The double identity of labor
Sunday, June 3, 2001


After winning a general victory in a landslide universal-suffrage election, and as soon as he was appointed Prime Minister a couple of months ago, Ariel Sharon made a long and detailed digression of "the state of Israel" --a kind of upgraded Judenstaat-- to a French news agency in which, besides reiterating some basics of the Zionist doctrine --that the settlements in Judea and Samaria (the present West Bank) are there to stay whatever the peace talks amount to-- he made the surprising remark that he does not expect the economies of the neighboring Arab states (referring in particular to Syria and Egypt) to significantly improve in the decade to come, and that such weaknesses will be "beneficial" to Israel. What is surprising here is not that the economic (and political) performance of many Arab states has been going awry, and might remain so for the first half of the 21st century, but that such a misfortune "on the other side" will be "beneficial" to the Jewish state. I tend to see that the economic divide between Arabs and Israelis is even more fundamental than the political divide (not to mention the religious and legal aspects of those societies; but then if you're a Weberian you know for sure that even religion "affects" the economic), and that the impasse is socio-economic before anything else.

We'll have to begin with the early settlers (or pilgrims) in the 1870s and later, most of which were Russian Jews who flew the pogrom campaigns in tsarist Russia. They were to be joined in the 1880s by Eastern European Jews who for the most part had enough of the rampant antisemitism within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Those were mostly individuals that immigrated collectively and worked and behaved as a collectivity, and were imbued for the most part with a utopian socialism, which they mixed with their Judaic Messianic culture, and all of which were popular in the Germanic cultures of eastern and central Europe. When those "pilgrims" created their first "labor camps," with the Rothschilds as their prime financiers, in zones of Ottoman Palestine with little or no Arab populations, there was a prima facie realization that they would be unable to survive economically (not to mention the pitfalls of their physical survival) without separating their own labor from the rest of the Arabs, thus what came to be known as "Jewish labor."

It is that separation that eventually --and unexpectedly one should add-- made the existence of the Jewish community in Ottoman Palestine possible, so that by the time of the British Mandate in the early 1920s, the grounds were ripe enough to begin the struggle that eventually led to the declaration of the state of Israel in 1948. But were it not for those early four decades, between the 1880s and 1920s, in which the doctrine of a di-vision of labor between Arabs and Jews had been elaborated and practiced, the British Mandate would have been a pure waste in terms of the possibilities accorded to the Jews in the period between 1920 and 1948. That is often forgotten and tend to be minimized in the dialogue des sourds that Arabs, Israelis, and Jews, and pundits alike are engaged in these days, and which for the most part lacks that socio-economic and historical perspective, and focuses instead on dubious moral and "rights" issues. The Israelis are probably just beginning to realize --with great pain-- that granting the Palestinians a state of their own is like giving someone a home without furniture, electricity, water and gas supplies, and where the recipients are jobless. When no economic infrastructure exists, and no matter what political rights you give to a people, even if you make them all your equal, those rights will prove of little help for economic survival. When the only economic value that the Palestinians possess is their own physical labor, and which they export to the Israelis as cheap underpaid labor (and which ironically is the kind of labor that greatly helped the construction of settlements), it means that there is no Palestinian economy, but only a proletarian labor force which has nothing to lose and not much to gain with or without Jerusalem. As there isn't much at stake, the second intifada could go on forever.

The Israelis will at some point have to realize that granting the Palestinians their political rights in the form of independent state --whatever its borders, even with the inclusion of east Jerusalem as the future capital-- will not be enough, and that there's much more at stake here, an outcome of a century of labor practices, which in turn epitomize infrastructural differences between western civilization and Islamdom. The point is that Israelis will soon find themselves in a situation similar in some respects to the Americans by the mid-19th century, when slavery was already declining, but for which an adequate political framework was yet to be found. But that eventually implied a full political, legal, and socio-economic integration --in short, one that was total-- and when we look at the ghettos still flourishing in many American cities today we realize that the process of integration is at its beginnings. The Israelis might have to opt for such a total integration, one that would imply above all integrating the Palestinian labor force on an equal footing with the Israeli --a solution that requires an adequate legal framework, and that would be hard to conceive in a bi-lateral state --hence a possible moratorium on the notion of the Jewish state altogether, with a juxtaposed Palestinian state --and not simply the expansion of settlements-- in favor of a single Jewish-Palestinian state. In light of the hardenings created by modern nationalisms, and the failures of bi-lingual states (e.g. the Canadian Anglo-French confederation), that will definitely not be that easy to digest. But what are the alternatives?

To understand why such a drastic re-conceptualization is beneficial, we need to go back to the historical roots of the conflict and the double identity of labor in particular. In fact, the division of labor between "Jewish" and "Arab" labor implied more than a physical reordering of things. It implied above all that they had to be structured very differently from one another. On the Arab side, the bulk of labor was offered by a peasantry that was abused of by centuries of corvées, and as a result occasionally moved around searching for new landlords and arable lands. That invariably gave a peasantry that was only loosely tied its land, on the one, and even more loosely connected to its urban notables, which were also the de facto landowners and tax-farmers, on the other. Such a situation pushed the early Jewish settlers towards adopting a labor infrastructure whose foundations merged notions of 19th-century capitalism together with a utopian socialism. Competition was indeed essential but the individual had to sacrifice himself first and to his or her own community. That led a decade or two later to the whole notion of the kibbutz, the labor camps that every Jewish settler had to participate in and that provided every one of them with a total and totalizing experience, one that associated labor with communal values, religion with education, as well as a commitment to the values of the future Jewish state.

That the two communities were structured on different systems of values is beyond any doubt. The problem, however, is that such differences tend to be flattened within a politically correct discourse, one that is unjustly pernicious to the strong, and soft towards the weaknesses of the dispossessed. The differences are visible even in the way the two parties have been waging "war" at one another. When Arafat unilaterally declared a cease-fire right after the deadly suicide bomb-attack on a Tel Aviv discothèque this past Friday (6/1), one wonders what kind of "war" the Palestinians are waging in the first place? The protracted and slow-moving street-war that the Palestinians have been into since last September reflects the endless divisions and sub-divisions in that society, in which the suicide "martyrs" make their decisions on their own, within small "military" cells, and independently of the political stratum at the top which is supposed to internationally represent them. But when Sharon threatened on a couple of occasions to wage a "real war," the implication is that for the Hebrew state such acts of violence, despite the enormous damage that they've created, are no "war" at all: the modern state is Clausewitzian by nature and thus needs a "decisive victory"; otherwise it would be internally eaten by the poisonous and unstructured relations that pervade in the Third World today.