Review: Religion, Politics, and the Origins of Palestine Refugee Relief

“Religion, Politics, and the Origins of Palestine Refugee Relief” by Asaf Romirowsky & Alexander Joffe (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). ISBN: 1137378166.

On the surface, this impressive scholarly work looks narrow in scope: it examines the brief role played by the Quakers in providing relief for the Arab refugees created after the Arab invasion of the newly established State of Israel, work which lasted only from 1948-50 and focused only on the Gaza Strip. But along the way it contains some important broader lessons, and offers many poignant insights about the Israeli-Palestinian-Jewish-Arab-Muslim conflict (my term) in general and the political dimension of the refugee problem in particular.

For some background: Since its creation in late 1949, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) has devoted itself to maintaining specifically the Arab refugees above (and their descendants), providing them health, welfare, and education services as well as being a major source of their employment, while all other refugees from all other global conflicts fall under the purview of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Much has been written about the problematic history of UNRWA and its active promotion of the anti-Israel Palestinian narrative, including the infamous “Right of Return” according to which Palestinian Arabs and their generations of descendants are allegedly entitled to return to territory that is now the State of Israel.

Far less well known is that the international community initially provided relief to the Arab refugees through very different means.

In December 1948, the U.N. asked three organizations, the Quakers’ American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the League of Red Cross Societies, to provide relief. The AFSC was assigned to the Gaza Strip. It is the AFSC story that is explored in this book, and it in particular offers important lessons regarding the roads not taken in UNRWA’s later, and now seemingly permanent, relief effort.

Leaving aside the book’s many carefully researched details about AFSC’s work, consider just this single passage, from a March 1949 AFSC document prepared for the U.N. just two months after AFSC had been in the field:

Following a review of the refugee situation in Palestine generally and more particularly in the Gaza Strip, the AFSC wishes to state its position regarding the continuance of the refugee relief program. The AFSC wishes to withdraw from direct refugee relief in the Gaza Strip at the earliest possible moment compatible with the fulfillment of its moral obligation to the refugee population. It is obvious that prolonged direct relief contributes to the moral degeneration of the refugees and that it may also, by its palliative effects, militate against a swift political settlement of the problem. (p. 86)

This remarkable early passage, Romirowsky and Joffe suggest, “is perhaps the single most perceptive statement made with respect to Palestine refugee relief across some six decades” (87). For one thing, the AFSC acknowledges what it sees as a moral obligation to the refugees, one which derives both from their general Quaker outlook as well as from their short time developing personal relationships with the refugee population. Yet at the same time they remain adamant that their commitment was to be limited in duration, for fear of both contributing to the “moral degeneration” of the refugees and to forestalling a “political settlement” of the problem, namely the Arab-Israeli conflict.

How prescient these remarks seem, nearly 68 years later.

By becoming a perpetual welfare organization, UNRWA has now produced several generations of dependent people who feel absolutely entitled to the aid that the world bestows upon them—a concern that we now learn was fully apparent at the beginning, as ASFC field reports document both the refugees’ “strong feelings” that the U.N. “has the total responsibility to feed, house, clothe” them and the occurrence of refugee “demonstrations” demanding that U.N. “compensate” them and “maintain” them.

More importantly, the AFSC saw immediately that the refugees were being used in the service of political agendas. After its extensive work in global refugee relief after World War Two the AFSC understood the importance of resettlement and rehabilitation: that is, of finding the refugees new, permanent homes and equipping them to make a living. Their efforts to this end in Gaza, however, were repeatedly foiled, as revealed in internal AFSC documents. The Egyptians (for example) had a policy, one staffer notes, of refusing

all requests for refugee transfer out of the Gaza Strip, even for individuals called to a specific employment opportunity … The policy is in fact … a reflection of some obscure notion that “possession” of 200,000 Gaza refuges is some sort of lever in international bargaining. (139)

More generally, he reported, “The Arab Governments do not want the refugee problem solved on its merits, and will willingly accept solution only if their political price is met” (140).

To this day the Arab world continues to refuse to resettle these refugees—now, via their descendants, numbering in the many millions—in order to use them as “levers” in their ongoing battle against the Jewish state.

In similar ways AFSC communications document the difficulties in formulating definitions of “refugee,” the widespread fraud that was present in the registration of refugees, and the problem that internationally supported schools were being used to brainwash Arab children with hateful anti-Israel propaganda. It was largely because the AFSC objected to such a corrupt, and apparently unending, relief system that it chose to exit from Arab refugee relief in 1950. Meanwhile the organization that inherited the task—UNRWA—has gone on to propagate these problems, exactly as the AFSC feared.

Today, unfortunately, the AFSC leverages its history and past good work in order to contribute to the global battle against Israel. The AFSC’s support for the BDS movement is one element. Another is the way in which anti-Israel radicalism are introduced into Quaker schools through the intellectual leadership provided by the AFSC. The many local Quaker fellowships around the country, although greatly reduced in number from their 20th-century heyday, are important tools for the AFSC to shape local BDS efforts, usually in association with other Christian, pro-Palestinian, and “anti-war” groups. All this is predicated on a distinguished history that the AFSC both leverages and disregards.

Romirowsky and Joffe have done a terrific job shedding light on a previously unilluminated corner of this intractable conflict, in so doing making crystal clear some key lessons that should have been, but were not, learned.


About the Author
Andrew Pessin is Professor of Philosophy at Connecticut College, Campus Bureau Editor at The Algemeiner, and author most recently of the novel, "The Irrationalist," based on the difficult life and mysterious death of the famous philosopher, René Descartes. For more information, visit
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