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April 23, 2014 9:33 am

The Origins of Palestinian Refugee Relief Efforts (REVIEW)

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avatar by Jonathan Adelman

On Sept. 5, 2011. Palestinian boys raise their hands during one of the first classes of the new academic year, at a school in Gaza supported by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). UN Photo/Shareef Sarhan.

Romirowsky and Joffe’s book Religion, Politics and the Origins of Palestine Refugee Relief is an important volume for those interested in truly understanding the origins of the Palestinian refugee issue. Utilizing a treasure trove of newly released documents, the authors link UNRWA’s (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine) origins to the Quakers/American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). For those readers who thought they knew most of the Middle East story, Romirowsky and Joffe’s version provides another twist. The authors meticulously show how prior to UNRWAs founding in 1949, the AFSC played a leading role and influence in decisions and choices.

It turns out that for the first ten years of UNRWA’s existence, repatriation of Palestinian refugees to Israel was of no interest. Numerous surprising actors from the U.S. State Department, the United Nations (UN), the AFSC and multiple Arab interest groups believed that Palestinians who left when Israel declared statehood, would be absorbed into surrounding Arab territories. More complicated was the process of identifying and defining refugee status given the frenetic frauds perpetrated by non-Israeli Bedouins, riot victims, inflated child counts and those who never resided in Israel e.g. Bedouins. Factor in religion, Holocaust memory and instead of a welcoming by neighboring Arab nations, refugee status is conferred and a politics of Palestinians is born.

A highly polemical literature, Romirowsky and Joffe found supporting documentation in recently declassified materials. The authors show at great lengths how the Cold War and defeat in the Israeli War of Independence continued to bode ill decision-making.

There are several surprising insights e.g. US policy initially favoring Palestinian resettlement outside of Israel, the Quakers as critical of Palestinians often addressing resettlement instead of Israeli repatriation or how pre-1948 personal relationships between both groups were becoming political and polarized.

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The old Washington DC adage–nothing is so permanent as the temporary seems to apply to UNWRA– though the authors could have made even stronger conclusions with their observations. When one had completed Religion, Politics and the Origins of Palestine Refugee Relief and understands the early days of the Arab-Israeli struggle, they will no longer look at the plight of the Palestinians refugees in quite the same way.

Jonathan Adelman is a professor of political science at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver. He is the author of several publications including The Rise of Israel (Routledge, 2008) and Hitler and his Allies in World War II (Routledge, 2007). He can be contacted via email– [email protected].

This article was originally published by the Journal for the Study of Antisemitism.

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