NYU Kevo was pleased to welcome author & NYU professor Andrew Ross, Tonight, April 1st, in conjunction with the release of his new book, “Stone Men: the Palestinians Who Built Israel.” We were honored to have NYU professor Greg Grandin, and Professor Nadia Abu El-Haj from Columbia University as discussants.
Ross’s book, based on field interviews conducted in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and elsewhere in Israel and the occupied territories, presents the story of Palestinian “Stone Men,” workers within the historic regional limestone industry. Through their stories, Ross creates a book that interconnects the larger themes of labor, society, and occupation.
Ross’ work sought to answer the question of ‘how does the sweat equity accumulated in that century translate to rights and relationship to statehood?’ His fieldwork includes fieldwork interviews of over 200 stone workers within the chain of industry from the quarries to limestone workshops, checkpoints, and construction sites both within Israel and across the Green Line.
Ross refers to the ‘Psychology of humiliation’ that Palestinian workers face due to the nature of their work, which is acute for those who are laboring on settlements and the wall of separation. Ross explained that not only did Palestinians build the Israeli cities of Yafa, Nablus, Akka, and Tel Aviv, but that they also built the city of Amman, Jordan in the 60s, and labored as skilled workers in the Gulf States. He concluded by saying that, “It’s not an exaggeration to say that Palestinians have built up every state in the region, except their own.”
Ross delved into myth of “agrarian romance” of history of labor in Israel — “European standard of living” versus the “Arab wage.” Ross explained that Palestinian labor in Israel is related to the pattern of World Zionist funding in the early 1920s, which subsidized Israel’s development. Jewish employers were encouraged to exclude Arab workers from their workforce. However, because Jewish employers preferred the skillset and expertise of the Palestinian Arab laborers, Palestinian labor in Israel became a lucrative means of work whose demand continues until today.
Ross also touched on the contemporary idea of “Architectural cleansing” and gentrification, due to the renewed appreciation for “vintage” aged stone houses, whereas the stone and laborers who had been rejected a century earlier, during the founding of the state of Israel. Instead of the stones being seen as symbolic evidence of a “crumbling society,” they began to symbolize Jewish antiquity and Palestinian cultural heritage. Across the green line, there are three organizations in Ramallah doing restoration work. Ross showed the audience visuals of the restoration project of the old village core of Jabba.
Lastly, Ross introduced the concept of sweat equity, the idea that laboring for a country translates to attaining political rights within that country. He relays that Palestinians weren’t forced laborers, but they were what he calls, “compulsory labor.” He compares it to other cases, such as the labor of the Chinese, Mexican, and Irish immigrants in the U.S., and explains that this hasn’t equated to full inclusion or citizenship, although it has led to legal acceptance. The difference, Ross says, is that unlike Chinese and Mexicans who were immigrants, Palestinians are laboring on ancestral lands.