International Workers’ Day and the Palestinian cause

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In many cities around the world May 1, 2020 will be distinguished by the absence of demonstrations for International Workers’ Day, because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, many will mark the occasion within their homes, as the crisis lays bare the deepening struggles faced by working-class people as a result of failed neoliberal policies, inequality and colonialism.

Palestinians in the West Bank face increased attacks from Israeli settlers, while concern is mounting in the Gaza Strip over the shortage of vital medical equipment including ventilators, as a result of Israel’s illegal siege. It is no surprise, given the systematic oppression Palestinians face under Israeli occupation, that expressions of solidarity with Palestine have for decades been integral to the global socialist movement, and in normal years Palestinian flags are a common sight among the red flags of workers’ parties in May Day demonstrations.

Yet International Workers’ Day has a contested history in Palestine itself. Like other aspects of socialist rhetoric, though not practice, the May Day tradition was brought to Palestine in the early twentieth century by Zionist settlers, seeking to build a Jewish society on European lines. While socialism calls for, to paraphrase Marx, the workers of the world to unite, regardless of nationality or any other divisions, Zionist socialism was always intended for Jews only.

As Alain Brossat and Sylvie Klingberg write in “Revolutionary Yiddishland: A History of Jewish Radicalism,” early Zionist settlers saw themselves as “peasant warriors who made the desert bloom and dispersed the Arab ‘gangs,’ muscular haloutz [pioneers] who conquered the land with plough and rifle, unstayed by any obstacle.” In the 1920s, even the immigrant Jewish leadership of the Palestine Communist Party believed Jews were “the only modern, truly property-less proletariat,” Arab Palestinians being “backward economically and culturally.” Hostility to Palestinian national aspirations characterized the Zionist socialist movement, from mainstream labor Zionism to the left-wing fringes.

Divisions among Jewish immigrants did exist, however, leading in 1921 to the most infamous incident associated with May Day in Palestine. Two rival demonstrations of Jewish workers, one wholeheartedly espousing Zionism and the other advocating a more nuanced relationship with Palestinians, clashed in Tel Aviv; violence then spread to the neighboring Arab city of Jaffa, with clashes between Arabs, Jews, and the British authorities who occupied Palestine from 1917 to 1948. As Wasif Jawharriyeh recorded in his memoirs, “The flames of the uprising spread all over Palestine and lasted for fifteen days during which 146 Jews and members of the [British] armed forces and 147 Arabs were killed, and 700 people were injured, prompting senior clergymen and Arab leaders to intervene and end the uprising.”

Visual analysis of settler and indigenous artwork produced for International Workers’ Day shows the divergence of Zionist/Israeli and Palestinian attitudes to the event. As shown in the May Day posters produced in British Mandate Palestine and the first decades of the state of Israel, the Zionist movement manipulated International Workers’ Day for state ends, rather than as a celebration of socialist principles. In posters commissioned by the Histadrut, the Zionist trade union which operated as an arm of the Labor Party-dominated state, designs paired the red workers’ flag with the Israeli flag; Jewish workers in Palestine/Israel were not only workers, but simultaneously also settlers and soldiers against a perceived Arab threat. Hebrew slogans called on workers not to fight a class struggle, but to be a “builder of the state,” a “lever for the state,” and do “everything […] for the security of Israel.”

After the emergence of the Palestinian national movement in the 1960s, composed broadly of secular and socialist factions, an alternative vision of May Day began to be put forward by Palestinians and their supporters. Posters commissioned by the Palestine Liberation Organization emphasized the ties between the Palestinian struggle and leftist and anticolonial causes globally, as opposed to Zionism’s narrative of settler socialism. The artwork drew on the aesthetic of socialist realism, glorifying peasants and workers, which was a common thread in the visuals of revolutionary movements the world over.

"Glory to the Workers and Fighters," circa 1969. (Poster: General Union of Palestinian Workers, Lebanon Section/the Palestine Poster Project Archives)
“Glory to the Workers and Fighters,” circa 1969. (Poster: General Union of Palestinian Workers, Lebanon Section/the Palestine Poster Project Archives)

As Kamal Boullata has written, artists from the Palestinian refugee camps “promoted a populist form of figurative expression, their pictorial narrative often borrowing images from popular metaphors. The general thrust of their art sought to express a voice that would represent the Palestinian experience and solicit support for the national cause.” In Zaid Wahba’s 1969 poster “Glory to the Workers and Fighters,” a man and woman are caught in mid-pose as they till the soil, with more than passing resemblance to the heroic figures of socialist realist art. While the poster’s title and text pay homage to workers, it is the peasantry or fellahin which the image captures, reflecting Palestine’s pre-1948 largely agrarian society, Palestinians’ tie to the land, and the collective nature of both their agricultural labor before the Nakba and of the exiled refugees’ struggle after it, which in both cases included both women and men.

Further innovation was brought to the Palestinian May Day poster by the Swiss-born artist Marc Rudin, also known as Jihad Mansour, who produced many striking graphics for the leftist PLO factions over a career allied to the Palestinian cause. In sharp distinction to the posters produced for the labor Zionist movement, in which socialism was limited on an ethnic basis to Jewish Israelis, a constant theme in Rudin’s work is international solidarity and the interconnectedness of anti-colonial struggles. Rudin has explained that in his May Day graphics, he sought to demonstrate a “link between the national struggle for liberation and proletarian internationalism.” An example is his poster “Consolidating the Unity of the Working Class and the People.” A red flag tied to a hammer is a symbol of the workers’ movement and the industrial proletariat, and simultaneously a keffiyeh scarf, quintessential symbol of Palestinian nationalism, soaked in the blood of those slain in the cause and the victims of the Israeli occupation. Rudin’s work subsequently articulated the First Intifada of the late 1980s as a class, as well as a national, struggle: a poster presented the “Workers on the Front Line of the Intifada,” a group of workers, some carrying industrial tools, working together to tip a large stone onto a tank.

It was the efforts to solidify the solidarity between the Palestinian struggle and class and anticolonial struggles from Algeria to South Africa, Cuba to Vietnam, epitomized in the Palestinian attitude towards International Workers Day, which has meant that support for Palestine has remained strong on the global left. Meanwhile support for Israel on the professed left, once common in the post-war period, has dwindled in parallel with the decline in fortunes of the once-imperious Israeli Labor Party to its present moribund level. Yet as attacks against the principle of solidarity with Palestine continue, and as Palestinians need our support more than ever, this May Day provides us with the opportunity to consider the interconnectedness of all struggles for justice, even if from our own homes if necessary.