Palestinian Studies

2014 Workshop

Leena Dallasheh

Visiting Assistant Professor of History, Oberlin College

Working for Palestine: Nazareth Labor Mobilization in the 1940s

This paper focuses on the labor movement in Nazareth in the late years of the Mandate. One of the smaller urban areas in Palestine, Nazareth was nevertheless the center of a strong labor mobilization effort that was closely involved with both the national labor movement and Palestinian national politics. My paper traces the actions and discourse of this movement to elucidate the development of labor politics in Palestine. It shows that through activism, this movement paved the way for the core of political and labor mobilization for Palestinians in Israel from the earliest days of its establishment in 1948. By focusing on conventionally overlooked place, period, and class, my work calls for a revising of per-Nakba Palestinian history, while facilitating an investigation of the history of Palestinians within Israel, an often neglected part in the Palestinian historical narrative.

The late Mandate period was a time of significant change for the Arabs in Palestine. In the early 1940s, Palestinians began recovering economically and socially from the devastating effects of the Great Arab Revolt, which had been successfully repressed by the Mandate authorities by the end of 1939. The local economy, which was severely affected by the three-year revolt, was beginning to recover due to British war time efforts. The British government allocated sizeable funds for relief purposes. In addition, military garrisons and workshops provided work to thousands of unemployed in the country, and peasant communities profited from the increased need for their products due to the war.[1]This period had profound effects on Palestine, to the extent that historian Zachary Lockman asserts that it witnessed “rapid social, economic, and political changes” and that the war-time developments “had an important, perhaps even decisive, impact on the final phase of that struggle [over Palestine] which began when the war came to an end.”[2]In the midst of this eventful time, the politically defeated and economically weakened Palestinian community found itself without its traditional leadership since most had been exiled by the British or fled the country during the Revolt. In the absence of its traditional leadership, and in light of these new economic realities for the Palestinian community, new avenues for political mobilization were developed, particularly within the working and middle classes, including significant development in trade unionism.[3]

Despite these changes, the traditional historiographic narrative claims that Palestine during the war was quiescent and politically paralyzed.[4]Although recent critical research has tended to stress non-elite avenues of mobilization within the Palestinian Arab community,[5]the labor movement’s development outside of the coastal plains (namely Haifa and Jaffa) has escaped systematic inquiry. Lockman’s treatment of the Palestine labor movement is based on a small group of workers in Haifa living under the contradiction of nationalist conflict.[6]Musa Budeiri’s research explores the larger topic of labor mobilization, focusing on the Palestine Communist Party.  He argues that labor mobilization “failed . . . in its attempts to create a lasting Arab-Jewish class alliance . . . unable to withstand the nationalist pull which Arab and Jewish communities exercised.”[7]

In contrast, my own work focuses on the labor movement in Nazareth, which was an important religious, administrative and economic center during the British mandate (significantly, the city’s centrality increased after the establishment of Israel when it became the only all-Arab urban center in the new state and the focal point for Palestinian citizens). Throughout the Mandate period, the majority of Nazareth workers commuted daily to Haifa, working in the Refinery, trains authority and army works, and the city had only limited employment, centered on the Mandate offices, in addition to small factories, craftsmanship workshops and shops. Despite the concentration of immigration-based labor, Nazareth was a part of the flourishing Arab trade unionism that started up in 1942 in Palestine. In this framework, a trade union was established in Nazareth in October 1942, the Arab Workers Society- Nazareth (SAWN). This union was engaged with the labor mobilization nation-wide, and originally affiliated itself with the Haifa-based Federation of Arab Trade Unions and Labor Societies (FATLUS). In 1943, it affiliated itself with the Palestine Arab Workers Society (PAWS), and later joined the Arab Workers Congress (AWC) with its establishment.My paper traces the establishment of this union, its interactions with other labor organizations, its activities and mobilization, and its involvement with the Palestinian national movement. It also explores additional avenues of labor mobilization in the city and the competition between SAWN and other workers’ organizations established later in Nazareth.

Using un-tapped empirical data, collected from Israeli state and institutional archives (including the Israeli State Archives and Yad Tabenkin, which holds the Israeli Communist Party archives), the British National Archives and the press, this paper investigates the labor movement which acted before and after 1948 in an all-Arab community. Focusing on one particular Palestinian union, SAWN, this paper sheds light on class dynamics and labor mobilization in Palestine. It follows a movement that had strong roots in Nazareth before 1948, whose organizational framework, created in the 1940s, was not displaced, even during the disintegration of the Palestinian community during the Nakba. Instead, it continued to attract Palestinians interested in political and class mobilization and spearheaded Palestinian citizens’ contention with the new Israeli state. Thus, this study contributes to an understanding of labor and political developments among Palestinians citizens in Israel. In doing so, I also propose a tentative answer to a question raised by scholars time and again, namely the place and strength of the communist party within the Palestinian community during the Mandate and in Israel.

[1]The British government allocated three quarter of a million Pounds for relief to Palestine as a part of the Colonial Development scheme. Mandate Annual report of 1940, TNA-CO/733/439/23. The number of daily wage earners employed by the government, including in construction undertaken by the army, almost doubled between December 1939 and December 1940. In addition, there was some increase in the numbers of municipal employees and salaried government employees. See Mandate Annual report of 1940, TNA-CO/733/439/23.

[2]Zachary Lockman, Comrades and Enemies: Arab and Jewish Workers in Palestine, 1906–1948(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 266.

[3]Arab trade unionism was also encouraged by the department of labor in accordance with the new British colonial labor policies. Annual Report for 1942, Department of Labour, p. 27 in TNA CO 859/56/10.

[4]See for example Subhi Yasin, al-Thawra al-‘Arabiyya al-Kubra fi Filastin, 1936-1939 (Cairo: Dar al-Katib, 1967). Issa Khalaf stresses the failures of the traditional leadership which continue during the 1940s. See Politics in Palestine:Arab Factionalism and Social Disintegration, 1939–1948(Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991).

[5]See for example Sherene Seikaly, “Meatless Days: Consumption and Capitalism in Wartime Palestine 1939-1948” (PhD diss., New York University, 2007). In discussing mobilization within the middle class, she argues against the usefulness of the “language of failure,” 28.

[6]Lockman, Comrades and Enemies.

[7]Musa Budeiri, Tatawwur al-Haraka al-‘Ummaliyya al-‘Arabiyya fi Filastin(Beirut: Dar Ibn Khaldun, 1981); Musa Budeiri, The Palestine Communist Party, 1919–1948: Arab and Jews in the Struggle for Internationalism(London: Ithaca Press 1979),264.

Leena Dallasheh is a postdoctoral fellow at the Taub Center for Israel Studies at New York University. She received her PhD in the joint History and Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies program at NYU. Her forthcoming manuscript, Contested Citizenship in Nazareth: Palestinians’ Transition from the Mandate to Israel, focuses on the social and political history of Nazareth from 1940 to 1966, tracing how Palestinians who remained in Israel in 1948 negotiated their incorporation in the state, affirming their rights as citizens and their identity as Palestinian. Leena wrote and published her MA about al-’Ard movement, a pan-Arab nationalist movement in Israel in the late 1950s-60s. Before coming to NYU, she received a law degree from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.