Elusive Neutrality: Christian Humanitarianism and the Question of Palestine, 1948–1967


Writing at the end of World War II, the veteran British aid worker Francesca Wilson, whose long career on behalf of the Quakers had already spanned three decades, foresaw a momentous change in the course of the humanitarian movement. Although religious organizations remained key actors in the delivery of emergency help to millions of war refugees in Europe, she believed that a “non-proselytising impulse” was now ushering humanitarianism into a distinctively secular phase.1 Wilson took notice of this transformation as an employee of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) in occupied Germany: the gospel spread by the mammoth agency created in Atlantic City in November 1943 to assist European civilians dislocated by the war was that of “rehabilitation,” a concept closer to New Deal welfare philosophy than traditional Christian charity. Indeed, as recent scholarship has shown, humanitarianism took a secular turn during World War II and its immediate aftermath. “Increasingly planning-minded and influenced by states and their interests,” the new humanitarianism born out of the war blurred many of the traditional differences separating confessional and secular aid agencies.2 To be sure, large religious relief organizations continued to fulfill vital responsibilities in postwar Germany. A survey conducted in 1953 revealed that 90 percent of the assistance provided to refugees in the Federal Republic emanated from Catholic and Protestant aid agencies.3 Moreover, the onset of the Cold War prompted new American evangelical organizations such as World Vision, founded in 1950 to help displaced Korean children, to enter the fray of humanitarianism in order to contain the antireligious threat posed by communism worldwide. Yet even when they aligned themselves with American Cold War strategy, faith-based aid agencies followed a path identical to that of their secular counterparts: extending their activities beyond the realm of medical or material relief, both types turned to “development,” the leitmotif of Western foreign aid in the Third World from the 1950s to the 1970s.4

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