Arab-Jewish workers' joint struggles prior to the partition of Palestine - Part One

The Zionists have always tried to block any attempts at Arab-Jewish workers' unity. However during the decades leading up to the formation of the state of Israel there were many examples of Arab and Jewish workers coming together in mixed workplaces and even attempts to build joint unions. Thus history denies the myth that no such unity is possible. What is true is that the nationalists on both sides (Jewish and Arab) did everything to thwart such moves. Most people have been taught by the capitalist education system that the UN partition of Palestine in 1948 was aimed at preventing further bloodshed as a result of the communal war between the Arabs and Jews in Palestine and that the Palestinian state was not created because of the Arab attacks on Israel in May 1948.

On the other hand we have the self declared Marxist sects - that until 1956 or 1967 supported Israel against the Arabs on the grounds that Israel was supposed to be some kind of a progressive state run by socialists -who are now claiming that all the Israeli Jews are one reactionary bloc.

As we shall see all of these positions are no more than myths.

Socialist Zionism

The most well known Zionist socialist was Ber Borokhov (1881–1917), who laid the theoretical foundations for the doctrine that was a combination of distorted Marxism combined with Zionism that gave birth to the party known as Po'alei Tziyon, the largest of the pre-war Socialist-Zionist parties in Eastern Europe and Palestine. In 1906 Borokhov published "Our Platform," in which he applied his general analysis of nationalism to the Jewish question.

The Jews, according to his views, were inassimilable and persecuted wherever they lived in the Diaspora because of their "abnormal" social structure. They were overwhelmingly concentrated on the margins of national economic life, in petty trade, small-scale service enterprises, money lending and the like, rather than in agriculture and primary industry.

Unable to compete successfully in economies dominated by non-Jews and arousing anti-Semitism wherever they went, the petit bourgeois Jewish masses would be compelled to migrate to Palestine, the only territory in which they could successfully achieve economic normalcy by becoming workers and farmers. Here this new "normal" Jewish proletariat would finally be able to wage the class struggle and ultimately achieve a Jewish socialist society. If someone were to argue that these are the same arguments used by the anti Semites against the Jews that person would not be very far wrong.

Borokhov's programme was aimed at recruiting those left wing Jews active in the socialist movement who were perplexed by the open contradiction between socialism and Zionism. He argued that Zionism was a necessary historical stage in the realization of socialism.

This programme was soon put to the test in Palestine itself. It was encapsulated in the racist concepts of the "conquest of labour" (kibbush ha'avoda), "Hebrew labour" ('avoda 'ivrit) and "conquest of the land" ("Kibbush Adama"). In simple words this meant removing the Arab poor peasants from the land and the Arab workers from their places of work.

The 1920s

Prior to the occupation of Palestine by the British imperialists these concepts were used to remove the Arab workers from the Moshavots (agricultural settlements). Since the petit bourgeois "socialist" Zionists were not able to compete with the local Arab workers they began to import Jews from the Yemen and North Africa as a source of cheap labour. Hence the bad blood between the Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews in Israel.

With the arrival of British colonialism a sector of Palestine's economy where Arab and Jewish workers worked together was created. It included the railways, other government enterprises and agencies like the telephone and telegraph systems, the Public Works Department and the port authorities, as well as municipal government in cities with mixed populations. Later, the British and Allied military bases and installations in Palestine would become a key arena of interaction between Arab and Jewish workers. There were also a number of privately owned enterprises which employed both Jewish and Arab workers, including several large foreign-owned companies like the Iraq Petroleum Company with its terminal at Haifa, the oil refinery in that city, as well as the Nesher quarry and cement factory in the same vicinity. In the 1920s Palestinian Arab society was still overwhelmingly rural. However, a high rate of natural increase, a deepening agrarian crisis, and new employment opportunities in the towns resulted in substantial migration from the countryside to the urban areas, and especially the booming coastal towns of Jaffa and Haifa. Between the censuses of 1922 and 1931 Palestine's Arab population grew by some 40 percent, but the Arab population of Jaffa grew by 63 percent (from 27,429 to 44,638) and of Haifa by 87 percent (from 18,240 to 34,148)[1].

These new arrivals swelled the ranks of the urban working class as wage labourers in construction, in public works, on the docks, on the railways, in small-scale manufacturing and service enterprises, and elsewhere. A stratum of skilled and semiskilled workers was also emerging, especially in Haifa, which was in this period on the verge of becoming Palestine's main port and industrial centre[2]. Moreover, some of the members of this stratum were already beginning to take an interest in trade unionism.

An internationalist trade union organization would find places where Jews and Arabs worked together a golden opportunity to unite both workers in the struggle for working class power. For the Histadrut - "The General Hebrew Workers Federation in Eretz Israel" - that was created in 1920, the issue was different.

Under the pressure of the Jewish workers who worked alongside the Arab workers and wanted a joint union, the Histadrut had to deal with this issue. Joint organization however was in contradiction to the policy of "Hebrew labour", which was by the 1920s the policy of the two largest labour-Zionist parties and of the Histadrut which they jointly dominated[3].

The "socialist" Zionist parties who formed the Histadrut disagreed on their tactics toward mixed places of work. Berl Katznelson (1887–1944), one of the leading figures in Ahdut Ha'avoda (and later MAPAI), in a meeting that took place on December 30, 1920, shortly after the Histadrut was formed, expressed serious concerns regarding the possibility that Arab railway workers might want to join the RWA, (Rail Ways Association of the Histadrut) which would thereby lose its Jewish and Zionist character. Other executive committee members agreed with Katznelson that Jewish and Arab workers should belong to separate organizations. Some even expressed grave doubts about the whole idea of helping Arab workers organize, for fear that organized Arab workers would inevitably turn against Zionism.

Ahdut Ha'avoda, led by David Ben-Gurion (1886–1973). Who was to become the leader of the Zionist movement and the first prime Minister of Israel, reacted somewhat differently.

Ben-Gurion and his colleagues were well aware of the fact that these were some very dangerous developments from the Zionists' point of view. The Jewish-owned bakeries and pastry shops in Jaffa and Tel Aviv employed Arabs and Jews. Arab workers cooperated with their Jewish co-workers when the latter organized a union. The initiative for efforts to develop links with the Arab bakery workers came from radicals among the Jewish bakery workers, who in 1922 went so far as to declare their union "international," that is, open to both Jewish and Arab members, and actually registered some Arab members. The same happened in the railways where some of the Arab railway men had been pressing Jewish union leaders for a clear response to their offer to cooperate; some of them had reportedly even expressed interest in joining the Histadrut. The rank and file Jewish railway men demanded the same.

Ben Gurion was concerned that if the Histadrut failed to formulate a clear policy on joint organization, especially among the railway workers, the Jewish railway would organize a fully integrated ("international") Jewish-Arab railway workers' union

Ben-Gurion proposed that in all the trades which employed Jewish and Arab workers (such as the railways, metalworking, and so forth) the Jewish trade unions should organize the Arab workers in trade unions linked to the Jewish unions but not part of them.

As Ben-Gurion and his party saw it, linked but separate unions in mixed workplaces was what was necessary. This would allow the Jewish workers in mixed workplaces to improve their position through cooperation with their Arab co-workers while preserving the exclusively Jewish character of the Histadrut and its trade unions, which would thus remain free to carry out their Zionist ("national") tasks, including the struggle for removal of the Arab workers by Hebrew labour.

On January 1922 the Histadrut council had adopted a resolution which declared the basic principles of joint organization among the railwaymen to be an "organization of the workers on the basis of national sections" and "preservation of the Jewish Railway Workers' Association as part of the Histadrut."[4]

While"Hadut Haavoda" was seeking "separate but equal" trade unions, Hapo'el Hatza'ir's, that later was to dominate Mapai, continued to argue that the central task of the Histadrut was to realize the Zionist project through the construction in Palestine of a separate Jewish society and economy, and this alone was sufficient justification for such policies as "Hebrew labour" (Jews only!). It regarded as utopian pipe dreams the Ben Gurion idea of joint organization in mixed workplaces and the organization of Arab workers.

Hapo'el Hatza'ir's position was articulated by Hayyim Arlosoroff in a 1927 essay entitled "On the Question of Joint Organization."

In his essay Arlosoroff rejected the notion that joint organization could significantly raise the general wage level in Palestine and thus facilitate the struggle for Hebrew labour by making Jewish workers more competitive with Arab workers. He was also convinced that Ben-Gurion's argument for the policy of linked unions based on the assumption that the Palestinian Arab working class could be an ally of the Zionist movement against Arab nationalism was nothing but a fantasy.

To support his argument Arlosoroff cited the case of South Africa, where, as he saw it, conditions most closely paralleled those which confronted the Jewish workers in Palestine. The white workers there were unable to compete in a labour market dominated by abundant and cheap African and Indian labour. They had therefore organized and used their political clout to secure the imposition of a "colour bar" which excluded non-whites from supervisory, skilled, and well-paid jobs. Joint organization could never overcome the dynamics of the capitalist labour market. The only way out of this dilemma, Arlosoroff insisted, was for the Zionist labour movement to devote its resources and energies to developing a separate high-wage, high-productivity, and exclusively Jewish economic sector, which would coexist with an unproductive and low-wage Arab sector for decades to come.

Hapo'el Hatza'ir and Hadut Haavoda soon encountered opposition to their policy within the Jewish working class.

Under the impact of the Russian revolution, between 1919 and 1921, leaders of the Po'alei Tziyon in Europe, came under strong pressure to join the Communist International. Instead of joining, they engaged in lengthy negotiations with the Communist International over the terms under which this party might be admitted. The chief obstacle was of course Po'alei Tziyon's commitment to Zionism, which the Comintern (like most of the pre-war social-democratic movements) strongly rejected. The Comintern declared in 1921 that communism and Zionism were utterly incompatible and insisted on total acceptance of the 21 conditions for admission, including the renunciation of Zionism and the dissolution of local Po'alei Tziyon parties into territorial communist parties.

This led to a series of mergers and splits, and the appearance of distinct political tendencies, which ultimately coalesced into two parties. One was the Palestine Communist Party (PCP), which in 1924 received Comintern recognition as its section in Palestine. They stood for International unionism.

The second tendency which emerged was Po'alei Tziyon Smol, (or Left Po'alei Tziyon).

Po'alei Tziyon Smol occupied the far left of the Zionist spectrum. Unlike Ben-Gurion, this party supported the idea of joint unions, but under the Zionist programme and leadership. Their scheme was to leave the economic functions to the trade unions but also remove from them any political role, i.e. they would leave politics to the Zionists.

"Linked Unions"

In the middle of the 1920's Haifa was experiencing rapid growth: its population (one-quarter of which consisted of Jews) was almost 25,000 in 1922 and would double by 1931.5 In the interwar period the city would become not only Palestine's main port but also its leading industrial centre.

The new Nesher cement factory, located not far from Haifa, was established in 1924-25 by Michael Pollack, a Jew who was born in Russian-ruled Georgia and had made a fortune in Baku oil, and who had fled Russia after the revolution, eventually settling in Paris.

Construction work for the Nesher factory was carried out by both Jewish workers supplied by the Histadrut and Egyptian workers brought in by a local Arab contractor. The Histadrut members received 20 piastres for an eight-hour working day, while the Egyptians received only 10 piastres for a nine or ten-hour day. Such differentials in Jewish and Arab wage rates for both skilled and unskilled labour were to be typical in Palestine throughout most of the mandate period. It was a conscious policy by the British and the Histadrut aimed at the division of the workers along ethnic lines. Decent relations seem to have prevailed among the 200 Jewish workers and the 80 Egyptians engaged in building the Nesher factory by 1924.

A handful of members or sympathizers of the Palestine Communist Party were also employed at the Nesher site. The communists had no hesitation in taking militant stands on workplace issues. At Nesher, as elsewhere, the communists also attacked the Zionist movement for displacing Palestinian peasants, claiming that the very land on which the Nesher factory was being built had been expropriated.

As the factory approached completion, tensions rose between the management and the Jewish workers. The latter resented the management's adamant refusal to recognize or negotiate with either their own elected committee or the Histadrut to which they belonged. They also wanted an increase in wages to 25 piastres and a one-hour reduction in the working day. Ultimately the Jewish construction workers went on strike. They quickly realized that to win they needed the support of the Egyptian workers. Histadrut and Haifa Workers' Council officials opposed trying to get the Egyptians to join the strike, for fear that their participation might undermine the Histadrut's long-term goal of achieving exclusively Jewish employment at the site, in keeping with the "Hebrew labour" doctrine. But the Jewish workers decided to seek their support anyway, and the Egyptians, whose wages, working conditions and treatment by the foremen were much worse than those of the Jewish workers, quickly responded by joining the strike. 

The strike lasted two months until finally Pollack himself sent a message ordering his agents in Palestine to reach a settlement. An agreement was quickly concluded between Nesher and the Haifa Workers' Council, which won for the Jewish workers some of their demands. The agreement said nothing about the Egyptian workers however, and the Histadrut insisted that it had no responsibility for them. Defying their leaders, the Jewish workers voted 170 to 30 not to return to work unless the Egyptians were also rehired, which the Nesher management refused to do. The Histadrut ignored the vote and successfully pressurised the Jewish construction workers into abandoning the struggle and to resume work. Most of the Egyptians were deported to their homeland by the mandatory authorities. This would be the model in the next years.

In light of the reactionary policies of the "socialist" Zionist parties the communists were gaining ground among Jewish and Arab workers. The communists already enjoyed some support among the Jewish railway workers in Haifa, from where they were reaching out to Arab railway workers and others. In the autumn of 1924 the party had begun to publish its own Arabic-language journal, under the name Haifa. Its efforts to win support in the Arab community were enhanced by a much stronger and clearer anti-Zionist stance, one of whose first manifestations was a campaign to support Arab peasants resisting eviction from land near 'Afula, in the Jezreel Valley, which Arab landlords had sold to the Jewish National Fund. The party was also trying to win over Jewish workers through a "workers' unity" movement (known in Hebrew as "Ihud"), in keeping with recent Comintern directives instructing communist parties worldwide to overcome their isolation by seeking joint activities with friendly left social-democrats within the trade union movement, rather than through the Leninist united front tactic with the social democracy. Though the communists had been expelled from the Histadrut the previous year, the party's strong advocacy of class struggle and internationalist trade unionism allowed it to retain some support among Jewish workers. In the December 1925 elections to the Yishuv (the Jewish settlement) representative assembly, the party's list won some 8 percent of the vote, and more than 10 percent in the big cities - an electoral success which communists in Palestine (or later in Israel) would never equal again.[6]

At the same time, in reaction to the Histadrut's "Hebrew labour" policy, an independent Palestinian Arab labour movement had begun to emerge in the form of the Palestinian Arab Workers' Society (PAWS), established in Haifa in the spring of 1925.

The appearance of the PAWS and the growing influence of the communists and Po'alei Tziyon Smol, convinced the leaders of the Histadrut that the time had come to begin a real drive to organize Arab workers and to bring them under its influence.[7] During 1925, with funds from its own budget and from the Zionist Executive, the Histadrut launched two initiatives aimed at developing links with the Arab working class: an Arabic-language journal and a "club" in Haifa whose mission was to make contact with and then organize Arab workers.

Yitzhak Ben-Tzvi who would later become the second president of Israel, edited the new newspaper, which began to appear in April 1925, and was called Ittihad al-'Ummal (Workers' unity).

The newspaper carried numerous articles setting forth the history, ideology, and achievements of the labour-Zionist movement, explaining the structure and functions of the Histadrut and its various components. The newspaper also sought to introduce its readers to socialism by publishing in serial form texts by Ferdinand Lasalle.

A slightly better fate awaited the "General Workers Club". It was used to increase the influence of Zionism among skilled workers in the Christian sector of the "old city" of Haifa. It created a trade union for the skilled tailors and carpenters. In October 1925 it organized a strike against twelve Arab owners of workshops with the backing of the Histadrut. The strike went on for two weeks and it ended with some gains. It would allow the Histadrut to claim before the international socialist movement that it was not only seeking to build an advanced Jewish society in Palestine but also looking after the Arab workers.

As it happened, the October 1925 strike led by the General Workers' Club marked not the beginning but the high point of the Histadrut's attempts to organize Arab workers in Haifa in the 1920s. Despite all the rhetoric about supporting the organisation of Arab workers, the Histadrut was worried about the long-term political consequences of strikes and union organizing. In their assessment the more organized and class-conscious Arab workers would eventually turn also against Zionism.

By 1927 the Club was virtually moribund. Elsewhere in Palestine, the Histadrut's efforts to develop links with Arab workers never even approached the level briefly attained in Haifa. By the summer of 1927 the newspaper Filastin, based in Jaffa, concerned with the decline of the capitalist influence over the Arab workers, echoing the Histadrut nationalist policy, called Arab workers to quit Jewish unions and form their own Arab only labour organizations.[8

Before the storm

The 1930's were the same. In reaction to the racist policies of the Histadrut, in January 1930, the Palestinian Arab Workers' Society had succeeded in organizing the first countrywide congress of Arab workers. Sixty-one delegates gathered in Haifa, representing some 3,000 workers. Almost half the delegates came from Haifa itself, and nearly half of those represented the railway workers there who constituted the PAWS' main base of support. But there were also smaller contingents from Jerusalem, Jaffa, and other towns representing workers in a variety of trades. Though a number of Arab unionists who belonged to or sympathized with the Palestine Communist Party helped organize the congress, it was largely under the control of the more conservative elements. The congress resolved to set up a nationwide labour movement which would lead the struggle to improve the wages and working conditions of Arab workers and secure their rights. It also declared its opposition to Jewish immigration and Zionism and its support for Palestine's independence as an Arab state.

Between 1930 and 1936 the leaders of the Histadrut did their best to prevent class unity. They sabotaged the joint struggle of the Arab and Jewish bus and taxi drivers in 1931. They used the strike to organize the Jewish drivers into cooperatives. Like other sectors of Palestine's economy, motor transport would become increasingly segregated, with several large Histadrut-affiliated bus and trucking cooperatives serving Jewish towns and settlements, and private Arab companies serving Arab towns and villages.

In 1932 they used the strike by the Arab lightermen to try and replace the Arab workers by Jewish workers. The Jewish lightermen with whom the Arab strikers had been working side by side refused to serve as strike-breakers. The Histadrut promised to help and win the strike and won some verbal promises that were not respected.

After the strike ended, the lightermen and a number of other Arab dock workers joined a new Histadrut-sponsored Harbour Workers' Union for both Arab and Jewish workers. Though the Jewish workers who identified with Hashomer Hatza'ir wanted a fully international union with no internal divisions, the Histadrut insisted that the union should be comprised of two separate national sections.

The new Arab trade union controlled by the Histadrut was named the "Palestine Labour League (PLL.). By creating the PLL, the Histadrut leadership foreclosed any possibility that Arab workers would be allowed to become full and equal members of a transformed, non-Zionist Histadrut, as Po'alei Tziyon Smol and the Arab workers aligned with it had long demanded.

For the remainder of the mandate period, in fact until 1959 when the Histadrut decided to allow Arabs to become full members, the PLL (renamed the Israel Labour League after 1948) was the organization into which Arab workers were organized under the control of the Histadrut.

The Histadrut leadership sabotaged the joint struggle of the Nesher Quarry Workers in 1933.

These misleaders came under fire from both the Palestine Communist Party and Po'alei Tziyon Smol. The former explained in leaflets that the Zionist Histadrut was once again betraying the Arab and Jewish workers alike and called for an independent strike committee which would lead a joint struggle to equalize Arab and Jewish wages. The strike of April–May 1933 marked the beginning of the end of the PLL's influence at Nesher..[9]

The same happened in the Haifa Harbour, where the PLL was never really able to consolidate a stable base of support among Arab workers. The PAWS could make effective use of the argument that the Histadrut was really seeking to push Arab workers out of their jobs and replace them with Jews. Histadrut officials also blamed the Jewish communists for the PLL's lack of success, because the Communist informed the Arabs of the actual policy of the Histadrut toward the Arab workers. [10]

In Jaffa in 1934 the PLL had some successes in organizing Arab workers, especially among the dockworkers. These successes alarmed Arab trade unionists and their bourgeois nationalist allies of the Nashashibis' faction who organized the "Arab Workers' Society" (AWS) at the end of July 1934. The AWS called on Arab workers to adopt weapons from the Histadrut's arsenal by setting up their own picket lines and boycotting Jewish products and produce.

At the end of February 1935 the dockworkers went on strike, originally to protest the dismissal of a comrade who had been fired after a dispute with his foreman, and then to demand an eight-hour working day, a six-day working week, and higher wages. Though the strike ended in failure after a week it damaged the Histadrut as it did not come to support the strikers. As a result, by the end of 1935 the PLL's base of support was disappearing.[11]. Then, in October 1935, a barrel purportedly containing a shipment of cement accidentally broke open while being unloaded at Jaffa and was found to contain arms and ammunition being smuggled into Palestine for the Hagana, the Zionist military organization. This destroyed what remained of the PLL's links with the Jaffa dockworkers.

On February 22 1935, some 150 skilled workers in several of the technical departments, at the IPC (Iraqi Petroleum) formed a strike committee and demanded a minimum wage of 15 piastres a day, an eight-hour day and six-day working week, overtime pay for extra hours, and various other demands. Within a week the strike had spread to encompass some 600 of the IPC's 800 workers, almost all of them Arabs; but even the few Americans employed at the facility, presumably skilled oil workers or engineers, are reported to have stayed away from work.

Both the PAWS and the Histadrut soon became involved in the strike. The PAWS had the support of most of the workers. The wave of militancy and solidarity which accompanied the first two weeks of the strike forced cooperation between the PAWS and the Histadrut. The same wave however frightened both nationalist leaderships who used their power to prevent the spread of the strike and pushed for an early end to it.

Israel, June 2003.

(See Part two)


1. Government of Palestine, A Survey of Palestine (Jerusalem, 1946), vol. 1, 141, 148. Unfortunately, the mandatory government's censuses categorized people by religion rather than by nationality or ethnicity. As a result, the figures I cite here for Arabs are actually the combined totals for Muslims and Christians, and therefore include some non-Arab Christians, such as Armenians. But given the relatively small proportion of non-Arab Christians in the total number for Christians, my point about relative growth rates remains valid. It is perhaps also worth noting that urban growth was very uneven during the 1920s: inland towns grew much more slowly than Jaffa and Haifa, while the population of Gaza on the Mediterranean coast seems to have stagnated.

2. Rachelle Taqqu, "Peasants into Workmen: Internal Labor Migration and the Arab Village Community under the Mandate," in Joel S. Migdal, ed., Palestinian Society and Politics (Princeton, N.J., 1980), 261–85. On Haifa specifically, see May Seikaly, "The Arab Community of Haifa, 1918–1936: A Study in Transformation" (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Somerville College, Oxford University, 1983).

3. On the Hebrew labor campaigns during the 1920s and 1930s, see Shapira, Hama'avak, and Steven Glazer, "Propaganda and the Histadrut-Sponsored Pickets for 'Hebrew Labor,' 1927–1936" (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Georgetown University, 1991).

4. Histadrut (Hava'ad Hapo'el), Din veheshbon lave'ida hashlishit shel hahistadrut (Tel Aviv, 1927), 155.

5. Government of Palestine, Survey of Palestine, vol. 1, 148. 

6. On the communists in Palestine in the 1920s, see Nahman List, "Tzadak hakomintern," Keshet, nos. 18, 20, 22, 24, 27, 30, 34 (1963–67)

7. S/EC/H, March 23, 1925, and EC/H, April 1, 1925; Kuntres, no. 301 (April 29, 1927).

8. Filastin, August 19, 1927

9. AA 208/1200, "Din veheshbon memo'etzet po'alei Nesher"; AA, interview with Agassi, February 22, 1972; Po'alei Tziyon Smol, Leshe'alot harega' (Tel Aviv, 1933).

10. See, for example, CZA, S25/3120, "Shvitat hastevedorim." Histadrut officials were quick to report communists to government officials and employers so that they could be fired. 

11. AA 208/4495.

Join us

If you want more information about joining the RCI, fill in this form. We will get back to you as soon as possible.