Failed Religious Diplomacy at the Birth of Israel

March 31, 2014 Topic: ReligionSociety Region: IsraelPalestinian territories

Failed Religious Diplomacy at the Birth of Israel

Well-meaning Protestant aid groups tried, and failed, to keep the peace in Jerusalem.

Events on the ground fast outstripped the ability of any party, much less the Quakers, to control them. The second wave of Palestine Arab flight was well underway in advance of the British withdrawal and the creation of Israel. Israel declared independence on May 14th and was invaded by Arab armies the next day. A truce that had been arranged on May 2nd collapsed on May 15th, and it would not be until June 11th that United Nations Mediator Folke Bernadotte was able to arrange another. Quaker intervention had failed utterly. But in June 1948 Rufus Jones died, leaving Clarence Pickett as the most famous American Quaker and fully in charge of the AFSC. This was to be a fateful turn.

THE AFSC’S RELIGIOUS DIPLOMACY IN 1948 and decision to participate in refugee relief must also be placed in the larger context of interdenominational Protestant politics in the aftermath of the Holocaust, and the broader influence of Protestant clergy, especially missionaries, on the course of American foreign policy. A few mainstream American Protestant leaders like Reinhold Niebuhr were favorable toward Zionism and the creation of Israel, in contrast to Roman Catholics who were vigorously opposed.But as noted earlier, those liberal American Protestant denominations with connections and institutions in the Holy Land and Jerusalem were also opposed to Israel.

For the Anglicans, the partition of Palestine was a theological and practical calamity. Their theology was firmly based on the idea that Judaism had been superseded and that Christians, particularly Anglicans and Episcopalians, comprised the “true Israelites” who would lead the redemption of the Holy Land in the name of Christianity. Anglican theology was rife with anti-Semitism, and regarded Judaism as a barbaric, antiquated, and inferior faith, while Zionism was seen as materialistic, hyper-nationalist, and vaguely Bolshevik. The Holy Land in general, and Jerusalem specifically, were regarded as unique spaces imbued with sanctity which should be dominated by no faith or denomination, although Anglicans, by virtue of their higher creed and universalist calling, were in the position to lead and guide others. Any division of Palestine was fundamentally unnatural, particularly if it benefited the Jews. This was a view shared by Western oil companies, the U.S. State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency, many of whose personnel came from Protestant missionary backgrounds.

Having been at the forefront of relief efforts for Armenian Christians before World War I and during the 1915 genocide and thereafter, Anglicans, as well as Congregationalists, who had built many of the American Protestant institutions in the Middle East, saw ominous parallels with the fate of Palestine Arab refugees. Anglicans also saw the church institutions and congregations they had carefully built in Palestine under British imperial control, and their nominal leadership of Palestinian Christianity, threatened by the political upheaval being forced on them, in their view, by the Jews.

As an historic peace church, however, the Quakers and by extension the AFSC, were placed in a difficult situation by events in the Middle East. Quakers were fundamentally different than Anglicans, Episcopalians and Congregationalists with respect to elements of Christian theology, such as the inerrant nature of Scripture, sacraments, and the need for clergy. But they shared theological assumptions regarding Jews and Judaism with other Protestant denominations, such as supersessionism and millenarianism. The fundamental Quaker notion of the “inner light,” where the individual’s conscience was guided by the presence of God within, also held collectivist and exclusionary ideologies such as nationalism in disdain.

At the same time, the AFSC’s wartime experiences had indeed given them a unique relationship with American and, and in a different way, European Jews and Jewish institutions. The organization had also endorsed the 1947 Partition of Palestine, a move that was well-received by most American Jewish organizations but which put them at odds with other Protestants and with Quakers in Palestine. Squaring this circle would not be easy.

The AFSC had begun to assume a prominent voice in the American Protestant community, thanks both to their long work at refugee relief and rehabilitation and specific efforts during and after World War II to shape public and Protestant opinion. Among other things, the necessity to participate in the debate over the Middle East that was raging in American Protestant circles, and a quiet need for the leadership to try and compensate for the multiple failures of early 1948, appear to have driven the AFSC towards deeper involvement in Palestine Arab refugee relief.

Asaf Romirowsky is a Middle East historian. He holds a PhD in Middle East and Mediterranean Studies from King's College London, UK and has published widely on various aspects of the Arab-Israeli conflict and American foreign policy in the Middle East, as well as on Israeli and Zionist history. He lives in Philadelphia.

Alexander H. Joffe is an archaeologist and historian. He holds a PhD in Near Eastern Studies from the University of Arizona, USA and has published widely on topics in archaeology, ancient and modern history, and contemporary politics. He lives in New York.