Current Institutional Affiliation
Buber Fellow, Anthropology, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Award Information

International Dissertation Research Fellowship 2016
Institutional Affiliation (at time of award):
Anthropology, University of Michigan
Skilled at Suffering: Thai Migrants, Israeli Employers and Hard Work on a Desert Farm

The farmers of the Israeli Arabah, a remote and arid region adjacent to the Jordanian border, make their living by raising vegetables, mostly bell peppers. A generation ago, local residents took pride in avoiding dependence on "Arab labor", but today their workforce is made up almost entirely of Thai migrant workers, and to everyone involved it seems that Thais possess some quality necessary for doing the work, a quality that today's Israelis (and Palestinians) apparently no longer have. My research asks what this quality might be, and raises the hypothesis that it consists of a special capacity to endure hardship, an ensemble of what I call "suffering skills." In dialogue with the latest anthropological theory, I understand "skill" in a particularly broad sense, encompassing not only knowledge acquired intentionally with a view to participating in a labor process, but any capability that such a process depends on, including physical capacities, culturally acquired dispositions, and the bare willingness that comes from having no choice. I explore various modes of explaining the difference between Thais and Israelis, drawing on the evidence of my own fieldwork experience as a farm worker, on conversations with workers and employers, and the cultural texts of Labor Zionism and Theravada Buddhism. Without denying the essentialist, even racist ideological nature of several of these modes, I seek out the facets of social reality to which they owe their strength and ask how these are reproduced not only by employers, but potentially by the workers themselves. Avoiding exoticism and sentimentality, my focus on suffering as an object of knowledge and even mastery connects the predicament of Thai migrants in Israel to the universal concerns of those who study humankind.