Mustafa Kabha and Nahum Karlinsky, The Lost Orchard: The Palestinian-Arab Citrus Industry, 1850-1950 (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2021).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Mustafa Kabha and Nahum Karlinsky (MK & NK): It was a mixture of scholarly and personal reasons. From a scholarly point of view, the British Mandate period (1918-1948) is a major focus of our research. So, even before we embarked on this project, we knew in broad terms that the citrus industry played an important role in the social and economic life of the Palestinian people before 1948. Tens of thousands of Palestinians were engaged in the citrus industry, which was a major capitalist undertaking and the leading export industry of the entire country. Consequently, it served as a key source of economic growth and social mobility for pre-Nakba Palestinian society, and the engine that led the country’s major seaport, Jaffa, to tremendous growth.

Hence, although the details of that story had yet to be unearthed, it was clear to us even then that this capitalist venture stood in sharp contrast to the prevailing image of pre-1948 Palestinian society as an underdeveloped, peasant-based society, an image that was cultivated by many (pro-)Palestinian and (pro-)Israeli scholars, however for diametrically opposite reasons. We were eager to uncover those facts and find out the true story.

Personally, the story of the Palestinian citrus industry struck a close chord for us.

For Mustafa it was his father’s experience living in Jaffa for fourteen enjoyable and profitable years, from 1934-1948, which like the Palestinian people itself, ended with the tragic events of the Nakba.  His father, Daʾud Ibrahim Kabha (1913-1982), owned a coal store in Jaffa, a product that was an important source of energy for heating and for use in various dining establishments and restaurants. His father told him many stories about those years, like the concerts by famous singers Umm Kulthum and Mohammed Abd el-Wahhab he attended when they performed in Jaffa in the 1940s. Mustafa was particularly enchanted by stories of the special intoxicating aroma of the citrus blossoms whose perfume would envelope Jaffa in the spring. Whenever he visits Jaffa, Mustafa is painfully aware of its lost Palestinian glory and importance.

For Nahum it was the historical lacunae and the officially led forgetfulness of the Palestinians that are imbedded in the Israeli meta-narrative. This meta-narrative erroneously presents the citrus industry as a Jewish Zionist industry, mythically created ex nihilo by the pre-1948 hegemonic Labor Zionist movement, echoing the Zionist tenet of “making the desert bloom.” The citrus industry, according to this erroneous narrative, was first established by Zionists during the Ottoman rule over Palestine, expanded during the British mandate, and reached full glory during the State of Israel’s first decades of existence. This meta-narrative does not even mention Palestinian citriculture which, in fact, predated Zionism and Zionist immigration to Palestine.

We met for the first time at a conference. And after a short exchange of perspectives about the pre-1948 Palestinian citrus industry we decided to work together on this understudied topic.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

MK & NK: The most surprising discovery of the book is the unprecedented bi-national organization that the two national sectors of the country’s citrus industry, the Palestinian-Arab and the Jewish-Zionist, formed at the outbreak of WWII. This bottom-up bi-national framework lasted for seven long and trying years, well into the 1948 war.

Its success stood in sharp contrast to the many top-down initiatives that were brought up during the British Mandate to form political bi-national organizations, which never materialized. Yet, in contrast with the dichotomous and inherently hostile picture portrayed by the conflictual paradigm that dominates research about the Mandate period, Arabs and Jews did cooperate and share responsibilities in other spheres beyond the citrus industry. The most noticeable example is Palestine’s bi-national urban space in cities like Jerusalem, Jaffa, Haifa, or Tiberias. There, Arabs and Jews served in the same municipalities and ran the day-to-day life of these cities collaboratively. However, they did not establish a structured bi-national framework. In addition, a temporary ad-hoc bi-national structure was established in the early 1930s during a country-wide drivers’ strike. But this structure was dismantled after a few short weeks of existence.

Thus, the citrus bi-national framework was the only such organization that operated for a considerable period of time during the Mandate. Palestinian and Zionist growers shared the responsibilities of managing and directing the country’s citrus groves and of marketing their famous fruit, the Jaffa oranges, equally. Importantly, the citrus growers’ bi-national framework was created with the consent and cooperation of thousands of the industry’s growers, and with the approval of their leaderships.

Our initial goal was to reconstruct the repressed story of the pre-1948 Palestinian-Arab citrus industry. However, in the course of our research it became clear to us that the two national sectors of the country’s citrus industry were entangled in complex and fascinating reciprocal relationships. While the two sectors competed, they were also compelled to cooperate with one another due to the unique structure of the industry and the contexts within which they operated.

Significantly, this bi-national framework was a well-known feature of life before 1948. After the war, however, it was completely erased from the collective consciousness of both Israelis and Palestinians. It was only after the two Palestinian Intifadas, the signing of the Oslo Accords, and Israel’s ongoing decolonization of territories it captured in 1967 that repressed histories of both peoples began to surface and garner renewed attention.

Our book joins the work of scholars who challenge the conflictual narrative that dominates most studies of the British Mandate period. We demonstrate how despite the tension and violent outbreaks between Arabs and Jews that took place during the Mandate, there were also multiple dimensions of Arab-Jewish life in which people and groups chose not to follow the conflictual path.

Theoretically, our main perspective is relational. A strong influence is Zachary Lockman’s relational approach, claiming that Arabs and Jews did not live in isolation from each other, and that—moreover—the two societies shaped and were shaped by each other. We see the Palestinians as the country’s natives, and we understand mainstream Zionism as a diasporic national movement that used settler-colonial means and worldview to implement its national ideology. Yet, our findings correspond with the conclusions of other scholars of European settler-colonialism who challenged the image of a strict dichotomy. They show that in-between and hybrid forms of relationships, cooperation, and even shared institutions were created between natives and the European newcomers.

However, for a true bi-national organization to be forged, Zionist and Palestinian growers had to overcome the imbalanced relationship imbedded in the British Mandate system, which favored the Zionist movement. We used Mancur Olson’s The Logic of Collective Action and Gordon Allport’s The Nature of Prejudice to analyze the specific conditions that allowed the citrus bi-national organization to be formed and persist well into the 1948 war.

The book also describes and analyzes the Palestinian sector’s economic performances and the important social mobility the industry brought to Palestinian fellahin. We devote a special chapter to the Nakba. Based on a census that the newly founded Israeli government conducted in 1948-1949 of Palestinian-Arab orange groves that came under its control, we were able to reconstruct a detailed map of the Palestinian industry at the end of the British Mandate. The census lists about 3,800 Palestinian growers who became refugees and their specific groves that were confiscated by Israel.

The last chapter of our book deals with memory and forgetfulness. It reconstructs the ways Palestinians remember the citrus industry and its hub, the city of Jaffa. And it shows the ways in which the Israeli establishment and the public successfully dis-remembered the Palestinian-Arab sector and fully appropriated the “Jaffa Orange” as Israel’s prized and symbolic export industry.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

MK & NK: This book continues our common interest in pre-1948 Palestine. It departs from our previous research because it is a joint project, based on shared research. Our shared work on this complicated topic, which relates to our own identities and family histories, made this research project special and emotional.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

MK & NK: We hope that scholars and lay people alike who are interested in Palestine/Israel and in the crucial period of the British Mandate will read the book. We hope it will open a window to a non-conflictual and mutually friendly reality that existed during the Mandate, which had the potential of averting the tragic results of 1948. We believe that this path is even wider and much more promising today than before if people will choose to take it.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

MK: I am currently working on the toponymy of Palestinian locations and places, examining their geographical, social, and linguistic histories.

NK: I view recent upheavals in Israeli society as an outcome of Israel’s continuing decolonization of territories it captured in 1967. Thus, this is the topic of my current research project.


Excerpt from the book (from the Preface)

The genesis of this book was an encounter between its two authors in the Naqab/Negev desert. The occasion was a research workshop, held at the Ben-Gurion Research Institute, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. The workshop brought to­gether Arab and Jewish scholars with the objective of exploring the state of research on Palestinian-Arab and Israeli-Jewish relations, both collab­orative and conflictual. Our personal meeting and the following encounters that ensued launched our joint research project.

Now that we have completed the research and writing of this volume, we wish to reflect upon our professional and personal journey. Our pri­mary scholarly objective was to use rigorous research methodologies and sources in order to present, examine, and analyze the untold story of the pre-1948 Palestinian-Arab citrus industry.

Even as we pursued the research itself with the utmost professional care and methodological rigor, the topic we chose to investigate carried deep personal significance for both of us.

Kabha relates the following memories:

For me, Jaffa [the hub of the pre-1948 Palestinian-Arab citrus industry and the country’s main marine port] is not simply a time-honored city where remnants of ancient buildings attest to a magnificent past. I was raised on stories of the city’s splendor, glory, rich markets, beach, mosques and churches that back onto each other, narrow alleys, and new modern quar­ters. I grew up in the small village of Umm al-Qutuf (located in Wadi ‘Ara and far from any signs of urbanization). As a child, I reveled in my father’s stories of Jaffa, where he had lived in its heyday, during the years 1934–48. I was particularly enchanted by stories of the special intoxicating aroma of the citrus blossoms whose perfume would envelope Jaffa in the spring.

My father, Da’ud Ibrahim Kabha (1913–82), owned ten camels that were used to transport coal from the region of Wadi ‘Ara and the al-Khattaf Mountains to the towns of Tulkarm and Jaffa. In time, he opened a coal store in Jaffa, selling coal that served as an important source of energy for heating and for use in various dining establishments and restaurants. Dur­ing the long winter nights, he would tell us stories of cafés, cinemas, and the theater. He was very proud of having attended concerts by famous singers Umm Kulthum and Mohammed Abd el-Wahhab when they performed in Jaffa in the 1940s.

I first visited Jaffa with my father at the age of eight. I was very disap­pointed to find almost nothing of what I had imagined. My father’s explana­tions were not convincing, and I did not find them very helpful because they were short and vague. We visited Jaffa together again eleven years later. At that time, he was more open and told detailed stories that I had never heard before. I was particularly impressed by the story of his last day in Jaffa before it surrendered [to Jewish forces] in May 1948. At that time, my disappoint­ment morphed into sorrow and pain. Whenever I visit Jaffa I am overcome by emotion and I try to reconstruct bygone sights, bygone lives, amid the lost orchards, the scent of the markets and of the fragrant citrus blossoms.

Investigating the lost orchards of Jaffa and of the other Palestinian cit­rus towns is no easy matter. It is, in essence, a transition from vague memo­ries and scents to dusty archival documents as well as uprooted trees or rebranded fruits, stamped with a new identity and new owners. The once fertile lands, wells, and pools now groan as bulldozers uproot the orchards and cement trucks pour solid foundations for high-rise buildings that have changed the skyline forever.

The vivid collective memories of pre-1948 Palestinian society that informed Kabha’s childhood, as well as his professional desire to recon­struct the past, differ radically from Karlinsky’s experience of historical lacunae, “forgetfulness,” and repressed memories.

The Zionist Israeli metanarrative grants the Israeli citrus industry in the first decades after 1948 a similar role to that awarded at present to Isra­el’s high-tech industry. Namely, citriculture is presented as the economic power that propelled the Israeli economy forward, as it was Israel’s major export industry in the first decades after the State was established. This metanarrative erroneously presents the citrus industry as a Jewish Zion­ist industry, mythically created ex nihilo by the hegemonic Labor Zionist movement, echoing the Zionist tenet of “making the desert bloom.” The citrus industry, according to this narrative, was first established during the Ottoman rule over Palestine, expanded during the British Mandate, and reached full glory during the State of Israel’s first decades of exis­tence. Needless to say, this metanarrative does not even mention Palestin­ian citriculture.

Hence, when Karlinsky embarked on his previous research project, devoted to the study of the Zionist citrus industry in pre-1948 Palestine, he was surprised to discover that the metanarrative he had been taught was doubly flawed. First, he discovered that the Jewish sector of the citrus industry was not established by the Labor Movement but rather by the oft-maligned private Zionist entrepreneurs. But the second discovery was even more significant. Karlinsky’s research brought him face to face with the Zionist narrative’s penultimate “blind spot”—the existence of the well-established and flourishing Palestinian citrus industry that preceded the Zionist enterprise.

Recognizing the existence of a repressed and/or deliberately erased Palestinian past, our initial objective was to use the historical tools at our disposal to dig up and retrieve the “lost Palestinian orchard.” As our research progressed, we realized that this is but one case study of a broader phenomenon that has profound metaphorical dimensions. We became engaged in a two-pronged project that confronted and exposed the oblit­eration of Palestinian memory and identity on the one hand, and, on the other, also attempted to bring about the “return of the repressed” and the re-collection of the Arab histories of Palestine/Israel.

Two unexpected discoveries emerged from the primary sources uncovered. First, while there were tensions and obvious economic and national rivalries between the Arab and Jewish sectors of the citrus indus­try, we were surprised by the concurrent intensity and lengthy duration of the strong mutual relationships between the sectors. The pinnacle of these steadfast dialectical relationships, which began in 1900, was the establish­ment of an official countrywide binational organization of the industry in the first year after the outbreak of World War II. The organization lasted until April 1948, when the politics of nationalism quashed any option of binational partnership.

The second discovery relates to the fact that the relationship between Palestinian Arabs and Zionist Jews deepened and became most pro­nounced during the long six years of World War II. This is surprising given the fact that most scholarship related to the Mandate period is based on the assumption that by 1939 the social, political, and cultural foundations that eventually culminated with the realities of 1948 had already been set in place. Hence, more often than not scholars of the Mandate period either ignore the war years and end their research in 1939 or gloss over this period as an insignificant hiatus preceding the inevitable 1948. Our book joins a growing number of studies that challenge both that assumption and the tendency to ignore the war years.