Comrades, not Enemies? The Histadrut and its Palestinian-Arab Members, 1948-1967

By Arnon Degani
Submitted to Session P4984 (Workers across Borders: Labor, Migration, and Class, 2017 Annual Meeting
Israel Studies;
LCD Projector without Audio;
My paper examines the Histadrut – the General Federation of Jewish Labor in the Land of Israel – as seen by its Palestinian-Arab cadres between 1948 and 1967. Historians characterize the Histadrut as the settler spearhead of the Zionist movement. The Histadrut was indeed much more than a trade union. It furnished the Yishuv with a paramilitary force, a banking and investment system, health services, cultural enterprises, all of which would prove to be crucial for its eventual victory in the 1948 War. The prevailing critical accounts on Mandate Palestine have also deemed the Histadrut as an agent for segregation, separating Jewish and Arab workers, and as an example of Zionism’s modus operandi. My paper will show that after 1948, alongside continuing segregationist Zionist policies, the Histadrut moved in a different direction.

While full membership for Arab unionists came more than a decade after 1948, already then, elements within Histadrut leadership and rank and file increasingly pushed for the integration of Palestinian-Arab citizens into its institutions and considered this goal as a major Zionist imperative. Moreover, as the years after 1948 passed, the Histadrut’s actions in Palestinian-Arab locales were progressively undertaken by Palestinian-Arab individuals who saw themselves as working in the interest of their own communities during a time when Israel exercised martial law over most of them. Once Palestinian-Arabs became members, they tended to take the Histadrut at its word and demanded that it adhere to socialist ideals and provide them with better worker representation, educational projects, cultural activities and, perhaps most importantly, healthcare.

By closely reading the mundane, rarely analyzed, documents originating from Histadrut branches in Palestinian-Arab villages and towns, my paper will show that joining the Histadrut constituted a form of acquiescence with the organization’s ideological underpinnings, including Zionism itself. Concomitantly, as the paper will show, Palestinian-Arab membership in the Histadrut forced many Zionists to re-consider their level of investment in some, though not all, of the movement’s segregationist tendencies. In my talk I will point out that this dynamic is hardly unique and has occurred in other historical cases of settler-colonialism. If indeed a measure of settler-indigenous integration is inherent in all forms of settler-colonial consolidation, it could be concluded that the Histadrut post-1948 remained Zionism’s settler spearhead.