm. The structure of work teams and the division of tasks are de facto determined by the workers themselves, based on the same hierarchies of age, seniority and prestige that rule the social life of the quarters. Employers have little choice but to acquiesce in the choices made by workers with regard to work organization. They visit the fields infrequently and apply sanctions sparingly. The use of Israeli foremen, while not unheard of, is rarely successful since workers are so much more knowledgeable about the work than their superiors.

Exploitation Anxiety and Migrant Invisibility

In exploitative societies throughout history, paternalism has served to dull the pangs of masters’ consciences by casting subalterns as helpless children who would be much worse off on their own. The first encounter between Israeli employers and Thai workers gave rise to an ad hoc paternalism that was quickly nullified by the alienation from Israeli society that the migration regime aimed to achieve. This regime has effects that are far from convenient for Arabah farmers, turning them into enforcers of migration policy and making it almost impossible to discipline workers through the sack. At the same time, however, it may make it easier to deal with what I have termed their exploitation anxiety.

This exploitation anxiety, it must be noted, was developed in implicit opposition to the paternalist solution. The pioneer parents and grandparents of the farmers of the Arabah were repelled by what they saw as a parasitic symbiosis between the planters of the First Aliyah and their Palestinian workers. They were after a “pure settlement,” an egalitarian and homogeneous one in both class and national terms. Becoming “mothers” and “fathers” to their workers may have offered a resolution of a kind, but not one that meshed well with the settler ideology on which they had been raised.

By forcing a swift turnover of workers, making employers into enforcers and inadvertently providing workers with the means of resisting employer control over the labor process, the migration regime has shut the door on paternalism and on the possibility of a hybrid culture of the kind that grew up in the antebellum US South or in British India. Paradoxically, it has made it possible to quarantine “local” culture and immunize it against Thai influence. The Israelis of the Arabah can tell themselves, as several told me, that “they don’t feel” any Thai impact on their community. They perpetuate this fiction in their outward self-presentation through various public relations productions that efface the Thai presence in the Arabah. In so doing, they go some way toward calming their own exploitation anxiety—not by imagining exploitative relations as intimate ones, but rather by altogether diverting their gaze from these relations.

The state of Israel and their own ideological habitus present Arabah farmers with an impossible demand: to carry on a self-sufficient settler-colonial form of agriculture in the context of a global market in which cheap, copious labor is the norm. Self-labor is ruled out by the brutal economic facts, and paternalism is denied by state migration policy. What is left is disavowal, and thus the Thai migrants of the Arabah are condemned not only to exploitation but also to invisibility. Once in a while, spring rains may bring relief, but April 13, 2016 will not be the last lonely Songkran in the Arabah.

How to cite this article:

Matan Kaminer "A Lonely Songkran in the Arabah," Middle East Report 279 (Summer 2016).

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