Sai Englert, author of Settler Colonialism: An Introduction (Pluto, 2022), speaks to rs21 editor Jonny Jones about the relationship between the Zionist labour movement and Israeli settler colonialism and the road to Palestinian liberation. Part one of this interview, on the origins of settler colonialism, is available here.
Photo credit: Ahmed Abu Hameeda/Unsplash
Jonny Jones: One aspect of your work is the analysis of how and why settler labour movements are integrated into processes of Indigenous dispossession struggling with other settler classes over the distribution of colonial accumulation. Can you tell us a little bit about how this operates?
Sai Englert: Since the 17th century, with the development of whiteness in the Americas as opposed to black enslaved labour, settler populations have often been the most virulent voices for the exclusion or elimination of Indigenous populations. Famously in South Africa, white workers strike in the early 20th century under the extraordinary slogan ‘Workers of the World Unite, for a White South Africa”. The Australian Labor Party is formed around the campaign for a white Australia, so its basis as a national party is a struggle against racialised labour. The Labour Zionist movement made demands for “Hebrew labour”, and the full exclusion of Palestinians from the “Jewish economy” in Palestine before 1948. The logic of the Nakba emerges from the so-called left in the Zionist movement.
Often these demands are made against settler capitalists, who may prefer to keep and exploit the Indigenous populations, in order to be able to produce cheaply and sell dearly in the markets of the Metropole.
All settler classes participate in the process of dispossession. The society establishes itself through the conquest of the land of an existing Indigenous population, so all classes participate in that, but there is a question of how that settler society is going to be organised. Settler labour demands a greater slice of the colonial cake, which depends on the exclusion of Indigenous labour, which is seen as a threat because it is more exploitable, controlled, and dominated, and therefore, seen as a drag on wages.
We know this is commonplace under capitalism, that unions unfortunately often accept these arguments: remember the “British jobs for British workers” slogan. Even some progressive unions today in Britain argue that migration should be controlled in order to keep wages high for local workers instead of saying that we should organise migrant workers to raise their wages. But the difference in a settler society is that the material benefit that is extracted through Indigenous dispossession, including by labour movements – for their houses, workplaces, access to labour markets, the development of infrastructure, access to natural resources – all of that is dependent on the displacement and the dispossession of Indigenous populations. That material reality creates a loyalty to the settler state that is close to unbreakable. This is borne out historically. There are no truly mass movements of settler workers in support of decolonization.
That doesn’t mean that there aren’t people within the settler populations who fight for decolonization, but they have always been small minorities amongst the settler populations, and they tended to be prepared to do so in the context of a much more general challenge of capitalism. So you had revolutionary syndicalist traditions in Southern Africa that mobilised minorities of white workers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century for the destruction of colonial rule. The Communist parties before their full Stalinisation in Palestine, for example, mobilised Jewish workers against Zionism and British colonialism. Later, much smaller groups tried to do the same. Crucially they’re only able to do so because they call for the end of capitalism altogether. Within the limits of capitalism there is nothing better on offer than what settler workers have access to through their participation in the dispossession of Indigenous labour.
JJ: Thinking about the context of Palestine in particular, the integration of settler labour movements into the colonial project must have serious ramifications for the possibility of joint struggles between, for example, Israeli workers and Palestinians?
SE: There’s an often abstract argument that says since capitalism can only be destroyed by workers, workers everywhere have a shared interest in destroying it and therefore should struggle together. We saw in Ireland lots of British groups argue that workers should unite against capitalism, and that that would end colonial rule. These arguments fail to engage with the fact that colonialism and settler colonialism functions by distributing different rights, different benefits, and different access to wealth extraction to different populations.
So, what is a settler, and what is an Indigenous person? A settler is a member of a group that is by law given the right to dispossess, accumulate, and benefit from the colonial process, and an Indigenous person is somebody that is by law defined as somebody that can be dispossessed, exploited and excluded. There are workers on both sides of that divide, but workers that operate in extremely different situations. Since colonialism is a central aspect of capitalist development that functions to accumulate wealth differentially on a global scale, it positions populations differentially in global networks of accumulation. So its destruction is part of an anti-capitalist struggle: to defeat colonial regimes is to weaken capitalist networks of accumulation. It doesn’t make capitalism disappear, but it weakens forms of domination. An anti-capitalist strategy within a colonial context has to make that argument if it is to be successful. In practice that means that it will primarily be based among the colonised. But to avoid the argument in order to appeal also to the settler population is to abandon not only one’s anti-colonialism, but also one’s anti-capitalism.
The argument is, of course, not just theoretical, but rather it plays out in practice. The example of Zionism is key.
The Zionist labour movement was from the 1920s to the late 1970s the central driver of colonial expansion and Palestinian dispossession. The kibbutzim, often presented as socialist paradises where Jewish workers controlled land and production, and decided democratically how to redistribute the wealth they generated, were formed to remove the danger of Palestinian competition in the workplace. A kibbutz is a settlement that, unlike modern settlements, refuses the participation of Palestinian workers in its economy. The Histadrut which is the Israeli trade union federation, was formed as a state in waiting to campaign for Hebrew labour and the expulsion of Palestinian workers from the economy. It developed a central bank, had a construction company, and until the 1990s its industries accounted for 20 percent of Israel’s GDP and about 25 percent of Israel’s workforce was hired by it. This is not a normal trade union movement or a normal workers’ movement. It is centrally involved in the colonial process.
The militias of the Zionist labour movement formed the backbone of the Israeli army that expelled 750,000 Palestinians in the Nakba in 1948. The kibbutzim received the lion’s share of redistributed agricultural land that was stolen from Palestinians. Their control over the land in the new Israeli state quadrupled between 1947 and 1952. In that process of redistribution, the Histadrut managed the military rule imposed on Palestinians who remained within the limits of the state by sitting on the Committee of the military government, and by participating in the giving and taking away of labour permits that allowed Palestinians to travel to work, much like in the West Bank today.
There is a similar dynamic in recent very big social movements in Israel. In 2011, large housing protests took place, demanding better and cheaper housing for Israeli citizens, largely understood as Jewish Israeli citizens. When people tried to raise arguments around Palestinian housing, or refusal to expand settlements, they were ignored or isolated from the movement. The government’s response was to expand and accelerate settlement construction in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Again, you see the direct way in which the state and the capitalist class in a settler colony can solve their internal social problems by increasing and accelerating Indigenous dispossession, by constructing more settlements.
The Histadrut still operates in ways that are reminiscent of its colonial character. In the construction industry, for example, its membership is made up of Jewish workers that are primarily engineers, overseers, highly skilled workers with permanent, full-time employment in large Israeli construction companies. The majority of what’s called wet works, like plastering, cementing, external construction, so-called unskilled labour, is done by Palestinians and migrant workers. Histadrut officials say they cannot organise these workers because they are highly casualized and move around too much. In practice, the union participates in a racial division of the workforce by protecting Jewish workers and allowing the vast majority of Palestinian and migrant workers in the industry to be hyper-exploited and work in extremely dangerous conditions. The construction industry in Israel has the highest death toll in the OECD on an annual basis. When I was researching this, everybody I interviewed including Histadrut officials said it’s because they’re Arabs, it’s fine. Nobody cares.
To call for unity of all workers against capitalism in this situation is utter abstraction, because in practice one group of workers is participating in the exploitation, the dispossession and the national oppression of another. Those workers also serve in the military, participate in operations like the massacres that we are seeing in Gaza at the moment, in the protection of settlements. So we have to struggle against the particular methods of domination that capitalism throws up, and in settler colonial situations that includes the domination of the settler population as a whole over the Indigenous population as a whole, so that the anti-colonial struggle has to be the starting point of any successful and effective struggle against capitalism more generally.
The issue is not just ideological. It’s not just that trade union leaders are leading Israeli workers astray. It’s material. Israeli workers’ access to work, to housing, to state institutions, to welfare is all based on a process that is not just the redistribution of the surplus-value generated through their labour, but also on the redistribution of capital extracted through the dispossession of the Indigenous population. So what you are asking of Israeli workers is not just to break with their trade union leaders, but to break with a system that has given them access to a quality of life that is comparable to those in Western Europe and North America on the basis of the de-development of the Palestinian economy.
How does that form of capital accumulation end in order to be able to transcend it? Central to this is the question of Palestinian liberation. If Israeli workers are prepared to participate in that process of decolonization, they should absolutely do so.
The problem is that it is never going to happen if the starting point is that we should limit our criticisms of Zionism, because otherwise Israeli workers won’t participate. The logic is the opposite: the starting point needs to be Palestinian liberation, and the end of this form of dispossession, violence, exploitation, extraction, in order to be able to move beyond the kind of limits set by capitalism. That is a much harder sell.
JJ: The genocide in Gaza has brought millions onto the streets in solidarity with the Palestinian people. Ideas that were commonplace in the past are being discussed as if new. One is the idea of a one-state solution, summed up in the chant ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’. Another is that “the road to Jerusalem runs through Cairo”, the idea that revolts in the wider Arab region will be central to the liberation of Palestine. How salient do you think these ideas are today?
SE: They’re extremely salient and very important. The Palestinian left developed two important concepts relevant to our discussion in the 1960s and 1970s. Ghassan Kanafani wrote about three pillars of oppression in the Middle East. Zionism was and is important because it plays a central role in disciplining a key strategic region for the world economy. It is a ‘little loyal Jewish Ulster’ as Ronald Storrs, the British official in Palestine in the 1920s, described Zionism. To think about Zionism is not only to think about Palestine, but to think about the imperialist domination of the region as a whole. So the three pillars of oppression were imperialism, both external and Zionism, the reactionary Arab regimes that stabilised those forms of imperialist domination in the region, and the Palestinian bourgeoisie, which the Palestinian left saw as a break on the struggle for liberation.
These elements remain relevant today. The Arab regimes, fairly self-explanatory. The Palestinian bourgeoisie, organised around the Palestinian Authority, is prepared to collaborate with colonial rule in order to maintain both its social position and its access to capital accumulation. And of course, imperialism, both in terms of external intervention in the region and the continuing support, financing, arming of Zionism. We are seeing this play out in front of our eyes as Western powers defend and enable the genocidal war being waged on Palestinians in Gaza. So the struggle is a regional one, against the domination of these actors.
Another idea, developed by George Habash, is the road to the liberation of Jerusalem, or to Palestine, runs through the capitals of the Arab world. Because of the expulsion of the Palestinians from the colonial economy and of Zionism’s character as an aspect of wider Western control over the region, the struggle for Palestinian liberation can only succeed as part of a wider struggle for the transformation and liberation of the region as a whole. This did not just bloom in the heads of the Palestinian left, but is something that we’ve repeatedly seen throughout the second half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, and of course, in very recent history. During the revolutions in 2011, mass movements across the region made the connection between their own oppression and that of the Palestinian people. So we saw extraordinary scenes of millions of people in Egypt, singing ‘in our millions, we come to liberate Jerusalem’, kicking out Israeli ambassadors, and demanding the end of economic and diplomatic normalization with Israel.
A lot of these movements had their roots in solidarity movements with the second Intifada about a decade earlier. The first demands for the fall of the regime in Egypt were heard in demonstrations in solidarity with the second Intifada. We’re seeing this play out again now. So, this quote by Fatima Said, ‘We’re not freeing Palestine. Palestine is freeing us’ is extraordinarily beautiful, but is also absolutely true. Over the last decade, unspeakable counter-revolutionary violence was meted out by the regimes in the region and by imperialist powers – the US, France and Britain, of course, but also Russia in Syria – and their regional allies – Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Iran, respectively – against the people of the region to teach them an abject lesson in compliance. The status quo that emerged from this repression was broken down in the space of a few days following 7th October.
We have seen monster demonstrations in Jordan, in Egypt, in Yemen, in Iraq, in Morocco, in Algeria, in Tunisia, in Lebanon, as well on a smaller scale, all demanding the liberation of Palestine, and solidarity with the people of Gaza, but also starting to make the connection with their own regime once again. So in Egypt we immediately started hearing the chant of ‘bread, freedom, and social justice’, which was the central chant of 2011. In Morocco, a country that has been so central in the normalisation of Israel, millions of people demonstrating in solidarity with Palestine is a direct challenge to the Moroccan crown. The fact that the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, which is really the lowest of the low in an already rotten barrel of ruling classes in the region, has been the regime that spoke about the refusal to recognize Palestinian lives as equally important as Israeli ones and cancelled a summit with the US is a testimony to the pressure they are feeling from their own populations and the kind of social movements that are developing. What we are seeing in practice is an interplay between external forces, local regimes, and Zionism, and witnessing the reality that the resistance against them are all part of a struggle that can lay the foundation for a different society.
To come back to your earlier question, I would also say that for those who hope to see the solution emerge specifically from progressive movements in Israel, it is both challenged by reality and an absolute abdication of internationalism to think that this would only develop within the boundaries of Israeli society. It often reeks of accepting the racist and colonial vision of the society itself. It can only happen, as everywhere, in a wider international process of struggle, which will be a struggle against imperialism, against Zionism, and against capitalism, because of the reality of the society within which it operates. So the question is not so much can we make labour movements in Israel comfortable by not talking about colonialism, but instead can the struggle against colonialism be so powerful that it will offer an effective alternative also to workers in Israel, that it will show them – alongside the oppressed and the exploited across the region – the possibility of a different kind of society. What the Palestinian left identified was that the revolutionary agent in the Middle East are the oppressed and exploited classes across the region, including of course the Palestinians, and that they have the collective power that can redraw the region as a whole.
So, of course, liberating Palestine ‘from the river to the sea’ is a central slogan to recognize the rights of Palestinians everywhere in the face of Israeli colonialism, whether they live in Gaza, inside the Green Line, in the West Bank, or as refugees, and that all of them deserve freedom and liberation. But it also points in practice to a much wider argument about the liberation of the region as a whole, which can make that slogan a reality. This is a key political lesson that is perhaps more visible today, or at least since 2011, than it has been for a very, very long time.