Governing the Local Child: Infant Welfare Centers in Mandate Palestine

By Julia Shatz
Submitted to Session P4663 (Social Protection and Welfare Policies, 2016 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
In 1944, the mayor of Beit Jala wrote to the Director of Medical Services of Palestine, requesting an infant welfare center for his town. Such a center, the mayor argued, would greatly aid the progress of the town by teaching poor mothers the best methods of healthy childrearing. Infant welfare centers had begun to proliferate throughout Palestine from the mid-1920s, and the 1944 letter was not the first time someone in Beit Jala had petitioned for one to be established. In 1929, the district’s medical officer argued that town’s high infant mortality rates necessitated a clinic; in 1934, the mayor and local council had applied for a grant-in-aid from the government to help fund a center. By the mid-1940s, when Beit Jala finally established its infant welfare center, over eighty such institutions dotted Palestine’s landscape. Infant welfare, and the individuals and organizations involved in it, has not received much attention in the historiography of Mandate Palestine; yet examining the establishment and operation of infant welfare practices lends considerable insight into the on-the-ground social realties and political dynamics of Palestine in this period.
By looking at three such clinics in Palestine – in Beit Jala, Ramallah, and Jifna – this paper argues that infant welfare care was a contested relationship of power between different layers of a fragmented system of governance. The colonial government, foreign and local voluntary organizations, and individual local actors interacted collaboratively and adversely in establishing a child welfare regime. In the interwar period, as child welfare became a site of global interest and intervention, a truly transnational infant welfare system in Palestine grew out of local political and social networks and the multifocal power structures of an unevenly colonized society. Central to the development and operation of infant welfare centers were historically overlooked actors, such as the municipal council members, who petitioned for clinics or the Palestinian nurses, who ran them. Drawing on infant welfare center records from the Government of Palestine, the Palestinian press, and published memoirs and articles, this paper shows that local power dynamics, and the negotiations between them, determined the emergence of the infant welfare network. In centering the everyday realities of public health and infant care, this paper – and the dissertation from which it is drawn – seeks to elucidate the operation of social governance in a colonized and newly internationalized Middle East.