Its global reverberations have often been distinct, however. Activists are not only making connections between US practices and patterns of racial oppression and those in their own countries; they are also highlighting features of racial violence that are unique to different contexts.
Some of the most resonant reverberations have emerged at the nexus between the Movement for Black Lives and the Palestinian struggle, through links that can be traced back to the summer of 2014. The police killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the wave of protests across the United States which ensued and the harsh, military-like response of law enforcement to the protests in Ferguson in particular, coincided with Israel’s Operation Protective Shield offensive that devastated the Gaza Strip. Against this backdrop, activists in Palestine and in the United States increasingly began invoking each other’s struggles.
This wave of solidarity, focused at first on Gaza and Ferguson, publicly reinvigorated a host of ongoing and deep historical ties between Black American and Palestinian struggles against oppression. Scholars typically focus on the North American-Middle Eastern nexus of these connections, particularly as it crystalized in the 1960s around the rise of the Black Power movement in the United States and the Palestinian Liberation movements in the Middle East. Yet, many of them rightly note that these connections were also embedded in larger geographic contexts—encompassing much of the Global South—and had longer histories, dating to the late nineteenth century.
Considering these broader contexts brings to the fore the crucial role of empire as a historical, political and social formation, on the one hand, and divisions of labor, on the other, in shaping both racialization and ideas about racial belonging and solidarity in twentieth-century Israel and Palestine. That is to say, how race operated as a category was a function both of local developments—first and foremost, Zionist colonization and British rule—and of a world historical process that witnessed the emergence of the global color line—the idea that race and racism defined global divisions of power. The Black American sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois in 1903 defined the global color line as “the problem of the twentieth century,” a problem that has endured into the twenty-first century. Charting how the color line unfolded and how race was deployed historically in Palestine and Israel, sheds light both on the extent of its spread and on what has enabled its durability as a global structure.
The global scale of racial politics does not preclude the importance of local contexts. In Palestine and Israel, this context was first and foremost the colonial relationship between Zionist settlers and Palestinians, and to varying degrees also Middle Eastern and North African Jews (henceforth, Mizrahi Jews), which began taking shape during the final decades of the Ottoman Empire. The formation of this colonial relationship was then accelerated and compounded by the institution of the British mandate for Palestine after World War I. And yet the context of the global color line, of a world ordered along racial lines, still informed how this colonial relationship was opposed by Palestinians and Mizrahi Jews, and how it was understood—however reluctantly—by many Zionists.
Concurrently with the rise of Ottoman Orientalism, Arab intellectuals in Egypt and the Levant too engaged with contemporary European racial thought. Some, like the Egypt-based Syrian intellectual Muhammad Kurd ‘Ali, editor of the journal al-Muqtabas, vehemently rejected the idea of a racial hierarchy of humanity. Others, perhaps most famously Jurji Zaydan—another Syrian intellectual who published the journal al-Hilal in Cairo and was a towering figure of the Arab intellectual awakening known as the nahda—adopted and adapted European-derived hierarchies, only to place Arabs (alongside Europeans and Jews) at the highest rung. Ottoman Orientalism and later Turkish claims to whiteness were shaped in part by a perception of Turkish historical dominance and primacy within the empire and in part by notions of so-called social improvement projects intended to uplift lesser ethnic groups. Arab claims to whiteness or racial and civilizational superiority, in turn, were frequently framed against a history of engagement with the Blackness of sub-Saharan Africa (and to an extent also Berber North Africa), notions of social improvement of elements within Arab society portrayed as backward and contemporary colonial projects such as Egyptian rule in the Sudan.
At the same time, a considerable body of Zionist thought, primarily from Eastern and Central Europe, sought to respond to the various strands of European racial thought and antisemitism, though frequently adopting and adapting basic tenets of those same ideologies. Some Jewish thinkers, including Zionist thinkers, adopted both the idea of Jewish racial degeneracy, which they applied primarily to so-called backward Eastern European Jews, and the remedies of racial nationalisms. The idea of creating a “New Jew,” who would be antithetical to the weak, degenerate Eastern European Jew through physical self-improvement and regenerate the Jewish nation, was central to the thinking of Zionist intellectuals and leaders like Theodor Herzl and Max Nordau and became a common trope among early Zionists from across the political spectrum.
Experiences of immigration and participation in the work of empire also informed Palestinian and Zionist racial perceptions. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, large waves of Arab immigrants from Greater Syria and Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe arrived in places where the “new religion of whiteness”—a term Du Bois coined in 1920—reigned. Primary among these were the Americas. There, alongside other immigrant communities, many Jews and Arabs strove to be identified as racially white to achieve a degree of social integration and upward mobility. Involvement in Europe’s colonial enterprises, particularly in Africa, whether in official capacities or as migrants in colonial society, was another avenue through which some Jews and Arabs were able to lay claim to whiteness. The narratives of Lebanese migrants to French colonies in West Africa, Palestinians serving in the Sudan Medical Service and views expressed by Zionists like Herzl and Israel Zangwill about the whitening propensity of Jewish involvement in colonization demonstrate that, as in the Americas, to become white Jews and Arabs required the presence of other populations considered irretrievably non-white. It was through comparison to the latter that white society and colonial administrations could regard Arabs and Jews as whiter than-, if still not wholly white. Family and community networks, returning immigrants and newspaper reports “from the diaspora” in Palestine’s Arabic and Hebrew press during the early twentieth century carried these understandings of race back to Palestine.
Crucially, interest among Zionists and Palestinians in the role of race as a way of ordering the world also extended beyond questions of self-perception and identification. Beginning in the late 1920s and into World War II, Arabic and Hebrew language newspapers, such as the two major Arabic dailies Filastin and al-Difa’, the Hebrew daily Davar, affiliated with the mainstream of Labor Zionism, and more right-wing outlets such as Do’ar ha-Yom and ha-Boker, were preoccupied with the color line as a theme of global politics. Depending on the ideological proclivities of the newspaper and author, coverage in Hebrew and Arabic affirmed or debunked the concepts of the “yellow threat” and “white decline,” railed against the discrimination of Black Americans in the United States, decried the brutal colonization of Africa or the brutality of African “savages” and discussed the merits and pitfalls of the White Australia immigration policy.
These various lineages guaranteed that ideas about the links between race, nation, civilization and the body thus circulated in both Palestinian and Zionist circles. The implications of their circulation changed significantly, however, when the colonial relationship and national competition between Zionists and Palestinians came into starker relief. Underlying these preoccupations were two questions: where, in a world divided and stratified by race, did each of Palestine’s political and social communities belong? And what did that mean for Palestine’s present and future?
Palestine in Black and White
Casting Zionism as part of European colonialism—and consequently linking it to notions of racial hierarchy—was an appealing proposition for early Zionist thinkers such as Herzl and Zangwill. But the largely Eastern European Labor Zionists had a considerably more conflicted relationship to Zionism’s colonial nature. Labor Zionists’ blend of nationalist and socialist thought was embraced by many among the second wave of Zionist immigration to Palestine in the early 1900s and they became the dominant force within Zionist politics and institutions in the early 1930s. Upon arrival, these settlers criticized the enterprises of their predecessors who largely relied on local Palestinian labor. They accused them of recreating exploitative colonial labor regimes through a plantation economy in which “native” laborers were lorded over by plantation owners. This practice, they argued, went against the socialist principles that inspired them and which, accordingly, set them apart from their predecessors.
As Labor Zionism gradually emerged as the dominant force in Zionist politics in subsequent decades, however, efforts by its leaders to improve the employment conditions and wages of Palestinian workers were sporadic at best. Instead, Labor Zionists turned to what they termed the conquest of labor, seeking to guarantee jobs for Jewish immigrants in Jewish enterprises at the expense of Palestinian Arabs.
The conquest of labor in line with socialist principles led to significant segregation in Palestine’s workforce. Beginning in the 1920s, some Jewish-owned industrial undertakings—where the struggle to employ exclusively Jewish labor proved at first impossible—were instead segregated internally along racial lines. Typically, this meant that European Jewish immigrants were employed in higher paying, skilled jobs, while Palestinian Arabs (and sometimes Mizrahi Jews) were employed in lower paying and physically demanding, so-called unskilled labor.
A similar approach was considered by the British administration when planning its first major infrastructural undertaking in Palestine—building the Haifa deep-water harbor in 1928. In the face of demands by the General Federation of Trade Unions (Histadrut), the most important organ of Labor Zionism, to pay Jewish workers employed in the harbor’s construction higher wages than their Arab peers, the British devised a solution linking race to skill. In accordance with what they perceived as each race’s natural tendencies, Jews—a category that for the British appears to have included only European Jews and excluded Mizrahim—would work in higher paying, more technically demanding positions, while Arabs would be directed toward lower paid physical labor. “The rivalry between the Jews and Arabs [in the matter of the division of labor and wage inequality],” was “mitigated by the fact that the two races tend to become naturally segregated in different kinds of labor,” wrote then High Commissioner John Chancellor. He clarified, “the Jews gravitate to skilled and semi-skilled labour, which requires intelligence and initiative, and the Arabs to heavy unskilled labour for which by reason of their superior physique they are better fitted.”
The crude racial binary between Arabs and Jews that the British adopted in the case of the Haifa harbor construction, and that guided much of British policy making during the Mandate period, erased not only Mizrahi Jews. As racial thought invariably does, it collapsed the variety within the groups it supposedly represented into monolithic, discrete fictions. The erasure of the Mizrahim, here and elsewhere, is particularly notable however, because of their liminal position between the two monolithic categories. Mizrahim itself is a classification which erases internal social, cultural, economic and other forms of diversity. For example, the Sephardi elite of Jerusalem shared relatively little in common with recent Yemeni immigrants to the same city, who in turn had quite different life experiences from North African or Kurdish Jews. As numerous scholars have demonstrated, most communities commonly grouped under this heading (and to an extent, also members of Palestine’s established Ashkenazi communities) could potentially bridge the perceived Arab-Jewish and Middle Eastern-European binaries and risk muddying the categories that made those binaries possible. Whether or not various actors, including Mizrahim themselves, embraced or rejected these potentialities, depended on the context. The “Palestinian Jew” was a useful category for Zionists who wanted to claim Palestinian nativeness. But the Sephardi elite, through which this nativeness could be claimed, was at the same time sidelined by various Zionist institutions during the British Mandate and denied the role it held for centuries under the Ottomans as representative of Palestine’s Jewish population. Yemeni Jews were held up as exemplars of “authentic” Jewishness and concurrently considered a reliable source of cheap, docile labor.
Zionist institutions—including the Histadrut and the Zionist Executive, the umbrella organization that represented many Zionist parties in Palestine—rejected the British suggestion for dividing labor at the Haifa harbor. In doing so they cited their opposition to a colonial division of labor and their ambitions to place Jewish workers in every branch of the economy. By the time the debate arose, however, the concept of the global color line was already furnishing Palestinian opposition to Zionism with the language of anti-racism and feeding Zionist anxieties about the movement’s colonial underpinnings. For example, an article in the Palestinian daily Filastin on October 9, 1928, by an unnamed author charged that Zionist demands for higher wages and a greater share of jobs for Jews in the Haifa harbor and elsewhere, as well as the language of the standard of living more broadly, rested upon an assumption of white civilizational refinement supposedly shared by European Jews and the British. In late January 1929, the English-language Zionist newspaper The New Palestine published an article expressing hope that the appointment of John Chancellor, formerly governor of Rhodesia, to the role of High Commissioner for Palestine would mean increased British support of Zionist settlement efforts, equal to their support provided to white settlers in the African colonies. On February 1, a response piece in Filastin, unsigned once again, pointed out that this too was an appeal to a racial world order. If the logic of empire were to determine Palestine’s future, both pieces seemed to argue, Zionist Jews were its white settlers and Palestinians its Black natives. It was to this logic that Zionists, despite their equivocations and refutations, appealed when demanding preferential treatment, the articles implied. It was this logic that Palestinians needed to resist.
The global color line provided other frames of reference as well. The figure of the “coolie” and coolie labor were frequently invoked by Labor Zionists as characteristic of the evils of empire and the British empire in particular. Coolie is a term that during the nineteenth century was associated with mostly Asian, exploited and denigrated migrant laborers both in the British empire and in the United States. Historian Moon Ho-Jung has described the term as “[neither] a people [n]or a legal category….But a conglomeration of racial imaginings.” In tandem, some critics suggested that such racial regimes of labor were also making inroads into Jewish society in Palestine and employed the term coolie to warn specifically of the attitudes of politicians and employers to Mizrahi Jews. For example, in mid-1929 Benzion Mossinson of the liberal General Zionists party, warned in the party’s general assembly of a “politics of coolies” that sought to encourage Mizrahi Jewish immigration to Palestine so that they could serve as cheap labor. This scenario was hardly an unthinkable outcome. In 1911, Arthur Ruppin—the head of the Palestine Office, an important instrument of Zionist colonization—along with members of the planter class that took root in Palestine during the first wave of Zionist migration in the late nineteenth century, had infamously initiated a mission to encourage the immigration of Yemeni Jews to Palestine. They hailed the Yemenis as appropriately Hebrew but also adequately cheap “natural workers,” by virtue of their physiology and culture, who could compete with Palestinians for similar jobs and wages.
By the 1940s, striking Mizrahi workers and Mizrahi newspapers invoked the figure of the coolie to describe both the intentions of Labor Zionist institutions toward them and already existing divisions of labor. When a group made up of largely Mizrahi workers from a quarry outside Haifa, partly owned by the Histadrut, went on strike in November 1940, their protests—led by the workers’ wives—included issuing a pamphlet that cited their refusal to be “relegated to the level of coolies.” A 1944 article responding to a Histadrut report on Jewish workers in Jerusalem and published in Hed ha-Mizrah, a newspaper affiliated with the Sephardic community in Jerusalem, decried the transformation of the city’s Mizrahi Jews into a “population of Jewish coolies.”
It is perhaps fitting that one of the most reviled manifestations of the color line in the twentieth century, apartheid South Africa, remains one of Zionism’s most consistent demons to the present day. Indeed, even prior to the institutionalization of apartheid and Israel’s establishment, both in 1948, South Africa’s racial regime loomed large in the thinking of some Zionist figures. Apartheid’s legal forebearer, the South African “color bar,” that dictated which racial groups were allowed to work in which industries and positions, was invoked by Zionist leaders as an important, if improbable, model for addressing questions of labor and economy in Palestine. At key moments—from the 1927 writings of Labor Zionist thinker Hayyim Arlosoroff to the eve-of-independence 1947 plans for the new Jewish state’s Department of Labor authored by economist Alfred Bonne—the South African model emerged as the closest equivalent to the challenges facing Zionist settlement and state-building. Both Arlosoroff and Bonne alluded to the moral questions surrounding the South African model—Bonne more explicitly so. But for both, it was the geopolitical impracticality of emulating the model that ultimately ruled it out.
The Long Twentieth Century
The color line remained close at hand after the war of 1948—the Palestinian Nakba and Israel’s independence. In its first decade, the Israeli state contended with what Shira Robinson has called its “colonial specter”—the inescapable association with colonial racism in a time of burgeoning anti-colonial nationalisms. It was not a specter because it was somehow unreal but precisely because actual Israeli policies and Zionism’s evolution meant that no matter how hard they tried, Israeli officials could not avoid it. Marginalized Palestinian citizens and Mizrahi Jews in the nascent state continued to deploy the oppositional language binding together racism, empire and colonialism. Such opposition and solidarity were carried forth by, among others, the increasingly influential Communist Party among Palestinians and by the various groups that participated in the Mizrahi social and political struggles of the period. The most well-known, and arguably the most explicit, instance of tying anti-discrimination struggles in Israel to struggles elsewhere through such an idiom, was that of the Mizrahi-led Black Panthers movement. It was established in 1971 by Mizrahi youth from the Musrara neighborhood in Jerusalem to combat institutional discrimination and neglect of Mizrahi Jews within Israel. The movement not only adopted the name and visual language of the US-based Black Panthers movement, but also actively sought connections with it. Earlier, lesser-known struggles also appealed to such global idioms, such as when the Palestinians of the Shaghur Valley in northern Israel protested against the seizure of their quarries by the state in the mid-1950s. In a letter sent to the Israeli president and to the British and American consulates they described a “chain of racial persecution” unleashed by the state and stated that British colonial rule was preferable to Israel’s so-called democracy. Bryan Roby also documents multiple instances of such appeals by Mizrahi Jews in Israel prior to the rise of the Black Panthers.
Palestine became intimately linked to anti-imperial and anti-colonial politics, particularly after the war of 1967. However, while it was under Ottoman rule until 1917 and then British rule until 1948, it was by no means a central site along the color line. The theaters of the struggle for global racial equality appeared to be concentrated elsewhere—in the Americas, the Pacific, South Asia, Oceania and Sub-Saharan Africa. Palestinians of all faiths and Zionist settlers were, for the most part, marginal in this racial world order at least until National Socialism and the Holocaust redefined it. Yet, the color line and its logic exerted their gravitational pull on the land and its populations, demonstrating the acuteness of Du Bois’ 1903 diagnosis and the magnitude of “the problem of the twentieth century.”
Analyzing the workings of the color line in Palestine and Israel and mapping the trajectories through which race and racialization came to play a central role in the land, illuminate the truly global reach of its logic and highlight some of the properties that have made the global color line so durable. Over the past several decades, scholars of race and anti-racist activists—especially those attentive to racism’s global dynamics and political economic dimensions—have highlighted the color line’s endurance into the twenty-first century. The global impact of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, on the one hand, and the injustices and inequalities laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic plus the climate crisis and the global resurgence of white supremacy and right-wing populist nationalism, on the other, indicate that indeed the problem Du Bois identified over one hundred years ago remains a defining feature of the present.
The contours of racial politics in Palestine and Israel throw seemingly contradictory aspects of the color line’s durability into stark relief. Its concrete connections to and impact on political economy and the body that are captured in the ongoing links between race and divisions of labor and class are one aspect. Another is the color line’s mutability and tenuousness as seen in the capacity of supposedly stable racial groups to concurrently position themselves differently in different settings, as a product of their relationship to power. There are other instances that demonstrate this flexibility, including the experiences of Jewish and Palestinian immigrants in the Americas and Africa. But none are more potent than the way that the color line in Palestine and Israel cast European Jews as the proponents and beneficiaries of a colonial racial order at the same time that Nazi ideology rendered them as the white race’s ultimate racial other. Du Bois himself came to expand his understanding of race as a global force following his visit to the remnants of the Warsaw ghetto in the aftermath of World War II. It was there that Du Bois realized that “the race problem in which I was interested cut across lines of color and physique,” and emerged “into a broader conception of what the fight against race segregation, religious discrimination and the oppression by wealth had to become if civilization was going to triumph and broaden in the world.”
[Nimrod Ben Zeev is a fellow at the Polonsky Academy for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.]
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 W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015 ); Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds, Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men’s Countries and the International Challenge of Racial Equality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).
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 W.E.B. Du Bois, “The Negro and the Warsaw Ghetto,” Jewish Life 6/7 (May 1952).