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Public Health in Pre-State Israel

Yeshiva University Archives. Israeli Broadside Collection.

Look at the lively, healthy-looking girl surrounded by a circle of sunlight crowning the title of the poster: she is a radiant picture of health. In this image, the sun’s corona, symbolizes light and well-being. The term corona, the Latin word for crown, has positive associations; in the current crisis it has been turned upside-down; it denotes coronavirus, the virus with a spiky crown. the unknown murky surreal universe of COVID-19 the world has recently entered.

How has the world handled earlier public health crises?

“Don’t sleep on soft feather bedding which promotes sweating; sleep on a hard mattress stuffed full of horsehair or seaweed.” “Check your bedding thoroughly once a week for fleas or flea eggs. If you find any, exterminate them immediately.” “Put out your pillows, sheets, blankets, and mattress outside in the sun every morning to air them out.”

This health advice is from the Hebrew poster featuring the girl, entitled: “The Ten Commandments of Personal Hygiene” = עשרת הדברות לנקיון הגוף. It was distributed by the Va’ad Shavua Ha-Beri’ut, the Health Week Committee. Health Week took place in November 1924, under the auspices of the Va’ad Ha-Beri`ut, the Health Committee established by the 12th Zionist Council in 1922.

The ten commandments in this poster actually numbered forty; four categories with ten “commandments” in each section, much like the rabbis who counted the ten plagues in the Haggadah and then tried to outdo one another in multiplying the count. Indeed, the four groups listed on the poster -- sleeping, eating and drinking, breathing, and skin care -- encompassed general health in addition to personal hygiene, and were embodied in the figure of the glowing girl. The broadside was directed to children (and their parents); a chart at the foot of the flyer defined the daily schedule for children from ages six to fourteen and the commandments were designed to inculcate healthy habits in the young.

Other 1924 Health Week publications offered health advice to adults as well as children; additional materials for the public included educational flyers such as: “Beware of Dysentery!” ! השמרו מדיסנטריה, “Beware of Typhoid!” השמרו מטיפוס-המעים !, and “To War on Tuberculosis!,” למלחמה בשחפת !

The tenor of the titles of the booklets is indicative of the grave public health situation and the diseases which raged rampant in Palestine when the British took charge of the area, after they defeated the Turkish Armies close to the end of the First World War. The British administration in Palestine (1918-1948) set up a Department of Public Health which issued multilingual health advisories and directives in English, Hebrew, Arabic, and French, to communicate effectively with the different populations in the region. These are quotations from Department of Public Health notices: “The epidemic of this disease now existing can only be controlled by the active co-operation of each member of the community.” … “Crowded rooms and trains and all crowds in closed spaces should be avoided as far as possible.” … Are these quotes from the instructions for the Great Influenza Pandemic (1918-1920) or coronavirus, COVID-19? Another quote from the same source provides a clue: “The public is advised, when staying at hotels, to insist on the provision of a freshly washed mosquito net on arrival.” These are examples from undated posters distributed by the British Mandatory authorities a century ago during the Great Influenza Pandemic (1918-1920); much of the advice to “deal with cases of infectious disease: influenza,” is still applicable to the current coronavirus pandemic.

Yeshiva University Archives. Israeli Broadside Collection.
Yeshiva University Archives. Israeli Broadside Collection.

In addition to the public health information in the broadsides, the Hebrew used is indicative of the state of the language in an age of renewal. The Hebrew word for influenza, printed in large letters on the flyer, is shapa’at (שפעת) a term coined by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda in 1893, based on the word hashpa’ah, influence, since the etymology of “influenza” is traced to unfavorable astrological influences. The Academy of the Hebrew Language recently posted a discussion on their website about how to say coronavirus in Hebrew - negif koronah - and explained why they are not creating a Hebrew name for the virus. A folk etymology for “corona” is from the Hebrew word “keren,” with its dual meanings, an animal horn, a sort of a crown; and a ray, generally referring to a ray of light, bringing us full circle to the joyous little girl prancing in the midst of the sun’s halo.

The girl’s optimistic stance brings to mind the words of the prophet Zechariah (8:4-5), who foresaw a tranquil, peaceful future time in Jerusalem, when elderly men and women will sit outside clutching their canes … and the street will be full of boy and girls playing. Let us hope this positive vision will be fulfilled soon, in Jerusalem and the world over.

Sources and additional reading:

Hadassah and Kupat Cholim: The Control of Health Services in the Yishuv / Rubin Schindler. In: Journal of Jewish Communal Service, v. 56, no. 1, Fall 1979, p. 89-95.

Public health, culture, and colonial medicine: smallpox and variolation in Palestine during the British Mandate / Nadav Davidovitch and Zalman Greenberg. In: Public health reports (Washington, D.C. : 1974) vol. 122,3 (2007): 398-406. doi:10.1177/003335490712200314


Posted by Shulamith Z. Berger