Palestine Potash Limited: Industrial Development in Mandatory Palestine and the Infrastructure of Zionism

By Mona Bieling

The British Mandate for Palestine was officially instated in 1923 by the League of Nations. From its beginning, the Mandate government received applications for the rights to exploit the mineral resources of the Dead Sea and its surrounding areas. After a lengthy process, the government finally granted the concession to the Russian Jewish mining engineer Moshe Novomeysky and his company Palestine Potash Limited (PPL) in 1930. PPL started its operations in 1932 and existed until the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, after which the company was nationalized. PPL’s successor, the Israeli Dead Sea Works, continues its operations until today.

In the following text, I set out significant aspects of the material and immaterial infrastructures of Mandatory Palestine using the example of PPL and its founder and manager, Novomeysky. I first give an overview of the changes to the landscape resulting from PPL’s work and from the built infrastructures the company developed. I then explore Zionism as a “soft”, or immaterial, infrastructure, which shapes the room for maneuver of the individuals operating within its system.

We usually understand soft infrastructures as the institutions, policies, legal systems, or cultural and other networks that form and enable built infrastructures, such as railroads and road networks. I suggest including ideologies, in this case Zionism, into this realm of soft infrastructures. By combining economic, developmental, and ideological goals, Zionism enabled the creation of material infrastructures in Mandatory Palestine. This process was arguably the most important factor contributing to the establishment of the physical attributes of the State of Israel (as well as the state’s ideological foundation).

Landscape changes at the Dead Sea and beyond

The Dead Sea is a hypersaline lake and the lowest point on earth. The main minerals that PPL extracted from the lake were potash and bromine, which are both used in the fertilizer and general chemical industries. The British took little interest in PPL’s economic potential at first, but this changed significantly when PPL became the main potash supplier of the British Empire during WWII, after the British ceased all trade with their previous potash supplier, Germany.[1]

PPL had an immense impact on the Palestinian landscape. At the Dead Sea itself, PPL built two factory sites along its shores, one at its northern and one at its southern end. The factory sites included not only the potash factory and bromine plant, but also considerable supporting infrastructure, such as a small electric power station, workshops, and housing for workers. Moreover, once PPL started its operations and grew in size, more long-term housing solutions needed to be found. To make working in the harsh environment of the Dead Sea more attractive to the factory’s Jewish workers, a kibbutz was founded close to the northern factory site. Fresh water diverted from the Jordan River supplied the kibbutz and the factories of PPL.[2] The generally increased human presence at the Dead Sea also led to incipient tourism and leisure facilities, such as beaches and hotels for both workers and tourists.

Palestine Potash camp at Usdum, 1934.” Source: Library of Congress.

Possibly the most environmentally invasive aspect of PPL’s endeavor, however, was the construction of large so-called “evaporation pans”. To extract the desired minerals, water from the Dead Sea was pumped into these pans and evaporated over time, leaving just the salts, ready to be removed and processed. The use of evaporation pans was a central part of Novomeysky’s concession application. He had acquired some familiarity with this technique when he worked as a mining engineer in Siberia and thought it was ideal for experimenting with at the Dead Sea. In advocating for this method, Novomeysky favored evaporation pans over other, much more common and less environmentally harmful, methods of mineral extraction.[3]

All this industrial activity along the Dead Sea had an impact on the local people. While PPL was one of the few Jewish industries that employed Arab workers, other parts of the Arab population of the Jordan Valley were affected negatively. The surrounding Bedouin saw their grazing and land use rights curtailed by the new industry and its supporting facilities.[4] Moreover, in an area that was often short of freshwater supply, PPL’s and the kibbutz’s diversion of water from the Jordan River aggravated local farmers’ water precarity. Lastly, while PPL’s concession originally only included a narrow strip of land along the Dead Sea, Novomeysky soon wished to acquire more land near the factory sites. Although he did not manage to do so, the process added to the general pressure on Arab landowners to sell their land.[5]

This brief sketch shows that with the emergence of the mineral extraction industry at the Dead Sea, a new player had entered the field who had a substantial impact on the landscape of the Dead Sea and its surroundings. Consequently, local ways of living were affected by the increased resource pressure on the land and an added complexity to the local power relationships.

A second area on which PPL’s activities had direct and important impact lay further away from the Dead Sea. These spaces included the land impacted by connecting infrastructure that PPL built to link its Dead Sea enterprise with the regional hub of Haifa. The minerals extracted at the Dead Sea were brought to Haifa for further processing and preparation for export. During PPL’s existence, different types of infrastructure were seen as adequate and cost efficient, depending on the volume of goods that had to be carried.[6] The infrastructure that was realized in the end included mostly roads and aerial ropeways. Importantly, PPL’s concession included the provision that “any lands required for the purposes of the Company will be expropriated by the government at [the] Company’s expense.”[7] Considering the locations concerned, these landowners were mostly Arab farmers who protested against their expropriation. The Arab population also objected their insufficient involvement in the mineral exploitation enterprise: They did not have any “executive participation” in the project and “lamented the loss of an economic asset, potentially so valuable to a future Arab Palestinian state, to the interests of Zionism and British imperialism”.[8]

The city of Haifa itself was also influenced by PPL. The construction of a deep-water port at Haifa, which enabled the company to export their products, was of great importance for the company. Reversely, for the constructors of the port, PPL was significant enough of an industry to consider its needs for special shipping facilities.[9] The company additionally invested in and profited from Haifa’s growth by locating some of their storage facilities and processing plants in the city.

“Railroads in Greater Syria, 1914”. Source: Cyrus Schayegh, The Middle East and the Making of the Modern World, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2017).

Haifa was thus an important connecting point for PPL and essential for the company’s success. The city’s role can be best understood in a broader spatial frame, considering the interconnectedness of former Ottoman cities such as Haifa, Beirut, and Damascus. The existing ties between these cities during the Ottoman Empire did not automatically cease after the region had been divided into French and British Mandates.[10] When researching PPL in its mandatory context, it is helpful to understand Haifa as a junction in this older network of trade and socio-cultural exchange. This network was of direct importance for PPL as well. For example, when talks began about building an oil pipeline and a railway connection from Mosul to the port of Haifa, PPL strongly supported the idea.[11] For the company, the more ships unloading their goods in Haifa, the better – as the same ships could, in return, export PPL’s goods.

PPL’s impact on Palestine’s landscape shows the interconnectedness of the various development projects that were under way at the time. Moreover, it is a good example of how infrastructure and industry can be mutually constitutive. For studies of Mandatory Palestine, which often emphasize the Zionist project’s focus on agricultural development, looking at the industrial dimension helps create a more rounded picture of the ongoing processes. Moreover, PPL’s industrial endeavors were transnational and trans-imperial by virtue of the potash markets and the infrastructure networks that the company helped create or profited from. 

The infrastructure of Zionism

As mentioned before, PPL’s general manager Novomeysky was a Russian Jew who was granted the concession to exploit the Dead Sea’s resources after a lengthy process that involved several rivalling applications from Arab, British, and other international applicants. The British decision to give the concession to Novomeysky was based on several aspects: his technical expertise; the (financial) support he received from an illustrious group of British businessmen, as well as his willingness to accommodate several British requests during the negotiation process.[12]

Granting the concession to the Jewish applicant was in the interest of the Zionist Organization. It was also in line with the British policy enshrined in the Balfour Declaration to support the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine. Furthermore, the British had a long history of drawing on Jewish individuals as so-called “agents of development” in their colonial projects.[13] The development of the Dead Sea industry can thus be seen as one example in a longer succession of British colonial decisions. Moreover, Zionism read the Palestinian landscape and its potential in a way that coincided with the British mandatory power’s understanding of development. Both Zionists and British colonialists interpreted the Palestinian landscape as unproductive and saw its potential as mostly unexploited. In Fredrik Meiton’s words, “it was a critical aspect of Palestine’s modern history that the Zionists arrived when they did, espousing a technocapitalist program whose root metaphors were of a piece with Britain’s colonial vision”.[14]

Particularly interesting in this political landscape is the role and behavior of Novomeysky himself. Accounts of the history of PPL, the most thorough one being Jacob Norris’ Land of Progress, categorize the company and its founder and manager Novomeysky as firmly situated within the broader Zionist project. I agree with this assessment but, contrary to Norris, Meiton, and others, I do not think that Novomeysky himself was an ardent Zionist. Throughout the existence of the company, Novomeysky took great care to emphasize that he was only interested in advancing the business side of things and that he was not equipped to speak on any political topic.[15] He did so while fully aware of the contentious situation PPL was operating in and knowing that his business could not be entirely separated from politics. Towards the end of the company’s existence, which coincided with the end of the British Mandate and the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, Novomeysky was caught between several competing parties of interest: the leaders of the incipient Israeli State, PPL’s Arab and Jewish workforce, and the Jordanian government, on whose territory parts of PPL’s grounds were located. Despite Novomeysky’s attempts to keep his company unified and himself in a leading role, he failed to negotiate an agreement acceptable to all parties involved. After the war, PPL’s concession lands were divided between Jordan and Israel and Novomeysky was sidelined. He retired a few years later.

My reading of Novomeysky’s memoirs, as well as primary sources from Israeli and British archives, lead me to the conclusion that he was a businessman first, and a Zionist second.[16] Novomeysky wrote his memoirs in the mid to late 1950s, at a time when he was already retired for several years due to the nationalization of PPL and him being sidelined by the new Israeli Zionist-industrialist elite. To a certain extent, Novomeysky interprets his time in Palestine to improve his tarnished reputation. Still, Zionism plays only a secondary role in his account of how he received the concession for the Dead Sea minerals, and he rarely mentions it in his description of life in Russia before emigrating to Palestine. For example, when leaving Russia for Palestine in 1920, Novomeysky thought his move would be temporary. The main motives for his relocation were political changes in Russia and increased Jewish persecution there, rather than a sense of responsibility to actively participate in the building of a Jewish State.[17]

Once in Palestine, however, Novomeysky had to operate within the nexus between the British colonial power and the Zionist movement to be able to set up his company. Novomeysky’s PPL could not have been created without financial support from wealthy diaspora Zionists and the – implicit and explicit – assumption of Zionist leaders in Palestine and abroad that the company would add to the Jewish colonialists’ efforts at building a viable state.

Novomeysky’s position and his personal ambitions lead me to ask what would happen if we started reflecting upon individuals connected to the Zionist project in a more nuanced way? What if we conceptualize Zionism as a “soft” infrastructure, which shapes and deepens certain paths over others and creates an immaterial path-dependency? For example, Novomeysky saw his best chances of achieving his mineral extraction plans by operating within a Zionist framework. He cleverly made use of Zionist connections, support, and capital in order to build his enterprise. In doing so, however, he emphasized the technical side of his endeavor, not the political one. In fact, he went to great lengths to remain as apolitical as it was possible for a Jewish entrepreneur with an industry along a colonized borderland. In this position, Novomeysky became a sort of middleman between the Zionist leaders of the emerging Jewish state and the Jordanian authorities during the war of 1947–1948.[18]

However, this attempt at remaining apolitical cost Novomeysky his company after the creation of Israel, as the individuals and institutions he so proficiently kept sympathetic to his cause started turning on him. On the one hand, the Jordanians increasingly suspected him of making common cause with the Haganah and the Jewish Agency during the tension-filled days of the war.[19] On the other hand, the Israeli press launched a campaign against him in the early 1950s, accusing him of a lack of Zionist loyalty.[20] In the 1950s, PPL was nationalized as the Dead Sea Works and Novomeysky, never able to reestablish his hold over his former company, spent his retirement writing his memoirs, trying to protect his legacy.

Conclusion

The story of PPL is consequential for post-Ottoman geographies in two main ways. First, the company’s extraction of the Dead Sea minerals created a network of new infrastructures that significantly altered the landscape surrounding the lake, as well as the space between the lake and the Mediterranean coast and the city of Haifa. Second, reading Zionism as an immaterial infrastructure opens space for a more complex reading of the individual actors involved in the Zionist project. Even if these individuals were not deeply convinced by Zionism or did not have the creation of a state for the Jewish people as their main goal, operating within the Zionist system meant advancing its agenda. In the case of PPL, the political infrastructure of Zionism ultimately enabled the superimposition of material infrastructures onto the local landscape that was read as unproductive by the British and the Zionists.

I would like to conclude with two additional reflections that touch upon the present day, one being methodological and the other environmental. First, the infrastructure of Zionism is still meaningful, not just in everyday practice, but also in the historian’s work. I have gathered most of the sources for this research in the aptly named Central Zionist Archives in Jerusalem. I am aware that this easily accessible, structured, and thus very convenient ordering of source material influences my research and writing. Despite critical source analysis and reflection on my part, the result is an overemphasis on Jewish and Zionist sources to the detriment of Arab and Palestinian voices. I am myself to a certain degree operating within the Zionist infrastructure, which is now shaping history and turning the immaterial into the material again, as the systematized archiving of the movement adds to its overrepresentation in historical research, consolidating its power over memory and which stories we are able to tell.

Second, the area around the Dead Sea is in an environmental crisis. The sea level of the Dead Sea recedes by one meter every year due to the diversion of fresh water from the Jordan River and the building of a dam at the Sea of Galilee. In recent years, a new challenge has been added by the appearance of sinkholes – that is, holes in the ground that open suddenly and can swallow entire houses. To counter the lack of water in the area and improve the situation for both Jordanian farmers and the Israel tourist industry, the old idea of building a pipeline from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea has been rekindled. Negotiations about the pipeline are not well advanced yet, as the project faces substantial technical, financial, and political challenges.[21] I am not suggesting that all of today’s problems have their roots in the Dead Sea industry’s development during the Mandate years. However, I think it is useful to keep this episode of the Dead Sea’s history in mind when searching for solutions in order to avoid repeating past mistakes or favoring approaches based on ideology over ones based on environmental science.


References

[1] Jacob Norris, Land of Progress: Palestine in the Age of Colonial Development, 1905-1948, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 164, 166.

[2] For a detailed overview of the construction at the Dead Sea, see “Report by Novomeysky (Jerusalem, 14.02.1930)”, CZA (Central Zionist Archives), A406/225; and “The Dead sea chemical industry / by H. Raczkowski (Jerusalem, July 1934)”, National Library Israel, S (37 B 254).

[3] Norris, Land of Progress, 154; “‘Events leading up to the Scheme for the Development of the Mineral Resources of the Dead Sea’”, CZA, A316/38.

[4] “Letter from Novomeysky to Spicer (Jerusalem, 27.04.1937)”, CZA, A316/26; Norris, Land of Progress, p. 187.

[5] “Letter from Novomeysky to Hexter (10.03.1937)”, CZA, A316/34.

[6] “Letter from Novomeysky to Brodie (15.12.1938)”, CZA, A316/34.

[7] “Preliminary agreement and heads of concession for Palestine Potash Ltd. (1929)”, CZA, F43\14.

[8] Norris, Land of Progress, p. 187–188.

[9] Norris, Land of Progress, p. 108.

[10] Cyrus Schayegh, The Middle East and the Making of the Modern World, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2017).

[11] “Letter to John Chancellor (28.11.1930)”, Weston Library, 284/17.

[12] See Norris, Land of Progress, Chapter 4 for a detailed description of the process by which the concession was granted to Novomeysky.

[13] Norris, Land of Progress, Chapter 2.

[14] Fredrik Meiton, Electrical Palestine: Capital and Technology from Empire to Nation, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2019), p. 219.

[15] See, for example, “Letter from Novomeysky to Weizmann (17.11.1928)”, CZA, A316/17; “Letter from Novomeysky to Felix Warburg (27.05.1937)”, CZA, A316/18; “Letter from the Prime Minister of Transjordan to Novomeysky (12.06.1948)”, CZA, A316/28.

[16] Contrary to Fredrik Meiton, I think that this can be a valuable distinction. See Meiton, Electrical Palestine, p. 221 for why he thinks this question is anachronistic. For Novomeysky’s memoirs, see Moshe Novomeysky, Given to Salt: The Struggle for the Dead Sea Concession (Max Parrish: London, 1958) and Moshe Novomeysky, My Siberian Life (Max Parrish: London, 1956).

[17] Novomeysky, My Siberian Life, p. 322.

[18] See, for example, “Report about a visit to Amman (01.04.1948)”, CZA, A316/15; “Note on Mr. Novomeysky’s Interview with King Abdullah of Jordan on the 31st of August, 1949, in London”, CZA, A316/28.

[19] “‘Letter from the Prime Minister of Transjordan to Novomeysky (12.06.1948)’”, CZA, A316/28.

[20] “‘The Truth about the Dead Sea Concession’ by Novomeysky (New York, April 1950)”, CZA, A316/30; “‘The Fateful days of May, 1948 at the Dead Sea. My negotiations with the Trans Jordan Government’ by Novomeysky”, CZA, A316/31.

[21] Kevin Connolly, “Dead Sea drying: A new low-point for Earth”, BBC, 17 June 2016, last accessed on 13 July 2021.


Mona Bieling is a PhD student and Teaching Assistant at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva. She is currently working on her dissertation entitled “Landscape and Power in Mandate Palestine, 1917-1948”. Previously, Mona has worked as Research Assistant for the SNSF-funded project “The Myth of Homogeneity: Minority Protection and Assimilation in Western Europe, 1919-1939”. From October 2022 onwards, she will be a Rachel Carson Landhaus fellow


Further articles in the Infrastructures and Society in (Post-)Ottoman Geographies series on TRAFO:

Pauline Lewis, Imagining the Telegraph in the Ottoman Empire, 19 August 2021. 

Gabriel Doyle, Missionary Anxiety Along Ottoman Istanbul’s Railways, 28 July 2021.

Berin Gölönü, Cultivating Flowers and Loyal Subjects: A Case Study of the Işkodra Municipal Garden, 23 June 2021.

Camille Lyans Cole, Infrastructures of the Self in Late Ottoman Iraq, 17 May 2021.

Onur İnal, Tracks of Change: Labor, Nature, and the Izmir-Aydın Railroad, 28 April 2021.

Nurçin İleri, Ambitious yet Ambivalent: Electrical Infrastructure and Inequality in Early Republican Turkey, 13 April 2021.

İlkay Yilmaz, Photography as Policing Infrastructure During the Late Ottoman Empire, 11 March 2021.

İlkay Yilmaz, Infrastructures and Society in (Post-)Ottoman Geographies: Call for Contributions to the Series, 25 February 2021.


Citation: Mona Bieling, Palestine Potash Limited: Industrial Development in Mandatory Palestine and the Infrastructure of Zionism, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 08.09.2021, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/30714

 

 

 

 

 

 


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