Those familiar with the ever-twisting gyrations of the Zionist project know that it was not just one of bully-boy bigotry but of employment leverage and advantage. Early on, the British Mandate Government encouraged foreign capital from generous Diaspora Jews to stack society in favour of the Jews in Palestine. Wave after wave of immigrants, legal and otherwise, elevated urbanity in the land but, throughout it, the only staff allowed in either the factory or on the farm were the “chosen” few. The 1936-1939 Palestinian workers’ strikes and civil unrest were essentially a peasants’ revolt. The Arab elite and Britain’s Palestine Police force were keen to suppress it, while the fledging Jewish paramilitaries started smuggling in arms in a definite rehearsal for 1947.
The growth of Jewish Palestine was rapid. The workers are striking in Jaffa port? Well then, let’s build a new port adjacent to it, Tel Aviv, modern and as un-Ottoman looking as it can be. And thanks to British and international funds, we’ll do it in just one year. We’ll even call it the “White City” to distinguish it from “those Arabs” in the port next door.
Andrew Ross’ book strips away the façade that Israel’s architectural infrastructure was meaningfully achieved by pioneering Jews. The European Jewish immigrants like me weren’t physically up to the toil and hadn’t the generations of home construction know-how in any event. There weren’t evening classes for that vocation, not even for nice English policemen.
Ross comes at it dually, as a seasoned historian-journalist, mining many historical and contemporary sources, but his exploratory journey started early on. From leaving a North Sea oil rig job to being a sunshine socialist volunteer on an Israeli Kibbutz of then-historic Irgun roots in the 1970s, he observed much. Helping out with a 2015 Palestinian film documentary tugged him by the ear, though, and laid the foundation for this book.
Although stones are the main ingredient for construction in Palestine, the story has a wider plot than just exterior walls. The Palestine Jews’ insistent racial segregation of employment involved agriculture too and building work is viewed as a part of the whole Palestinian labour sector. But it all starts with the stones. They were there first.
Ross’ narrative has plenty of concrete analysis of the physical substance. Yes, the mixing of aggregates and paste was a political tool in the development of Tel Aviv as the material is quick to make, set and then fit with the European concepts of modernity. These multi-storey structures needed reinforcement and a conveniently Jewish Egyptian brought over a new technique for making silicate bricks, making it easier to not hire the qualified Arab Palestinian stone dressers and masons.
However, while proto-Israel aimed for a Bauhaus-inspired building scape of cement, eventually the Israelis realised that “authentic” Levantine living streets fit better with the myths of the land belonging to the Jews. Thus, neighbourhoods levelled using tanks or bulldozers were rebuilt in a hurry, in our lifetimes, towards heritage.
One problem in getting gifted hands was the post-1967 Green Line and so, as we know, permits were issued to Palestinians to come in to where the Jews get to live, to make their real estate patches bloom. If your interest is in understanding the utter irony of Palestinian labourers sweating to erect rather nice residences on forcibly-swindled land, Stone Men’s insights spill out of the skips throughout.
Wipe your feet, as you would: Ross lays out a welcome mat for occasional Palestinian criticisms of perceived Palestinian wisdom of tradition from necessarily trumping architectural mod cons. Although that beloved Kurkar stone may be desirable, it apparently isn’t a good neighbour to humidity. In any economic sense, Palestinian productivity is still low, due to substandard machinery, unfair employment opportunities and those pesky unticked boxes in health and safety. Further, today’s Palestinian men would rather not suffer the weary toll of such difficult physical work, which doesn’t get any easier during middle age. Professor Ross makes it clear here, that their eventually sore joints are worth it if their kids can go and climb the social ladder.
From Nablus to Bethlehem to Ramallah to the village next door, the author has donned his journalist’s hat to ask key questions about what it means to maintain skill, suffer humiliation and combine the practical with the philosophical, all to feed families and erect a footbridge of hope for the collective Palestine, whether in terms of a Muslim Ummah or Christian Brotherhood. Sometimes he slips off the edge with a politically naïve question, but mainly the workers welcome him on-site.
The debate of our time is at its most grinding over the possible future for Palestinians in the West Bank, and perhaps the most obvious example is that of the new Rawabi development. This community housing scheme is at least part of the future of Palestine, even if nearby villagers don't like it; even if the Palestinian builders felt that their wages were low; even if those same builders feel that they've essentially built an eventual Jews-only settlement using Israeli materials. This is the shining carrot on the hill and the Palestinian middle class, so the Palestinian and Qatari banks are rather pleased.
By contrast, the renowned author-architect Suad Amari's Rewaq projects were more heritage-focused, a recent decade-limited, funded endeavour of turning half-abandoned villages into viable, communal centres, and it seems that even the initial sceptics applauded it. This is one of the reassuring rows laid into Stone Men. But both aspects take money and the current, if vaguely-dangled, Trump-Netanyahu bribe can only be viewed through that narrow lens. Meanwhile, MEMO readers are readily shaking their heads at this stupidity, when they know too well that the Zionists’ lust for Eretz Israel can never be sated.
The book accommodates readers who are only casually conscious of the army-booted forward march of “facts on the ground”. Life with checkpoints, malicious military whim, the UN, Palestinian political rivalry, NGO support and stateside subsidy is sketched out here to illustrate the hardscrabble political paving of the Holy Land. For those who have a nose for Trades Union politics, Lockean Labour theory and other discourses, those aspects are shown here too.
Only one loose lintel is still hanging over me; the claim, sans endnote sourcing, that the RAF bombed Jaffa at the start of the Great Revolt back in 1936. Although I’ve noted elsewhere that the planes were called in from their Amman base to teach rebellious Arab villages a hard lesson, I’ve as yet found no evidence that this happened in what was Palestine’s main port.
Someday, a Palestinian construction worker won’t need a checkpoint permit that cheats him out of up to half of his wages. Someday these men who erect new settlements for the “chosen” apartment-owners will have the green light to organise trade unions beyond the Green Line. And someday the occupying power won’t lure immigrant “guest workers” from South America, Africa and Asia in order to depress wages further.
Whether your interest is in physical or socio-political construction, this richly mixed path of Palestinian history will suit. Written in a pleasingly accessible style, with words such as “domicide” and “artwashing”, it combines quality journalism with a solid critique of what’s been laid down ever since Zionism met capitalism.