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Common Arab-Jewish struggles in the past & present: Interview with George Mehrabian

Common Arab-Jewish struggles in the past & present: Interview with George Mehrabian

This is a conversation about the unity of the Palestinian and Israeli peoples. The Greek libertarian journal Aftoleksi interviewed George Mehrabian, a person of Lebanese descent living in Athens, who translated the book “Israel and the Palestinian Struggle for Self-determination” into Greek.

Aftoleksi: Thank you for this conversation! It is very important for us to talk to people who have been dealing for years with Palestinian and Jewish issues from a progressive perspective. At an event organised in Greece by the publishing house International Forum, you spoke on the following central theme: “The unity of the working people in Palestine and Israel: The only way out of the quagmire of occupation and war”. It is from this point that we would like to start our discussion. We want to shed light on the two peoples’ efforts to coexist throughout all this time. And to focus on how nationalism and dominant powers have persistently prevented this coexistence from succeeding. What moments of common struggle could we single out?

George Mehrabian: British colonial rule over Palestine began with the Ottoman defeat in World War I. Palestine witnessed an industrial boom of sorts after the war. In the north, Haifa became a centre of industry and rail transport. There was a growth in Jewish immigration from Europe. Many of these Jewish workers came with sympathies for the new workers’ republic in Soviet Russia. Many were left-wing “labour” Zionists, while others were communists. These Jewish immigrants are, in fact, the origin of communist ideas in Palestine. The Histadrut Labour Federation was formed in 1920 by labour Zionists and was a federation for Jewish labour.

In 1924, a large cement plant was being built in Nesher outside of Haifa. The construction workers were Jewish immigrants and Egyptian Arab and local Arab workers. The Jewish workers struck for a wage increase and reduced work hours. The Histadrut organised these workers. Very quickly, the striking workers realised that they could not win the strike without the participation of the Arab workers. They appealed to their Arab class brethren despite opposition from the Histadrut leadership. To everyone’s surprise, the Arab workers joined in as one fist. After a two month strike, the company granted concessions to the Jewish workers. The agreement with the Histadrut said nothing regarding the Arab workers. The Histadrut maintained that it had no obligations towards them. By a large majority of 170 to 30, the Jewish workers voted not to return to work unless the Arabs were rehired. The British mandate authorities deported most of the Arab workers. This was the first example of a common struggle by Jewish and Arab workers and the obstacles they faced.

Another struggle broke out in Haifa among tailors and carpenters in 1925. Palestinian Arab bosses mainly employed these workers. Palestinian workers reached out to local Arab Jewish workers and Histadrut members for help organising. Some Arab Jewish workers formed a General Workers Club to organise the Palestinian Arab tailors and carpenters. They put enough pressure on the Histadrut to provide some backing. A strike broke out in Haifa among the tailors and carpenters in these workshops.

The leading Palestinian Arab newspaper al-Karmil, a paper with a solid anti-Zionist history, came out with a warning to the Palestinian strikers. It said, “We fear that the purpose of inducing Arab workers to strike is (1) to incite them to rebellion; (2) to cause disturbance in the business activity of Arab enterprises; (3) to raise prices so that it will be easier for Jewish goods to compete with the Arabs and take jobs from them.” (Comrades and Enemies, Arab and Jewish workers in Palestine, 1906-1948, by Zachary Lockman, p.94) The leading Christian Maronite cleric of Haifa called the strikers to a meeting where he warned them, according to Lockman “against cooperating with the Jews, who were spreading Bolshevism in Palestine and appealed to them to form their own Muslim-Christian union which would be free of Jewish influence.” (ibid, p. 94).

The largest industrial workforce was in the railroad, with Haifa as its main centre. There, the Jewish workers had organised a trade union affiliated with the Histadrut. As early as 1921, the Socialist Workers Party, which contained both socialist-Zionists and communist wings, had considerable influence in that rail-workers union. The SWP argued for the need to open up the union to Palestinian Arab membership and to organise Arab workers actively. The communist supporters of the Russian Revolution explained the need to organise all the workers; they opposed the Zionist movement, fought to oppose the British colonial mandate, and supported the Arab anti-colonial national movement. (The SWP split into two with a left-Zionist and communist party soon after.)

In 1921, a series of meetings was held between Jewish working-class militants, both communists and left-Zionists, and Arab workers to have the Arabs join the rail workers’ union and that it be a joint union. The Histadrut leadership came out in opposition to any collective perspective. The Histadrut leadership viewed these actions as a threat to the concept of building a Jewish homeland with Jewish labour. A constant demand of the Histadrut was for the hiring of Jewish labour at the expense of Arab labour in the railways.

According to Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, “The local Histadrut leader in Haifa, David Hacohen, rebuked Jewish workers who joined forces with Palestinians: ‘The railway workers forget that the mission of the Hebrew workers who are part of the movement for settling Palestine, is not to be bothered by mutual assistance to Arab workers, but to assist in the fortification of the Zionist project on the land.'” (A History of Modern Palestine, p. 111)

Increasing labour militancy, especially after the Russian Revolution, strengthened the left-wing forces in the rail union. Many Arab workers, Palestinian and Egyptian, joined the union. At a rail workers union conference, Ilyas Asad, a Palestinian delegate, argued, “I am striving to establish ties between Jewish and Arab workers because I am certain that if we are connected, we will help one another, without regard to religion or nationality.” (Lockman, p. 127).

By 1924, there was a retreat in working-class mobilisation and revolutionary possibilities throughout Europe. This had an impact in British Mandate Palestine. In April 1924, the Histadrut leadership opened war on its communist members by declaring them enemies of the Jewish people and expelled most. This negatively impacted the efforts of the rail workers’ union to build a union of Jewish and Arab workers.

At the same time, the bourgeois and feudal Arab nationalist leadership attacked the growing rail workers union, charging its Arab members with belonging to a Zionist organisation because of the union’s links with the Histadrut. An article signed by Hasanayn Fahmi, an Egyptian union leader, appeared in the Arabic paper al-Nafir, in which he called on the Arab workers to leave the common rail workers union because it was, in reality, a Zionist organisation (ibid, p. 137).

In the next period of labour upsurge, Palestine also witnessed a surge in common labour struggles and organisations. In 1931, Jewish and Palestinian truck drivers organised a very effective joint strike against the British Mandate taxes on the drivers. The Mandate authorities were forced to lower these taxes. In 1935, a massive strike in the British-owned oil refinery of Haifa that involved both Jewish and Arab workers took place. Joint rail worker actions in solidarity with the oil refinery workers occurred. Seven hundred rail workers marched on May Day in 1935; among them were 113 Jews. The new militancy forced the union leadership to set a strike deadline. The British Mandate authorities refused to negotiate or recognise the union.

Pappe reports many cases of joint Jewish-Arab working-class resistance. However, he also points to the price paid by the leaders of such efforts: “When persons such as Fawzi al-Husayni or Fakhri al-Nashahibi joined Arab-Jewish organisations advocating a bi-national political structure, they paid with their lives. In 1937, a leader of the Palestinian labour union was assassinated. In 1947, another union leader named Sami Taha was murdered. Both were killed for subordinating national solidarity to class awareness. The hand of Amin al-Husayni was visible in both assassinations.” (Pappe, p. 113- 114) Cleric Amin al-Husayni was the Mufti of Jerusalem and the most prominent leader of the Palestinians at the time.

I mentioned a few examples of working-class collaboration. Efforts such as these occurred throughout the conflict in the 1920s-1940s. However, these efforts came up against the combined opposition of the British colonial administration, the employers, the Histadrut Union of Jewish workers, and Palestinian nationalist bourgeois, feudal, and clerical forces. These combined forces, each pushing from its side and for its specific class reasons, were too much of an obstacle for the new working class in colonial Palestine to overcome.

A: Later, were there common struggles in Israel as well? We know, for example, the case of the nurses.

GM: Over 20% of Israel’s citizens are Palestinians. They work in the same enterprises as Jewish workers, often side by side. I am not even counting here workers that come from the West Bank or Gaza to work in Israel.

Jewish and Arab workers have engaged in some joint struggles since the COVID-19 pandemic. Among the most important recent struggles were by hospital workers, including nurses, orderlies, and others. There, side by side, Palestinian Arab and Israeli Jewish nurses and other hospital workers struck for better conditions, higher pay, and more hiring. They staffed picket lines together and held up banners in Arabic and Hebrew.

A couple of years ago, there was another uptick of settler violence and Islamist attacks. Jewish families were targeted by the Islamists and Palestinian ones by the settlers. The bus drivers’ union organised joint defence committees of its members to protect both its Arab and Jewish members and their families.

The Israeli union federation Koah La Ovdim (Power to the Workers) is independent of the Histadrut. This federation was formed in 2007 and openly advocates solidarity between Jewish and Arab workers. Its membership has risen to about 35,000 workers.

The above examples are important to keep in mind. They show that common class action is possible and, in fact, natural. In the long term, the only way out of the cycle of occupation, terror, war, and destruction that the region has been through is through the joint effort of the working class to take power in Israel and Palestine.

The anti-Semitic Hamas attack on October 7, with the killing of over 1500 civilians and the abduction of some 240 people, has raised an obstacle laid in blood to the ability of workers to see their common interests and thus to the ability to find a way forward.

A: At the event in question, you mentioned that the idea of a united Palestine seems to have emerged in the 1960s and ’70s in the Lebanese camps – what exactly did that involve? Equal rights for Israelis and Palestinians? How did Palestinians and Israelis react to this? 

GM: In the late 1960s, people in the Palestinian refugee camps of Lebanon rose up against the control and domination of the Lebanese state. The Palestinians in these camps were among the most oppressed workers in the Lebanese industrial units and large plantations. Through their mass rebellion, they established control over the refugee camps, which allowed Fateh and the other Palestinian organisations of the PLO to grow in these camps. These areas became centres of revolutionary thought and organisation.

At that time, the PLO proposed that the struggle aim for a democratic, secular Palestine where Jews, Christians, and Muslims could live as equal citizens with equal rights. This attempt to provide a common perspective for Palestinian and Israeli workers was a very progressive proposal at the time and could have been a bridge for common action.

However, deeds must coincide with words. Many component organisations of the PLO, while calling for such a perspective, at the same time organised actions that targeted Israeli civilians. These actions, which aimed at killing Israelis indiscriminately, did not fit with the narrative of a democratic secular Palestine where Jews had a place as equal citizens. Hence, Israeli working people could not be convinced that it was genuine, and the capitalist rulers of Israel made the utmost use of these attacks.

A: At the same time, in 1972, we learned from the event that there was even a railway network in Gaza with a route to Tel Aviv, but also a thought of an airport. Today, even that sounds very far away, and here we are with the blockade and the complete flattening of Gaza. This shows a difference in the picture compared to the current stalemate. And what role has Hamas played?

GM: It is important to begin with the class context within which Hamas functions. Hamas is a reactionary bourgeois organisation. Its political perspective is the establishment of a capitalist Islamic state in Palestine. It has shown what kind of rule it intends to establish in real life in Gaza. I want to remind the reader that Hamas has ruled Gaza since 2006, when it won elections there. In 2007, it waged a civil war against Fateh (the main component of the PLO) and pushed Fateh out of the Gaza Strip. Since then, it has ruled with an iron heel, denying democratic rights, trade union rights, women’s rights and other freedoms won through struggle by workers worldwide.

Hamas’s perspective is the elimination of all Jews from Israel; it is for the destruction of Israel. Anything built by Jews since 1948 is considered illegitimate by them. For Hamas, therefore, there is no room for Jews. It is an anti-Semitic organisation. If anyone has any doubts about that, then just look at the Hamas attacks on October 7. People were killed indiscriminately simply because they were Jews. Some of those killed and kidnapped were, in fact, supporters of Palestinian rights.

Such actions block efforts towards finding a path toward joint struggle by the workers regardless of whether they are Israeli Jews or Palestinian Arabs. They reinforce the political position of those who in Israel claim that Palestinians want to kill all Jews and that there is no way to live together. It reinforces political support for the occupation.

A: Is Netanyahu doing the same thing?

GM: Prime Minister Netanyahu is a capitalist politician heading Israel’s largest capitalist party. Ultimately, he is in business to defend the interests of his class. He has no concern for Palestinian rights, he has put immense obstacles to ending the occupation, he has blocked the forming of an independent Palestinian state, and so on; he has shown that in the years he has been in power. Hamas’s actions, along with the bourgeois clerical regime of Tehran, put into question the very presence of Jews in the region. This becomes an existential question, including for the Israeli capitalist ruling class and their Prime Minister – hence their determination in this current war. They will try to get rid of Hamas, no matter the cost in Palestinian civilian lives but also Israeli lives. 

A: The Bedouin are another people in the region, who analysts and historians often overlook. In the October 7 attack, they even counted among their number the dead – along with 22 other dead Thai land workers and pacifists. The Bedouins, perhaps, were also optimistic about a joint coexistence of peoples with equal rights.

GM: Absolutely so. The Bedouins are nomadic Arab people. They are considered part of the Palestinian people in the region of Israel and Palestine. Those living in Israel have Israeli citizenship. The response of many Bedouins to the massacre of October 7 was one of human solidarity. They ran to help the wounded. Many were killed by the Hamas fighters.

A: You come from Lebanon; tell us, what is the situation and law for the Palestinians?

GM: Palestinian peasant refugees have been living in Lebanon since 1948 during the war to establish the state of Israel when, in some cases, they were forced by armed Zionist forces to leave their homes in Palestine. In other cases, they were strongly encouraged to go by the neighbouring Arab regimes who promised them a quick return.

In Lebanon, they were settled in refugee camps near industrial centres and agricultural plantations. These peasant refugees lived and continue to live in slum-like conditions. By law, they were denied the right to property in real estate and access to skilled jobs. The refugee camps were under the strict control of Lebanese state security forces. They became a cheap source of super-exploited labour for capitalist interests in agriculture and industry. By the 1970s, close to 400,000 Palestinian refugees lived in refugee camps in Lebanon.

I should add that this was not the fate of the upper middle and bourgeois classes that left Palestine. These layers were integrated into Lebanon’s high society.

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Palestinian workers became militant vanguard elements in the rise of trade unions and factory committees among all workers in Lebanon. This rise in the working-class movement was a prelude to the outbreak of civil war in 1975.

A: Thank you from the bottom of our hearts for this conversation. Peace and justice!

Image: Robert Wallace / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Deed

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