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A British Inheritance: The Importance of World War I in the History of Labor Zionism

British policies between 1917 and 1948 contributed to the evolution and content of Jewish and Palestinian nationalisms in Palestine. Certainly, the 1917 Balfour Declaration and British partition proposals from as early as 1929 get much scholarly and journalistic attention for their role in constructing divisions between these two heterogenous and overlapping groups. But the British Mandate period was only one era in a historically continuous structure of invasion. That structure produced an early logic of separation between Palestinian Arabs and new Jewish immigrants between 1904 and 1914 and continues to maintain an imperfect separation between Palestinians and Jews in different ways and by different means until today.


With much attention placed on the British Mandate and post-1948 periods, one era in this ongoing history of division has been noticeably absent; namely, World War I. World War I is an important moment in the history of Palestine/Israel because wartime destruction permitted advocates of the dominant form of Jewish nationalism, Labor Zionism, to partially achieve their dual goals for pure settlement – the conquest of land (kibush ha-karka) and the conquest of labor (kibush ha-‘avoda) – culminating in the creation of the Jewish state of Israel in 1948.


Separation Prior to World War I


In its earliest forms, Zionism was a response to the virulent antisemitism and subordinate socioeconomic and legal status of Jews in Eastern Europe. It crystalized in organized associations established after pogroms in Russia in 1881 to promote Jewish immigration and settlement in Palestine and ultimately the creation, as the ideological leader, Theodore Herzl put it, a portion of the rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization against barbarism. 


After the second wave of immigration (Aliyah) to Palestine in 1904, Labor Zionism became the most popular form of Zionism, becoming hegemonic between the 1930s and 1977. In the late 1970s, Israelis began to adopt the more radical Revisionist Zionism – the ideological foundations of Israel’s current ruling party, the Likud.

A black and white image of a single farmer seated on a machine being pulled by two mules.
“Palestine, Jewish farmer with modern machinery,” Frank and Frances Carpenter Collection, between 1900-1922. Image courtesy Library of Congress.

In fact, Labor Zionists formed the new agricultural collective in the decade before World War I to partition what was called “Hebrew labor” from native Palestine Arab labor. Later called the kibbutz, the collective was not merely an ideological import as is commonly suggested. Rather, it was a practical solution to the problems new European Jewish immigrants had with creating and sustaining an economically flourishing community in Palestine. With no other way to compete with highly skilled and cheap Arab farmers for jobs in privately owned Jewish enterprises, new immigrants, with the assistance of the Jewish Colonization Association (JCA) and its financiers began to create exclusively European Jewish farms. This effort required the purchase of private agricultural lands, as well as ditches and guards to prevent trespassers. At the turn of the century, the JCA targeted approximately 115 sq miles of contiguous land in Palestine for this purpose. Arab Jews cooperated with their native Christian and Muslim neighbors in Palestine to build a civic “Ottomanism” and did not participate in Jewish nationalism at the time.


However, Jewish purchasing associations quickly found that the sale of agricultural land as private property was not permitted in the Ottoman Empire. Much of the agricultural property in the Ottoman Empire was technically state-owned. Whole villages could not be purchased on an open market for land and then emptied of their peasant inhabitants, as the JCA required. The JCA circumvented some of these impediments through bribes, and other illegal means; that is how European Jewish collectives were established on in Sejera and Al-Fula, for instance. But these examples were not without bloodshed and represented minimal acquisitions compared to the stated objectives of Labor Zionists. Jewish organizations only owned less than 2% of the land. Most of this was not private ownership nor was it contained in the neat parcels required to accommodate Labor Zionist leaders’ pure settlement objectives.


Further, efforts to displace peasant families from even these acquired villages was met with resistance, including peasant petitions and violent coercion. Peasants were not wage laborers, but tenants. While social relations were changing in turn-of-the-century Palestine, the dominant form of agricultural organization in Northern Palestine was still sharecropping. Peasants often still held use rights (usufruct) on the land by law or in social practice. As leaders of the JCA in Paris lamented, new Jewish immigrants were forced to continue to live, work, and indeed compete for jobs with Arabs.


The Importance of World War I


Only the intense destruction of an entire region and empire could effectively dim prominent contestations from peasants and their local Ottoman advocates. While Zionists’ exclusion of Palestinian Arabs was never complete, the events of World War I created a type of tabula rasa for which the Labor Zionist separation could be, to a certain extent, realized.


The curtailing of sharecropping social relations was the result of the conditions of Greater Syria after the war. Foremost, Palestinian Arab peasants could no longer count on the support of local Ottoman officials. Indeed, they could no longer even count on the institutions of the Ottoman state to support them. The Ottoman Empire, of course, had been defeated.


“Palestine Index to Villages and Settlements, showing Land in Jewish Possession as at 31.12.44,” c. 1946. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.,_showing_Land_in_Jewish_Possession_as_at_31.12.44.jpg

Secondly, fewer peasants existed to even make these rights claims after the war. Palestinian Arab populations living in many villages in Palestine suffered. The village of ‘Afula, for instance, was destroyed not once, but twice – once in 1915 and again in 1918. These villages also experienced disease and famine. Of course, some peasants had not been present for both demolitions because they already had been conscripted or killed in action.


Furthermore, the organization of Palestinian Arab labor also shifted during the war. New agricultural companies in Beirut consolidated land rights between 1914 and 1918. In the chaos of war, the companies along with their JCA buyers erased names of peasants as official deed holders in Ottoman registers. They also began to take 100% of the yield, giving peasants payments in cash. This move effectively turned peasants into wage laborers, erasing their rights to use in social practice.


The Ottoman government at the time – the leading triumvirate of the Committee of Union and Progress – signed off on this change. Needing food for soldiers, the wartime leadership gave the companies permission to use railways to import plows from Europe to compensate for deceased or conscripted laborers. They also provisioned the companies with Ottoman soldiers to police the harvesting and arrest any peasant who did not accept their new role.


Post-War Realities as Requirements for Separation


Thus, after the war, the British inherited a changed political and economic landscape. The new administration pledged to protect Palestinian Arab peasants who were left displaced and impoverished during the war; but it soon found contradictions between this promise and British officials’ ideological commitments to Jewish settlement and economic liberalism. In the end, Lord Balfour’s 1917 declaration and the British administration’s development mission prevailed. By July 1919, the reports accompanying the new Land Transfer Ordinance noted:


Companies and associations will be allowed to acquire land in their own name and to acquire larger areas…if they are going to use the land immediately for their business. (FO 14/686/9)


Thus, new land laws under the British mandate underwrote by state violence enforced private property and wage labor in ways that inadvertently accommodated the Labor Zionist project. By 1947 the percentage of land owned by the JCA, and other organizations backed by the Jewish National Fund increased to over 6%. This only became an option for the British because the devastations of World War I had already created the erasures of Palestinian Arab peasants’ rights, homes, and bodies that was needed for Labor Zionist’s aim of land and labor segregation to prevail.  


Kristen Alff is an Assistant Professor of History and International Studies at North Carolina State University. Alff has written articles on business history, capitalism, and land and labor in Ottoman Palestine. Her most recent article details the ways that Beirut-based real estate companies attempted to sell agricultural land to Jewish and German Templer purchasing agents in Northern Palestine prior to World War I.


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