- Electrical Palestine: Capital and Technology from Empire to Nation by Fredrik Meiton
Meiton has written an elegant and original history of mandatory Palestine. There are two ways to look at this refreshing view of the early history of the Zionist colonization of Palestine. One is to appreciate the brilliance of correlating the flow of electricity with the trajectory of colonization and modernization in Palestine and beyond. The other is to engage more critically with the assumption of the book that the electrification of Palestine in the mandatory period was almost the singular factor determining the future of the country.
This intriguing, and beautifully written tract shows that Pinchas Rutenberg's project of electrifying Palestine affected not only the country's future but also Western discourse about modernization and civilization in the first half of the twentieth century. It is also a fascinating study of Palestine's material history and how it shaped the local economy, politics, and society. It begins with the discourse about electrifying Palestine, which the Zionist leaders in the early years of the movement were able to commodify as the ultimate proof that their venture in Palestine would turn a desert into civilization. In practice, the Zionist project forever turned much of civilized Palestine into a desert after 1948. Quite a few British officials in London and on the ground bought into this vision of an electrified, hence Westernized and modernized, Zionist Palestine.
Meiton provides a fresh explanation for the Zionist success in creating a state within a wider discourse about modernization and its impact in the world. He adds an intriguing dimension to an already impressive literature about this topic, describing a material regime that mediated human thought and action and distributed costs and benefits. A fine but generally unknown example of this mediation is the connection between the Zionist attempt to retain all the high-tension mains and the way the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (unscop) delineated the 1947 partition plan.
Electrification undoubtedly played a crucial role in ridding Palestine of Arabs but by no means does it provide a singular explanation for the Zionist success, motivated by what Wolfe termed the "logic of the [End Page 629] elimination of the native," which he defined as a typical motivation for settler colonial movements such as Zionism.1 Similarly, although Rutenberg was one of Palestine's chief modernizers, he was not a member of the Zionist elite that planned and executed the gradual removal of the indigenous people of Palestine that continues to this day. Focusing on the electrification of Palestine should not sanitize the brutality and inhumanity that accompanied the dispossession of Palestine. The presence of people like Rutenberg, and enterprises like his, gave the elimination a particular colour and charted the unique trajectory of the colonial project on the ground.
The book shows convincingly that the electric grid and the Jewish state evolved through mutual dependency. However, singling out the grid, even granting it a dominant role in relation to other features of Zionist state-building (based mainly on eliminating Arabs), is a bold and, some would say, overstated assertion. The gap between the industrial growth of the settler community and that of the native population was huge, as the book shows. The local Palestinians were unable to build an indigenous infrastructure due to Zionist land purchases in the 1920s and the eviction of the Palestinian tenants from them, as well as the Zionist settlers' incremental removal of them from the labor market. The local community was unable to defend itself, particularly after 1936, when the British forces killed, wounded, or exiled most of its military and political elite. These factors are no less important in explaining the catastrophic presence of Zionism in Palestine.
All these economic and political developments, including the electrification of the country that produced an accelerated industrialization and accentuated the gulf between the two communities, would have been meaningless had the world not allowed the Zionist movement to displace Arabs from what became Jewish-conquered territory. After all...