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The Phenomenology of Colonialism and the Politics of ‘Difference’: European Zionist Emissaries and Arab-Jews in Colonial Abadan

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This paper examines documents written by Jewish construction workers who won a public tender issued by the Anglo-Iranian Company in the early 1940s to build and maintain oil refining facilities next to the city of Abadan (on the Shatt al-Arab waterway). This group of 450 workers stayed in the region for more than three years and acted as the agent of the first concrete encounter between the Zionist movement and Arab-Jews at a time when the Jewish leadership was making serious plans to bring those Jews to Palestine. The emissaries' descriptions of their day-to-day life make it possible to introduce their voices and create a history of their experiences. This paper examines two main themes: (1) the colonial context of this encounter, and (2) the politics of difference that emerged on site. Zionist emissaries perceived themselves as integral organs of the British colonial state and described their presence in the region in colonial language. This essay furthers the analysis of Zionism as colonialism by adding a phenomenological dimension to its interpretation. One of the main objects of the Zionist emissaries' discourse was the Arabness of the local (Iraqi and Iranian) Jews. While the emissaries described their traits and customs as Arab, they simultaneously insisted on marking the 'difference' between the local Jews and the Arabs in order to recruit the former into the Zionist project. Thus, whereas they defined the Arab-Jews as part of the national collective they also left a colonial 'marker' (the difference) that later became an ethnic category within the Jewish nationhood. This paper concludes that a postcolonial theoretical framework, which is generally neglected in sociological and historical analyses, is essential for understanding the mobilisation of Arab-Jews into the Zionist project.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Tel Aviv University

Publication date: January 1, 2002

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