Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

David Simpson reviews Stone Men

Andrew Ross, Stone Men: The Palestinians Who Built Israel. New York: Verso, 2019. 299 pp. 

Review by David Simpson

24 July 2019

The state of Israel is an oddity. In a period of global decolonization, it has violently imposed settler colonialism in a manner that is at least a century out of date, and done so with the full support of the western democracies into whose company it has interpellated itself with far too little scrutiny. It maintains a discriminatory policy that is clearly one of apartheid, but it has persuaded liberals all over the world to avoid any use of the word. And now its speeded-up consolidation of an ethnonational, theocratic statehood suddenly seems all-too-prophetic of international trends rather than a repellent alternative to global secularization and the incremental separation of national from state identities. There is a lot to write about, but the unique position of Israel as an outside-funded entity making crucial contributions to the securitization industries means that its glaring moral paradoxes––for example, a right of return for those who have never lived there along with a denial of that same right to those who did––mostly go unchallenged. And when the challenges come in print, they are often consigned to relatively limited circulation, even when they are minor masterpieces. Edward Said’s Palestine books have been widely read, but others by Raja Shehadeh, Saree Makdisi, Eyal Weizman, Ilan Pappé, and others also deserve to be bestsellers, though probably never will be. So too this new book by Andrew Ross.

Ross has found an angle that may seem quirky to outsiders but is front and center to life in Israel and the Occupied Territories: the Palestinian stone industry. Stone and water are the West Bank’s two great resources, and Israel is busy appropriating both. Palestine’s top grade kurkar limestone quarries have traditionally been mined by small local operations that have sustained a high-level artisanal culture of stonemasons whose skills are in demand all over the Middle East. Earlier Israeli efforts to displace local stone by concrete are now giving way to a renaissance of crafted buildings that represents a dubious transition into a new comfort zone, one wherein the occupiers feel comfortable enough to reproduce an antique style as entirely their own. Meanwhile, the entire Israeli construction industry is upheld by Palestinian workers, many of whom must pass twice daily through the checkpoints (or cross the line "illegally") to do quality work for low wages. Those Palestinians lucky or ruthless enough to profit from the patronage of the Palestinian Authority—in so many ways Israel’s proxy government in the West Bank—are building their own dwellings with the same materials. Rawabi, a modern middle-class city project, is hugely divisive, relying on Israeli participation and Palestinian diaspora capitalists and thus explained as either a sellout or an indigenous civic alternative. It is part of a real estate boom in the familiar neoliberal mode, one that is disseminating high levels of debt among the Palestinian population. Meanwhile Israel is relocating its own dirty industries, including quarrying, into areas of the West Bank where they can operate with maximum profit owing to the minimal environmental regulations. There is of course nothing like fair competition: only Israeli companies are allowed to use the explosives that are indispensable to modern mining. The Israeli construction industry is among the most dangerous in the world: one death a week and two serious injuries a day in 2016. Many of the victims are Palestinians building houses for the same people who are bulldozing their own dwellings and forcing former landowners into on-demand wage labor. If you dodge the live ammunition and the tear gas, you can always fall off a ladder.

It is not all bad news. Despite the dominantly Zionist inclinations of the Israeli labor unions, there are a few good persons trying to advance workers’ rights across ethnic lines, and there are Palestinian cultural heritage organizations (like Riwaq) making good-faith efforts at both preservation-restoration and valuable job creation. Old Jaffa, despite its near total destruction by the Zionists in 1948, still has a sizeable Palestinian population for whom traditional building material is a positive choice expressive of a right to remain. Ross is an experienced labor historian, and some of the most vivid parts of the book are accounts of his interviews with artisans and laborers. One of his intriguing ideas is that of labor equity, whereby those who work to build a place earn some right to participate in its future. The workers he writes about are already inhabitants, but they are hardly welcomed as stakeholders in any democratic future. Indeed, as a Palestinian colleague once said to me, “they [the Zionists] took a fully-furnished country and called it a desert.” Rebuilding the “desert” with cheap local labor using local stone that is more and more a source of profit for the occupiers is a phenomenon no less striking for not being unique in the history of settler colonialism and modern capital. Ross offers eloquent evidence that the Palestinian presence on their land is indeed set in stone.