Strike Action and Nation Building. Labor Unrest in Palestine/Israel, 1899-1951 By: David De Vries

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By: David De Vries

Publisher: Berghahn Books

New York-Oxford: Berghahn Books, 1st ed. 2015. 196p. $ 90.00. ISBN: 978-1782388098.

Volume: 3 Issue: 12

December 2015

Review by:

Arturo Marzano, PhD

University of Pisa

Pisa, Italy

Whoever has spent some time in Israel is familiar with the word shvita, i.e. strike in Hebrew, given the frequency with which strikes happen in Israel. Foreign researchers who have been affiliated to Israeli universities know well that strikes are part of the academic life, as well and it is not rare that Israeli scholars affirm that they have been able to finish a book thanks to a strike. As David De Vries writes in his very well researched book, among the reasons that have led him to research on strikes, «perhaps the best is that they are still going on» (p. 115).

The aim of the volume is to shed light on the evolution of the concept and practices of strike in Palestine/Israel, from the end of the 19th century, when Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire, through the years of British mandate, up to the mid of the 20th century, when the State of Israel was born. More specifically, De Vries intends to analyze the «association between strikes and nation building» (p. 3), a topic that had been overlooked by historiography.

The book is divided into 5 chapters, each of which focuses on a specific period of time, starting from 1899, when what is considered to be the first strike in Palestine took place in the Jewish agricultural school of Mikveh Israel, until 1951, when the famous seamen’s strike occurred.

The first chapter, entitled “The Emergence of the Strike, 1899-1917,” deals with strikes in Ottoman Palestine. De Vries highlights the «paternalistic atmosphere» (p. 17) that characterized those years and states that strikes were mainly challenging the paternalistic employment relations that did not foresee any legal protection for workers. At the same time, strikes slowly started to involve a “national dimension,” and a «“Zionization” of the strike weapon emerged» (p. 23): strikes started to be used not only to improve the material conditions of workers, but also — or mainly – to push Jewish private employers to employ only Jews, thus advancing the nation-building agenda that the Zionist movement was carrying out.

Chapter 2, entitled “The National Construction of Strikes, 1918-1930,” focuses on the 1920s, when the number of strikes increased. Among the reasons to explain such a trend, De Vries includes the economic boom of the mid-1920s; the urbanization of the Yishuv (the Jewish community of Palestine), with the consequent increase of the class of workers; the rise of members of the Histadrut (the Jewish Trade Unions). The process of nationalization of strikes continued, with a «growing use of Zionist rhetoric», aiming at «creating a work environment conducive of the absorption of future Jewish immigration» (p. 33). By concentrating on this trend, De Vries highlights one of the most relevant features of Labor Zionism: «the subordination of workers’ interests […] to the cause of nation building» (p. 36).

With Chapter 3, titled “Strike Action and Politicization, 1931-1940,” the author moves to the 1930s, which witnessed a much higher number of strikes: 687 compared to 259 during the previous decade. The most important characteristic of these strikes was their «politicization». As to theYishuv, strikes were less used as a means to persuade Jewish employers to prefer Jews over Arabs; they rather became a place for competition between the Left, specifically David Ben Gurion’s Mapai, and the Right, i.e. Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s Revisionist Party. In fact, since the early 1930s the latter widely campaigned against strikes, accusing them of harming the Zionist national project, and these campaigns were gaining support especially in liberal circles. And, at the same time, De Vries emphasizes the relevance of the strike issue in the decision by the Revisionists to abandon the World Zionist Organization in 1935 As to the Arab Palestinian community, it was the Arab general strike of April-October 1936 against the British policy in Palestine that paved the way to the Arab rebellion that took place between 1936 and 1939.

Chapter 4, whose title is “War and the Normalization of Strikes, 1941-1946,” focuses on the impact of strikes during wartime. While during the First World War the number of strikes decreased, during the Second World War it highly increased due to the economic boom that Palestine was experiencing. Moreover, De Vries rightly refers to a “normalization” of the strikes: «the material dimension […] was overwhelmingly dominant» and strikes «were free of the “national” and the “political”» dimension (p. 68). In those years a relevant role was played by the Palestine government, which banned strikes unless they had been notified beforehand to the High Commissioner, so that this one could try to mediate the labor dispute. This ban was part of the wider British Government policy to secure industrial production all over the Empire for war purposes. Even if the ordinance came into effect in January 1942, it did not succeed in reducing the number of strikes between 1943 and 1945. The chapter ends by focusing on a joint Arab-Jewish strike, which occurred in April 1946 and involved civil servants, whose material conditions had highly deteriorated during the previous years. Its relevance laid in the fact that it was one of the few examples of cross-national strikes — cooperation between Jews and Arabs had started in the 1920s, had risen in the early 1930s, but had drastically decreased after the 1936-39 Arab rebellion – and that it was actually successful, since it ended with gains to the employees. Yet — as the author correctly states – «the political effect of the strike was limited» and «the rare phenomenon of cooperation moved the two national communities only slightly» (p. 90).

Finally, the last chapter, titled “From Social Act to Social Right, 1947-1951,” deals with the strikes during the ending years of the Mandate and the first years of existence of the State of Israel. Two main strikes are taken into consideration. The first one occurred in July 1950, when two thousand nurses abstained from work in order to obtain better material working conditions. The Histadrut, despite initially supporting the nurses requests, later on changed its position and started criticizing them for their request to shorten their working hours. Also the labor ministry herself, Golda Meir, accused the nurses of acting in their own self-interest without taking into consideration the State’s needs. Such a situation reminded the 1920s «national argument» against the strikes, when strikes were blamed to jeopardize the Zionist national goal. But, more important, this episode demonstrated the ambivalence of the Histadrut, which on one side represented the interests of the workers, and on the other was «deeply tied and dependent on the Mapai bureaucracy» and behaved as a «mouthpiece for a state-building government» (p. 103). Also during the second strike – the famous seamen’s strike of Autumn 1951, which resulted in an almost compete paralysis of Israel’s commercial navy — the Histadrut and Mapaibehaved in a similar way, condemning the seamen’s positions. The importance of this event lies in its impact in the political arena as it actually «turned from a social conflict into a debate […] over union democracy and the treatment of popular discontent» (p. 107). The suppression of the strike in a harsh way confirmed that in those years what was at stake was «the right of strike itself as a universally based code and values» (p. 108).

The book has many qualities. It is well written and well structured, and it hosts several tables and figures, which are quite useful for the reader. In terms of research, De Vries skillfully combines primary sources – documents identified in several Israeli and British archives, and a vast amount of press (all the most relevant newspapers of the time have been consulted) — with the existing historiography, with which the author engages in a very productive way. Yet, there are two main shortages. Given its importance, the Arab general strike of 1936 could be dealt more extensively: three pages is not very much for such a relevant episode. For example, the author says nothing on the consequences — if there were any – it had on the way strikes were conducted within the Yishuv in those years. At the same time, apart from a very effective quotation by Pinchas Lavron basically stating that «the freedom of strike» could be limited if strikes were putting at risk the State economy (p. 93), the author does not provide the reader with further information about Lavron, who was General Secretary of the Histadrut in 1949-50 and clearly played a crucial role in shaping its policy.

Nevertheless, this is certainly a very good and useful book, which sheds light on an interesting and relevant topic and allows a better understanding of the process of nation – and the state-building in Palestine/Israel.

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