PhD candidate in History, University of Pennsylvania
In its 1981 tenth anniversary issue, the Journal of Palestine Studies included an article by Palestinian sociologist Salim Tamari, poignantly titled “Building Other People’s Homes: The Palestinian Peasant’s Household and Work in Israel.” Using fieldwork carried out in a West Bank village, Tamari’s article examined the contemporary social ramifications of Palestinians’ incorporation into Israel’s construction industry. The article’s title, however, seemed to capture a broader, more complex historical process: Shortly after 1948, many Palestinian citizens of Israel found employment in construction in Jewish towns and cities. By 1962, nearly 20 percent of Palestinians in the Israeli workforce were engaged in construction. By 1975, almost half of Israel’s construction workforce were either Palestinian citizens or subjects from the occupied territories. Working in construction in Israel—building houses for others—became a deeply classed, gendered, and racialized Palestinian experience crossing generations, borders, and regimes. Construction work’s historical relationship to boundaries between communities, between “self” and “other,” and to the making of homes, rather than mere houses, begs further exploration.
Using archival and published sources, oral histories, literature, and film, this paper explores experiences of working in construction among Israel’s Palestinian citizens, between 1949 and 1973. First, it traces the marginalization and racialization of construction work, which drove European Jews out or up into managerial positions and drew in Palestinian men and Mizrahi Jews. Through this process, I argue, construction work played an integral role in the articulation and endurance of racial hierarchies within Israeli society and the various separations between “Arab” and “Jew.” Second, the paper examines the strategies of survival and resistance Palestinian construction workers, small contractors, labor activists, and their communities developed in the face of restrictions on movement and employment under Israel’s military administration and of often inhumane employment conditions. I argue that Palestinian citizens of Israel increasingly used their experiences in a racialized construction industry to overcome other barriers imposed by the state. That is, to build their own homes and lives. Building for others allowed Palestinians to gain the skills and knowledge necessary for building one’s own home quickly, independently, and cheaply, defying state policies that denied Palestinian towns of building permits and town planning. Building in Jewish locales also allowed Palestinians to adapt new models, techniques, and materials, creating a new Palestinian vernacular architecture and a new Palestinian home. New construction processes retained some of the features of traditional ones. Here too, construction was often a communal effort, at times also defying the industry’s increasingly gendered nature, as women and men literally built their homes together. Palestinians also used the racialized construction industry, increasingly dependent on their labor, as a vehicle for social mobility. Individuals supported secondary and higher education for themselves and their families by working in construction and moved up the industry’s ranks. Finally, construction work’s “Arabization” allowed Palestinian citizens of Israel to further their claim to already being home, despite efforts to exclude them. Taking up the Zionist fantasy of “building the land” (binyan ha-aretz), they could respond in kind: “We built it.”
Nimrod Ben Zeev is a PhD 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 twentieth-century century Palestine/Israel. He is particularly interested in the ways in which inequalities, racial hierarchies, and masculinity are produced and sustained through labor practices and divisions of risk. In addition to his studies, Nimrod is the editorial coordinator of the Social History Workshop, a Hebrew-language public history platform intended to make cutting-edge research on Middle East history accessible to a broad audience. He is also involved in several initiatives to combat construction work accidents in Israel/Palestine.