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Accepted Paper:

From the Arab "father of the desert" to the Thai "with the green thumb": The ecological racialization of agricultural labor in Israel  


Matan Kaminer (University of Haifa)

Paper short abstract:

Building on ethnographic work with Thai migrant workers and the history of Zionism, this paper describes the process of "ecological racialization" in Israel today as an interplay between the construction of a racial imaginary and the transformation of the environment through agricultural labor.

Paper long abstract:

Historically, agriculture has played an essential strategic and ideological role in the Zionist settler-colonial project. Indigenous Palestinians were portrayed as having caused the deterioration of the biblical "land of milk and honey" into a desert (Zerubavel 2019), and settlers were tasked with redeeming it, establishing control over territory (Kimmerling 1983) and transforming themselves into "new Jews" in the process (Neumann 2011). In today's Israel, farming is economically and strategically marginal. However, in the rural regions where it remains important, the sector relies heavily on the labor of migrants from Thailand, who are often thought of as "natural workers" with "green thumbs." Building on my own ethnographic work with these migrants and their employers as well as on the historiography of Zionism, my paper will describe the interplay between the construction of a local imaginary of race and the practice of transforming the natural environment through agricultural labor - a conjoined process we might call "ecological racialization." Israeli farming communities were established on a small scale to provide settlers with a livelihood, and their structure still bears a closer affinity to the settler landscapes of northern North America (Cronon 1991) than to the paradigmatic plantations of the Caribbean (Mintz 1985), though their recent integration into global markets brings them closer to the latter. Connecting local and global scales, I aim to show that the "intimacies of four continents" (Lowe 2015) are at play in the way Palestinians, Jews and Thais are racialized through their roles in transforming the landscape.

Panel P033
Bringing race-making and class struggles in plantations and export industries back to the research agenda