Body Building: Work, Accidents, Pain, and National Politics in Palestine/Israel, 1933-1961

By Nimrod Ben Zeev
Submitted to Session P4304 (In the flesh: Middle Eastern Bodies and the Construction of Power Relations, 2016 Annual Meeting
Cultural Studies;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Two national myths central to early 20th century Zionist thought and politics stand at the center of this paper - “Hebrew labor” (‘avoda ‘ivrit) and “building the land” (binyan ha-aretz). The first was considered a crucial component in the creation of a “new Jew” – able-bodied, masculine and wholly antithetical to the frail “diaspora Jew”. The second was just as important: If an allegedly barren Palestine, often itself gendered female, was to be transformed into a Jewish homeland, it would have to be built anew. These myths and their material and ideational manifestations were understood to be co-constitutive, embodied in the notion of “to build and to be built” (livnot u-lehibanot). In this paper I will demonstrate how attention to the body, in this case mostly male Jewish and Palestinian Arab bodies-at-work, reveals both myths to have been fraught with contradictions and overlooked consequences.
The paper focuses on manual labor in two of early 20th century Palestine’s most significant industries, construction and citriculture. I show how in these industries Zionist thought constructed the ideal laboring body in opposition to the bodies and comportment of Palestinian Arabs and Middle Eastern (mizrahi) Jews, at the same time as physical laboring bodies were often required to emulate and copy them. Additionally, I demonstrate how the bodies of male construction workers in particular, despite the immense symbolic and economic values attached to their work, were constantly placed in harm’s way. In response, an emerging body of “work safety” literature sought to ameliorate this contradiction by racializing risk. While there is no indication that accidents were more common among Arab or Mizrahi workers, such texts often placed the blame for bodily harm on their “improper” labor practices. This, I argue, was compounded by the labor politics of “Hebrew labor” and the urgency of “building the land”, leading to a perpetuation of the problem – copious work accidents in the construction industry due to lax safety regulations, virtually non-existent enforcement and the negligence of employers.
The paper is based upon archival research, combining Hebrew and Arabic newspapers, workers’ testimonies, and literature and leaflets published by labor unions, hygiene and safety committees, health organizations, and the Mandate government. It shows that the linked processes of building a new Hebrew body and landscape were constantly haunted by its material Arab and Middle Eastern foundations and that the ways in which these were dealt with often had dire results.