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Governing Global Children: Child Welfare in Palestine, 1917-1950


This dissertation examines the construction of a regime of child welfare initiatives in interwar Palestine and the organizations, networks, and individuals that promoted them. In exploring the different arenas in which poor children were brought into systems of aid and care, it argues that child welfare in Mandate Palestine was part of a new form of transnational welfare governance in the twentieth century. My dissertation shows how this form of governance was predicated upon new relationships between local and global forces and born out of mixed economy of care in a colonial setting. The child welfare initiatives described in this narrative created both political spaces in which Palestinians asserted claims to governance and new political subjectivities of the child and those tasked with his or her care.

Movements for child welfare reform gained international attention in the years following the First World War. Through international organizations, such as Save the Children, and the novel infrastructure of the League of Nations, the child rose to prominence as a new global subject of governance. This dissertation shows, however, that the globalization of the child and childhood emanated from the particularities of local power relationships in the socio-political conditions of a twentieth-century imperial world order. Using sources from seventeen archives across four countries, this dissertation tells the story of transnational child welfare projects from the perspectives of the cities, towns, and villages of Palestine.

In Mandate Palestine, child welfare encompassed a variety of projects, including public health education, juvenile delinquency reform, and child rescue initiatives. These concerns reflected both global discussions about child development and pre-existing infrastructures of welfare from the late Ottoman period. Although the ideologies of governing children were premised on a form of imperial biopolitics, the structure of child welfare in Palestine did not arise solely from the British colonial administration. Rather, child welfare projects were undertaken by a diffuse network of actors, which included missionaries, philanthropists, government officials, nurses, social workers, local political leaders, and parents.

The first chapter of this study analyzes the landscape of humanitarian aid in Palestine in the wake of the First World War. Several Anglo-American aid organizations arrived in Palestine to provide relief in the interim years between the war’s end and the establishment of a British civil government. The welfare network they established in those years both enshrined the child as a primary subject of humanitarian aid and laid the foundations for the social welfare system of the incoming colonial government. The second chapter examines the rise of a network of health clinics for infants and children across Palestine in the 1920s and 1930s. Based on emerging global discourses of scientific childrearing, these clinics became political spaces in which Palestinian nurses and local leaders claimed authority and expertise. The third chapter follows the construction of a juvenile justice system over the period of the Mandate. Using records of the colonial government and petitions from parents of juvenile defendants, it examines how childhood was defined and negotiated by a multitude of actors in the legal system. The final chapter traces the emergence of a network of local and foreign organizations that were formed to care for children orphaned or made refugees by the 1936-1939 Revolt and the 1948 war. By looking at the growing web of Palestinian Arab social welfare institutions of the early 1940s and the development of international aid following 1948, this chapter traces the continuities and changes in child welfare in an era of decolonization, refugees, and human rights.

Drawing on archival work in Israel/Palestine, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, and the United States, this study connects the socio-political history of Palestine during the Mandate period to transnational and global studies of humanitarianism, aid, and empire. By integrating Palestine’s local and regional history into these broader discussions, it makes a case for seeing Palestine as a generative site of global history. At the same time, in focusing on childhood, welfare, and regimes of care, this study reclaims the social realm as an important and understudied arena of Palestinian history.

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