The Histadrut and Arab labour

February 28, 1996

The colonisation of Palestine by European Jewish settlers in the l920s usually evokes heroic images in Western eyes. However, there were international concerns then about the potential abuse of Arab labour. Concerns were even expressed by the Zionist General Federation of Jewish Labour (Histadrut). But then, like today, there were marked differences between the Histadrut's words and its deeds as the following texts clearly indicate: "The Jewish Labour Movement considers the Arab population as an integral element in this country. It is not to be thought of that Jewish settlers should displace this population, nor establish themselves at its expense. This would not only be impossible from the political and economic standpoint, but it would run counter to the moral conception lying at the root of the Zionist movement. "Jewish immigrants who come to this country to live by their own labor regard the Arab working man as their compatriot and fellow worker, whose needs are their needs and whose future is their future." — from Memorandum submitted by the Histadrut to the "Palestine Commission of Enquiry" (i.e., the Commission on the Palestine disturbances of August, 1929). What really happened was described 40 years later by David Hacohen, former director of the Histadrut construction firm, Solel Boneh, and a member of one of Israel's "first families": "I remember being one of the first of our comrades to go to London after the First World War... There I became a socialist ... When I joined the socialist students — English, Irish, Jewish, Chinese, Indian, African — we found that we were all under English domination or rule. And even here, in these intimate surroundings, I had to fight my friends on the issue of Jewish socialism, to defend the fact that I would not accept Arabs in my trade union, the Histadrut; to defend preaching to housewives that they not buy at Arab stores; to defend the fact that we stood guard at orchards to prevent Arab workers from getting jobs there ... To pour kerosene on Arab tomatoes; to attack Jewish housewives in the markets and smash the Arab eggs they had bought; to praise to the skies the Keren Kayemet (Jewish National Fund) that sent Hankin to Beirut to buy land from absentee effendis and to throw the fellahin (peasants) off the land — to buy dozens of dunums [measure of land] from an Arab is permitted, but to sell, God forbid, one Jewish dunum to an Arab is prohibited; to take Rothschild, the incarnation of capitalism, as a socialist, and to name him the 'benefactor' — to do all that was not easy. And despite the fact that we did it — maybe we had no choice — I wasn't happy about it."
[Based on an article in Ha'aretz, November l5, l969, reprinted in Middle East Labor Bulletin, LCOME POB 421546, San Francisco CA, 94142-1546, USA.]

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