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From early Zionism until today, Palestinian stonemasons built Israel

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The Palestinians who built Israel
by Andrew Ross.
320 pp. Verso $29.95

In 1979, a young Andrew Ross did what thousands of carefree European and American youths were doing at the time: he took a “break” from the tediousness of Western life, and volunteered for a few months on a kibbutz in Israel. The charm of communal farming life, less than strenuous physical labor, and libertine revelry after sundown, lulled his otherwise critical “late hippy” soul away from following up on barely-formulated questions about the origins of Kibbutz Ginosar, where he was staying, even as he noticed that there were Palestinian employees of the kibbutz, day laborers working the land that had been stolen from them during the nakba, and leaving at sunset.  Where did they go? How much were they paid? Ross never asked, as he wrapped up his volunteer stint with a visit to Egypt.

Thirty-six years later, Ross, now a professor at New York University and a labor activist, returned to Palestine to collaborate on a documentary about employment options for Palestinians in Israel.  The book Stone Men: the Palestinians who built Israel” is the result of the research he conducted between 2015 and 2017, and in many ways, it answers the questions that the young volunteer would have asked, had Egypt not called.

“Stone Men” is a sobering book in many ways, as it provides a detailed overview of labor practices in Israel and the West Bank from the early years of Zionism, to the present.  (Because of the extreme restrictions on movement in and out of the Gaza Strip, Ross could not research employment conditions there).  The subtitle tells the real story: just as Israel could not exist without the land of Palestine, so the country could not be built without the steady toil, skills, and dependability of Palestinian masons.

Indeed, even though the Zionist vision of the young nation was one that relied exclusively on Jewish labor, Palestinians were and remain by far the more expert stone masons, as they had been practicing the craft for centuries, with local materials. With ample deposits of the best quality dolomitic limestone in the world literally at their feet, Palestinians had honed their artisanal skills beyond compare in the region, securing a reputation as top-notch masons throughout the Middle East, where they indeed had built most of the cities.  Additionally, such is the racism of colonizers that Jewish labor was a lot more expensive than Palestinian, and had to be subsidized by European Zionists eager to develop the hard-working “New Jew,” but those recent arrivals couldn’t really build much, and some of their structures collapsed.  Unions–part of the early socialist Zionist vision–were also Jewish only, but even within the Jewish unions, there were different wages for Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews, the latter receiving “Arab wages.”  And the Zionist dreamers had to deal with the pragmatic reality that, if they didn’t rely on Palestinians, they would not be able to “build Zion.”  

Cover of "Stone Men The Palestinians Who Built Israel" by Andrew Ross, published by Verso Books.

Cover of “Stone Men
The Palestinians Who Built Israel” by Andrew Ross, published by Verso Books.

The newly arrived European Jews could not possibly compete with the Palestinians. But as colonizers, they could exploit them.  And they did. Ross’ book documents the long history of Palestinians building the Zionist national home, “from the turn of the twentieth century when the Jews of Ottoman Palestine […] depended on their building skills,” to the “modernizing wave of economic expansion under the British mandate,” to the “newly established state of Israel [which] used their labor to help house the influx of Jewish immigrants,” to the present day, when West Bank Palestinians provide cheap labor across the Green Line, as well as on the illegal but ever expanding Jewish-only settlements.  

Drawing on hundreds of interviews with Palestinian “stone men” and construction workers in Israel and Palestine, Ross provides a long record of the many decades of wage theft, the denial of minimum wages and social benefits for Palestinian workers, the loss of income from border closures, checkpoint blockages, and arbitrary revocations of work permits, as Palestinians were driven to accept ever lower wages while foreign workers were brought in to keep costs down, and were losing their own homes, while building Israel. How can one quantify what Israel owes the Palestinians, the massive wage theft, the decades of unfree labor, he asks? What about the confiscated land and property?  And how does one even begin to assess the devastating psychological cruelty inflicted on construction workers who are ordered to demolish their own ancestral homes, so as to make room for Israeli houses, Israeli settlements, when annexation is the new reality? “These and other liabilities are all part of the inventory of debts run up in the course of the long Nakba,” Ross writes in his closing pages.

Beyond the “bottom line,” Ross’s greater concern, however, is how the litany of wrongs can be redressed.  What reparations are possible, for the Palestinians who have “built Zion,” creating the facts on the ground they have to contend with?

Israel is founded on too many fault lines.  How could the socialist vision of some of its early ideologues be reconciled with Jewish protectionism?  And how could the idea of equality survive the foundational supremacist ethos of the new nation? The experiment has failed.  As today’s Israelis keep electing war criminals, fascists, and unrepentant mass murderers as their leaders, the fault lines are opening up into giant gaps, where the idyllic naiveté of last century’s hippie generation comes crashing like the rickety structures clumsily built by unskilled wannabes.  The challenge, then, is to achieve justice, out of the rubble.

Ross suggests that the only practical way to compensate Palestinians is to have a single,
secular-democratic state
 for all its citizens, from the river to the sea.  It is on this note that he concludes his book with a quote from one of his Palestinian interviewees: “I’ve been building homes every day over there for thirty years.  In a way, it’s really my country too, isn’t it?”

I definitely agree with Ross about the one democratic country being the only viable option.  But I would say it should be so, even if the Palestinian “stone men” had not built Israel.  The land is ours.

Nada Elia

Nada Elia is a Palestinian scholar-activist, writer, and grassroots organizer, currently completing a book on Palestinian Diaspora activism.

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13 Responses

  1. mondonut on April 16, 2019, 12:20 pm

    It was not just stonemasons, skilled and unskilled labor of every type was in demand – hence the large scale immigration of Arabs to the region. The UNRWA recognized and codified this by only requiring 3 years of residence to become a Palestinian refugee: “persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948”

    The Arab migration was accelerated by the racist Jews paying more for Arab labor than their Arab brethren. Those bastards.

    • amigo on April 16, 2019, 4:34 pm

      “Those bastards.” mondonutcase

      Takes one to know one , eh mondonut.

    • Brewer on April 16, 2019, 6:44 pm

      “The Arab migration”
      More Zionist fantasy.
      “The argument that Arab immigration somehow made up a large part of the Palestinian Arab population is thus statistically untenable. The vast majority of the Palestinian Arabs resident in 1947 were the sons and daughters of Arabs who were living in Palestine before modern Jewish immigration began. There is no reason to believe that they were not the sons and daughters of Arabs who had been in Palestine for many centuries”
      – The Population of Palestine: Population History and Statistics of the Late Ottoman Period and the Mandate, Justin McCarthy, Columbia University Press, 1990

      “As all the research by historian Fares Abdul Rahim and geographers of modern Palestine shows, the Arab population began to grow again in the middle of the nineteenth century. That growth resulted from a new factor: the demographic revolution. Until the 1850s there was no “natural” increase of the population, but this began to change when modern medical treatment was introduced and modern hospitals were established, both by the Ottoman authorities and by the foreign Christian missionaries. The number of births remained steady but infant mortality decreased. This was the main reason for Arab population growth. … No one would doubt that some migrant workers came to Palestine from Syria and Trans-Jordan and remained there. But one has to add to this that there were migrations in the opposite direction as well. For example, a tradition developed in Hebron to go to study and work in Cairo, with the result that a permanent community of Hebronites had been living in Cairo since the fifteenth century. Trans-Jordan exported unskilled casual labor to Palestine; but before 1948 its civil service attracted a good many educated Palestinian Arabs who did not find work in Palestine itself. Demographically speaking, however, neither movement of population was significant in comparison to the decisive factor of natural increase”
      – Mrs. Peters’s Palestine, Yehoshua Porath, NY Review of Books, January 16, 1986

      • Misterioso on April 17, 2019, 10:19 am


        Well and truly stated!!

    • Misterioso on April 17, 2019, 10:13 am


      “…hence the large scale immigration of Arabs to the region.”

      This is the second time you’ve trotted out this canard. If ignorance is “bliss,” you must be a very happy person.

      Reality regarding Arab immigration to Palestine:

      The root of the myth stems in large measure from the con artist, Joan Peters:

      Enthusiastically endorsed when first published by leading Zionists including Bernard Lewis, Saul Bellow, Elie Wiesel, Martin Peretz (editor of The New Republic), Barbara Tuchman, future Brandeis President Judah Reinharz, and Daniel Pipes who reported that Peters’ “historical detective work has produced startling results which should materially influence the future course of the debate about the Palestinian problem” (Commentary, July, 1984), Peters’ book became known as “From Lies Immemorial” following analysis by Middle East scholars, including Professor Yehoshua Porath of Hebrew University and Dr. Norman Finkelstein of New York University (Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict, Verso, London and New York, 1995, p. 21, 1995.)

      Professor Porath, Israel’s leading demographic historian, called Peters’ book a “forgery… [that] was almost universally dismissed [in Israel] as sheer rubbish except maybe as a propaganda weapon.”(New York Times, Nov.28, 1985)

      Rabbi Arthur Herzberg, vice-president of the WJC, agreed: “I think that she’s cooked the statistics…. The scholarship is phony and tendentious. I do not believe that she has read the Arabic sources that she quotes.”(ibid)

      To again quote Professor Porath: “The precise demographic history of modern Palestine cannot be summed up briefly, but its main features are clear enough and they are very different from the fanciful description Ms. Peters gives…. [S]he has apparently searched through documents for any statement to the effect that Arabs entered Palestine. But even if we put together all the cases she cites, one cannot escape the conclusion that most of the growth of the Palestinian Arab community resulted from a process of natural increase.” (“Mrs. Peters’ Palestine” New York Review of Books, 16 January 1986.)

      For the record, the total Arab immigration into Palestine between 1922 (when the League of Nations British Class A Mandate began) and 1945 amounted to only 40,500 people. (Edward Hagopian and A.B. Zahlan, “Palestine’s Arab Population: the Demography of the Palestinians,” Journal of Palestine Studies, III, 4, Summer, 1974, p. 43)

      Peters misrepresented the scholarly findings of demographers A.M. Carr-Saunders and Professor Kemal Karpat who declared her conclusions to be wrong and that she also incorrectly asserts that the Ottoman district boundaries were the same as British Mandate district boundaries which she relies upon for analysis of population growth.

      She also misrepresents official mandate documents, e.g., the 1933 Hope Simpson Report, the 1933 and 1935 Annual Report to the League of Nations, the 1938 Palestine Partition Commission Report, the 1945-6 Anglo-American Survey of Palestine. She even distorts the writings of Samuel Clemens, i.e., Mark Twain!!

      You accept the “scholarship” of Ms. Peters despite the fact she has no academic qualifications whatsoever. Indeed, “From Time Immemorial…” was her first and last book – if she in fact wrote it. Her previous writing experience was as the woman’s page writer for the Chicago Daily News.

      It is also revealing that Peters has not responded to Finkelstein’s critique or challenged him to a debate. Then again, Peters has all but disappeared other than teaming up with loony American Evangelists, visiting the “Holy Land” and spewing forth even more hasbara/lies.

      Check out Dr. Bill Farrell’s detailed review in the Fall 1984 issue of the Journal of Palestine Studies: “Joan Peters and the Perversion of History” – “After investigating Peters’ claims, this just becomes another badly written book with a premeditated bias. It will convince no scholars, or change the historiography of the Middle East. In the future, it will only be remembered by those who already believed its fraudulent assertions before its publication, who desired pulp instead of fact.”

      I also recommend the chapter “Whose Country is It?” in the eminent Middle East Correspondent Charles Glass’s “Money for Old Rope.”

      You should also read “Conspiracy of Praise” by the late Edward W. Said – “The one thing I still cannot grasp is how people can be so foolish as to believe ‘From Time Immemorial’ the contention that the Palestinians are something made up or imaginary, like the unicorn or the tooth fairy.”

      William B. Quandt’s excellent article in the June 1996 edition of Foreign Affairs should also be read: He describes Peters’ conclusions as based on “shoddy scholarship” and praises Finkelstein’s “landmark essay on the subject.”

      I have before me an article by journalist Anthony Lewis entitled “There Were No Indians” published in the 13 January 1986 issue of the NYT. He sums it all up nicely: “Israelis have not gushed over the book as some Americans have. Perhaps that is because they know the reality of the Palestinians’ existence…”

      In short, Peters ignored the population figures for Palestine carefully calculated by expert demographers during the 19th century as well as censuses taken by British officials during the British mandate. Her thesis is also riddled with contradictions, easily detected misrepresentations of documented history and invalid data plagiarized from a long since discredited source. Many scholars are convinced Ms. Peters did not write the book herself, but served as a front for others whose motives are obvious.

      Enough said. GET EDUCATED OR SHUT UP!!

      • RoHa on April 17, 2019, 9:26 pm

        The Peters story is even more extraordinary in that it fails to do what it is intended to do.

        The intent is to say something along the lines of “The land was pretty much empty before the Zionists got here, so the Zionists have the right to the land and the Arabs don’t.”

        But, in Peter’s story, the Arabs migrated into the country over the same period that the Zionists were migrating into the country. This should give them equal rights to the Zionist migrants.

        So it is not merely fiction, but pointless fiction.

    • zaid on April 19, 2019, 1:05 am

      The foreign zionist colonialists trying to project their status on the indigeneous population of Palestine.

      Fortunately no one takes their myths seriously these days.

      History, logic, archeology, genetics and Othoman and british Population registry discredited everything those nuts say.

  2. Citizen on April 16, 2019, 2:11 pm

    I thought the Zionist brain fart was to turn Jews into people who liked to work with their hands.

  3. JLewisDickerson on April 16, 2019, 3:06 pm

    RE: “Drawing on hundreds of interviews with Palestinian ‘stone men’ and construction workers in Israel and Palestine, Ross provides a long record of the many decades of wage theft, the denial of minimum wages and social benefits for Palestinian workers, the loss of income from border closures, checkpoint blockages, and arbitrary revocations of work permits . . . “ ~ Nada Elia

    SEE: “Permanent Temporariness” | by Alastair Crooke | London Review of Books | 3/03/11

    [EXCERPTS] . . . It was [Ariel] Sharon who pioneered the philosophy of ‘maintained uncertainty’ that repeatedly extended and then limited the space in which Palestinians could operate by means of an unpredictable combination of changing and selectively enforced regulations, and the dissection of space by settlements, roads Palestinians were not allowed to use and continually shifting borders. All of this was intended to induce in the Palestinians a sense of permanent temporariness. . .

    . . . It suits Israel to have a ‘state’ without borders so that it can keep negotiating about borders, and count on the resulting uncertainty to maintain acquiescence. . .

    SOURCE –

  4. Nathan on April 16, 2019, 7:04 pm

    Since Kibbutz Ginosar was founded in 1937, it simply cannot be true that the Palestinian employees of the kibbutz were “day laborers working the land that had been stolen from them during the nakba”. It happens in the propaganda business that one gets carried away with one’s mission of repeating and re-repeating and re-re-repeating a particular message that one forgets to check the facts. There should be a “before” and “after” even in the anti-Israel world.

    Our author states: “I definitely agree with Ross about the one democratic country being the only viable option”. This statement is really quite silly. Why would anyone imagine that Ross has any particular insight into conflict solving? We are told that he’s a “labor activist”, so it might be that he doesn’t really have a grip on issues of diplomacy. I should add that our author’s choice of words (“viable option”) is really very telling. You would think that the wording should be “viable solution” (i.e. ending the conflict). There is no vision of solving the conflict, so the word “solution” is not used. An “option” is about what the next step might be, but obviously the conflict remains unresolved. Reality (“the only viable option”) is that the status quo will remain unchanged until a solution to the conflict is reached.

    • eljay on April 16, 2019, 7:15 pm

      || Nathan: … It happens in the propaganda business that one gets carried away with one’s mission of repeating and re-repeating and re-re-repeating a particular message that one forgets to check the facts. … ||

      No kidding! Zionism’s been doing that for decades.

      || … There is no vision of solving the conflict, so the word “solution” is not used. An “option” is about what the next step might be … ||

      There are plenty of visions of what solving the I-P conflict might look like. Some of them involve applying justice, accountability and equality.

      Unfortunately, every Zionist “vision” of conflict resolution involves Israel:
      – remaining a religion-supremacist “Jewish State”;
      – keeping as much as possible of what it has stolen, occupied and colonized;
      – being absolved of its obligations under international law (incl. RoR); and
      – being absolved of responsibility and accountability for its past and on-going (war) crimes.

  5. Moral Jews on April 18, 2019, 1:26 am

    I was born to Jewish parents. I was NOT born a Jew, any more than I was born an R.N, a Presbyterian or a Rhodes Scholar. Judaism is a religion, not a race, not a bloodline, not a single culture, and certainly not a viable choice for morality. It is a religion which must be deliberately chosen. It is not a hereditary endowment, privileged, much less a state of being Chosen People.
    Chosen for what? Assumed superiority and entitlement?
    I studied Torah and Talmud for over 30 years, with my eyes open. I studied other religions.
    I have to tell you that after all that study, and witnessing the rise of Zionism, that Judaism is the most racist, discriminatory and insolent system of beliefs that I have ever encountered.
    Judaism, in the form of Zionism, is as evil as the Klan, ISIS, or Fundamentalist Christianity. All are nihilistic, racist and bigoted from inception, evil by intention, and reprehensible by their actions.
    And please remember, the vast MAJORITY of world Jews are NOT, NOT Zionists.

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