Theory and Society

, Volume 20, Issue 2, pp 233–258 | Cite as

Immigration, proletarianization, and deproletarianization

A case study of the Jewish working class in Palestine, 1882–1914
  • Amir Ben-Porat


The strategy of deproletarianization attempted by groups of immigrants of the First and Second Aliyot was determined by the correspondence of three structures: settler capitalism, proletarianization, and ideology. These provided the realm of opportunities from 1882 to 1914. The Great War, which led to the downfall of the Ottoman empire and the establishment of a British administration, then changed the entire economy and politics of Palestine.

In this article I divide the studied period into the first and second aliyot. The reader can observe that the correspondence between the above structures was not similar in each sub-period, and that deproletarianization was differently associated with ideology. It was a natural consequence of the immigration motives of the first aliya immigrants, it was not so in the second aliya.

The prevailing deteriorating feudalistic mode of production in Palestine made it possible for the immigrants in 1882 and thereafter to establish a settler capitalism. However, the other processes that then occurred were in essence dependent on the socio-economy of the new Yishuv and its relations with the regional market. Proletarianization of immigrants of the first aliya may be considered to have occurred by default. The proto-capitalist system in the Moshavot did not need a Jewish proletariat to survive, because indigenous labor was available and cheap. The immigrants who became day laborers intended to become Ikarim. The economic situation compelled them to search for a solution to their immediate problem of survival. The ideology that prevailed in the motives of these immigrant workers determined to a limited, albeit significant, extent the selection and maintenance of certain forms of deproletarianization over others. In other words, as in many other historical cases, proletarianization was imposed upon individuals who could not maintain their position in the changing socioeconomy. But the first aliya proletariat was distinctive: first, its members were forced to became proletarian through voluntary immigration to a place where their predecessors - with the same background but with the means to purchase tracts of land - had established a protocapitalist sector in the agricultural sector. Second, their proletarianization took the form of day laboring in an expanding agricultural sector, and not as one can observe in Europe, where it was industry that was expanding.

Each wave of immigrants brought to Palestine ideological and, to a certain extent, political assets. These had a mediating effect on the forms of adjustment made by the individuals and groups concerned, who, lacking financial capacity, had to choose between re-emigration or proletarianization. Although both waves of immigration developed the intension of alleviating the hardship of their situation, they employed different strategies to accomplish their aims. The first aliya immigrant workers attempted to arrest the process of proletarianization and join the petty bourgeois Ikarim. The second aliya immigrants, in contrast, considered proletarianization as inevitable. But they did not acquiesce to their position. Unlike their predecessors, their resistance was coupled with a peculiar combination of Zionist and socialist motives. This induced the creation of innovative deproletarianization solutions - working-class forms of production and consumption. In essence, deproletarianization was a pursuit of the realization of certain class interests, even though the concrete boundaries of the working class were still obscure. Imported ideology shaped the priorities involved in the selection of the forms of working-class settlements.

Proletarianization was forced upon the immigrants not because of a transition from a feudal to capitalist society, as was witnessed at the same period by immigrant Jews to the United States, but rather from “feudalism in transition” in Russian and Eastern Europe to a retrogressively still more feudalistic system in Palestine. Thus, proletarianization did not result from the disposition and subordination of peasants or artisans by burgeoning capital, (except for a certain category of Arabs) but by the specific instance of an immigrant society encountering “lower” conditions of production in the country of immigration.

The present case study amplifies two related issues. One, that the general law of proletarianization - an inevitable outcome of capitalism- is not to be taken literally. This has already been dealt with in a number of publications on industrialization and proletarianization in nineteenth-century Europe and also the United States. Second, in definite historical circumstances proletarianization may precede the emergence of industrialization, even of proto-industrialization. This is possible, as shown in this case, when immigrants who are motivated by a certain ideology, encounter less developed conditions of production. The deproletarianization strategies discussed here were initiated on the same grounds. One was aimed at integration into the proto-capitalist formation, the other at providing a different route of integration into the country through new forms of colonization.

This strategy, still in embryo, marked the future formation of the Jewish working class in Palestine, even though it applied only to a minority of this class. By the creation of a working-class economy and political organizations, this class ensured its survival and development, and, two decades later, its dominance in the Yishuv.


Agricultural Sector Socialist Motive Capitalist Society Immigrant Worker Historical Circumstance 
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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1991

Authors and Affiliations

  • Amir Ben-Porat
    • 1
  1. 1.Ben-Gurion University of the NegevIsrael

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