Nimrod Ben Zeev is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at the University of Pennsylvania. His research focuses on the intersections between labor, sensory history and political economy in construction work, the construction industry, and the built environment in Palestine/Israel, from the British mandate to the late twentieth century. He is particularly interested in the ways in which inequalities, racial hierarchies, and masculinity are produced and sustained through labor practices, sensation, bodily harm, and risk.
The Many Lives of Cement: Emotions, Economy, Labor, and the Body in Mandate Palestine
Abstract: Cement is everywhere in modern Palestinian history. From the first sacks of Portland cement unloaded in Jaffa in the 1890s, to those clandestinely transported into the Gaza Strip through tunnels on the Egyptian border, cement has stood at the center of two of the defining experiences of Palestinian society since the late nineteenth-century: modernity writ large and the encounter political horizons in unique ways. Its abundance has defined the changing landscapes of Palestinian towns and, following 1948, refugee camps, while its restriction by Israel has dictated contemporary Gaza’s constant state of disrepair. Its malleability has shaped the experiences of Palestinian construction workers in Israel and the settlements, its solidity, the separation wall.
Adopting the framework of the social life of things, this paper traces cement’s Palestinian biography through its formative stage, between 1918 and 1948. First, it examines the changing practices and experiences of Palestinian Arab and Jewish workers in construction and cement production, and Zionists’ attempts to claim cement and concrete as materials of exclusive Jewish expertise, foiled by Palestinian builders. Then, it surveys cement’s political economy, shaped by the interplay between British interests, the Jewish-owned Nesher Portland Cement, and the initiatives of Palestinian capitalists. Finally, it discusses Palestinians’ emotions of longing and desire for cement during World War II, juxtaposing them with their post-1948 echoes.
A history of cement during the mandate demonstrates how it bound together the seemingly disparate worlds of working-class bodies and masculinities, capitalist ambitions, cultural sensibilities, imperial interests, architectural transformation, and national struggle. As part of a broader narrative of construction, this study illuminates the foundations of cement’s ongoing role in twentieth-century Palestinian history, exposing the skeleton of the colonial project and strategies of struggle and survival Palestinians would deploy in its shadows.