Meiton, Fredrik. “Electrifying Jaffa: Boundary-Work and the Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict.” Past & Present (early view; online first).
In the summer of 1923 the Russian-born Jewish engineer Pinhas Rutenberg threw the switch at Mandate Palestine’s first electrical distribution system, lighting up a portion of Allenby Street in Tel Aviv. It was the first step in an endeavour that, according to Rutenberg, was ‘destined to become the most important instrument for the sound development of the country’. The local British government in Jerusalem agreed, as did Whitehall. Major Hubert Young of the Middle East Department predicted that ‘the successful inauguration of Mr. Rutenberg’s schemes will do more than anything else to pacify Palestine, facilitate immigration, and develop the country’. The excitement was echoed among Tel Aviv’s Jewish residents. To them, the roadside pylons could not multiply fast enough. To the Palestinians in neighbouring Jaffa, however, the grid’s expansion was a mixed blessing. The high-tension cable wound its way into town with promises of modernity and the creature comforts of civilized life, but it also signalled the encroachment of Jewish nationalism on Arab Palestine. A significant portion of the Palestinian Arab community was staunchly opposed to Rutenberg’s electrification, and a few weeks before the lights went on along Allenby Street, an angry crowd made its way through the city chanting ‘The lamp-posts of Rutenberg are the gallows of our nation’.
This article argues that electrification played a part in making Palestine an object of nationalist contention, and that properties of the technology itself had a fundamental and lasting impact on the character and strategies of both Zionism and Palestinian nationalism. Far from being part of a neutral backdrop, then, the process of electricity generation and distribution was inherently political.