Andrew Ross


On his book Stone Men: The Palestinians Who Built Israel

Cover Interview of October 22, 2019

A close-up

Who Built Israel? The given wisdom is that Jewish settlers did. Unused to manual labor, they learned on the job and made “new Jews” of themselves according to the doctrine of Labor Zionism. But the labor record I review in Stone Men is quite murky on this point and has been obscured by the agrarian romance of the kibbutz and the pervasive influence of nationalist mythologies. While Palestinians have always been at the core of the workforce, there have been at least three large-scale efforts to replace their labor: in the Conquest of Labor campaign in the early decades of the twentieth century; then after 1948, with the importation of Mizrahi Jews; and again after the first intifada with the recruitment of migrant workers from overseas.

In spite of these efforts, which were only partially successful, employers, especially in the construction industry, have always preferred Palestinian workers, and still do (today, there are more workers from the West Bank employed in Israel and the settlements than ever before). Acknowledging that Palestinians have built Israel (along with other states in the region, like Joran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE) helps us understand how and why they should have labor-based claims on rights as well as claims on lands stolen during the Nakba and since.

Now, I am aware that this argument has not fared all that well for laboring populations in other countries. Think of the African-Americans, Irish, Chinese, and Mexicans who have built the United States. Pushing for full social inclusion and rights on the basis of their foundational labor did not work for them in the short-term, but, over time, the moral force of the argument has translated into fuller acceptance of their civil and political rights. In the case of Palestine, the argument is even stronger; we are not talking about populations brought from elsewhere; these are people who labor on their own lands to build another people’s nation-state.