Palestinian Studies

2019 Workshop

Andrew Ross

Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis, New York University

Most of the attention of international Palestine-watchers is focused on land dispossession, population displacement, and human rights violations, and for good reason. There is much less attention to, and scholarly literature on, Palestinian livelihoods. My book, Stone Men, focuses on the stone and marble industry of the West Bank, which is the largest private sector employer of Palestinians, the single largest contributor to GDP and the largest share of exports from the occupied territories. Extraction of the “white oil” of dolomitic limestone is also a resource curse, ravaging the landscapes of the central highlands, and 75 percent of it supplies the construction industry in Israel and the settlements along with the skills and manpower of workers who produce and accompany its distribution. My field research follows the path of the stone and labor from the quarries to construction sites, and, in extensive interviews, plumbs the psychology of working for the occupier:  “we build their houses while they demolish our homes.”

The growth of the industry is structured around the remnants of the ancient Palestinian craft of stonemasonry, evident in most of the buildings in historic Palestine and throughout the region. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that the “stone men” of Palestine have built almost every state in the Middle East except their own. In the book, I try to address the leading question--Who built Israel? The given wisdom is that Zionist pioneers, or settlers did. Men and women unused to skilled manual labor, who staffed the cement mixers, with shovels in hand or bricks balanced awkwardly on their shoulders, and who made “New Jews” of themselves through their nation-making toil, according to the doctrine of Labor Zionism. But,  reviewing the history of a century or more of toil, on the part of Palestinians, in the construction industry, from the early Zionist pre-state to the West Bank settlements today, the evidence shows that Palestinians have always played an essential role, through thick and thin, in the physical making of what the Balfour Declaration described as a Jewish “national home.”

What kinds of rights should accrue from that long inventory of Palestinian labor and how do these contributions feed into the fast-evolving debate about civil and political rights in the “one-state” scenario now being mooted for the region?  Should claims arising from this record of labor participation be considered as part of the “final status” settlement between Israelis and Palestinians? What additional forms of restitution are due to a people who were fashioned into a compulsory workforce after their displacement in 1948 and 1967 and thereafter. Claims related to the “long Nakba” are mostly tied to repaying debts from the past, but how can labor-based remedies assist more directly in securing a different kind of future, based on the principle that equity earned from building a state translates into political rights within it? Or, as one of my checkpoint interviewees from the West Bank, put it, “I’ve been building homes every day over there for thirty years. In a way, it’s really my country too, isn’t it?”

Andrew Ross is Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University. A contributor to the Guardian, the New York Times, the Nation, and al-Jazeera, he is the author or editor of more than twenty books, including Creditocracy and the Case for Debt Refusal, Bird On Fire: Lessons from the World’s Least Sustainable City, Nice Work if You Can Get It: Life and Labor in Precarious Times, Fast Boat to China: Lessons from Shanghai, and, most recently, Stone Men: The Palestinians Who Built Israel (Verso).