Nimrod Ben Zeev

HistoryUniversity of Pennsylvania

Award Information

2017 IDRF Program

HistoryUniversity of Pennsylvania

Foundations of Inequality: Construction, Political Economy, and the Senses in Israel/Palestine, 1918-1993

Construction work and its products played a crucial material and ideological role in the history of twentieth century Palestine/Israel. My dissertation proposes the construction site as a location that illuminates the economic, infrastructural, embodied, and ideological aspects of nation-building, and construction work as a process which both materially and figuratively produced inequality and difference throughout the twentieth century. I argue that construction work as embodied, physical labor, the political economy of the construction industry, and the land's changing built environment, were fundamental to the development of the self-understanding of the Zionist and Palestinian communities. As inter- and intra-communal hierarchies evolved, construction work and the built environment also became crucial markers of the inferiority of each community's would-be national, racial, and ethnic others. By engaging sensory history, the history of pain, and political economy, I address a pressing problem in the historiography of Palestine/Israel, which privileges the role of clashing ideologies, narratives, economies, and other ideational abstractions in the Zionist-Palestinian conflict. Instead, following studies on the role of sensory experience in the consolidation of racial boundaries and hierarchies in the American South, I emphasize the felt and material aspects of historical experience, the visceral, concrete underpinnings of difference and inequality. I examine the changing demographics of the construction industry's workforce, as it shifted from a highly contested field of employment in the Mandate period to a marginalized one soon after 1948, in light of a preponderance of construction accidents. At the same time, I explore changes in how different communities experienced and understood changes to how cities, towns, villages, and even the experience of being at home looked, sounded, smelled, or felt to the touch.