NOTE: There are a number of readers who are either confused or reading this post sloppily, including the headline. To clarify: there is a link to a Jonathan Cook piece at the end of this post which notes that the State of Israel irradiated both Arab Jewish and Palestinian children for ringworm. Hence the title of this post which uses the inclusive term, “Arab,” by which I include both Jewish and Palestinian children.
There are also those who claim that radiation was a standard treatment for ringworm inside and outside Israel in the 1950s. This too misconstrues the argument put forward in the film and here. While radiation may’ve been considered suitable for ringworm in that era, no one killed children with radiation outside of Israel. The dosage set by Dr. Sheba was far too high and the X-ray machines he used were outmoded and hence the dosage administered could not be calibrated accurately or administered suitably.
By the early 1950s, Israel had absorbed most of the Holocaust survivors and other immigrants from western countries. These were generally the preferred Ashkenazi Jews, who were the nation’s elite. It was then that Jews from Arab lands began arriving in great numbers. David Ben Gurion knew he needed great numbers of Jews to come to Israel in order to counter the demographic threat posed by Israel’s Palestinian population (those who hadn’t been expelled during the Nakba). That’s why he accepted and encouraged the Arab immigration, despite the fact that the newcomers’ Sephardi heritage was considered defective.
The 2004 documentary, The Ringworm Children, presents the historical context of this immigration and is dedicated to the greatest national medical scandal in the state’s history. During this early period, Israel looked with deep suspicion on the Arab olim. They were viewed not only as culturally inferior, but as reservoirs of disease. To be fair, these same views had been prominent in the U.S. during the heights of immigration to this country.
But unlike here, Israel allowed one senior health official, Dr. Chaim Sheba, to conduct a massive program of unnecessary medical treatments, at enormous expense, which actually killed many of the victims. At that time, many children developed ringworm, a non-lethal condition of fungal origin which affected the scalp. Unlike in other countries, 100,000 Jewish (and Palestinian) Arab children were irradiated in order to treat the condition. While medical protocol of the day directed that no technician receive a dose higher than .5 Roentgen, those treated could received a higher dose. A lethal dose was considered 200 Roentgen (R). The children treated received individual doses of 350R. Sometimes they received two doses (for a total of 600R). 6,000 of the victims died within the first year or so after treatment. To this day, many of the remaining victims suffer cancers, epilepsy, infertility and other brain disorders. Even their children have been impacted through genetic abnormalities passed on from one generation to the next.
When the scandal was first exposed in 1994, the government reacted by circling the wagons and refusing to admit fault or liability. Then activists pressured the government to pass a law demanding that the State take responsibility. It did so. But the law was not understood by the victims at the time, who didn’t realize that it was a Trojan Horse. It persuaded them that the State had finally accepted fault and that it would compensate for their suffering. But in reality, the law set hurdles so high, that very few survivors have been approved and received any compensation. They were forced to prove they were victims, and their treatment by the medical evaluation committees victimized them a second time. Those who agreed to accept the government’s conditions, could not appeal or sue once they had been denied. So almost no survivors chose to apply for compensation under the law.
Further, a senior health ministry official at the time of the passing of the Ringworm law, had secreted all of the Ringworm files in his personal archives. Thus he prevented anyone from gaining access to them: victims, their lawyers, doctors, even other government officials. When he died, the files were transferred to government archives. Current health ministry officials deliberately have not examined them because they don’t want to know what’s in them. Neither the victims nor their attorneys can gain access to them either.
This is a massive coverup, but one that is completely legal. The Supreme Court itself has refused to rule on the case, arguing that the Knesset law absolves the victims of any right to claim negligence on the part of the government’s medical officers. Meanwhile, Dr. Sheba has one of Israel’s major medical centers named for him and is considered one of the founding father’s of Israeli medicine. He founded the Tel Aviv University medical center and helped found those in Jerusalem and Haifa.
There is one further claim the film makes that brings it all back home to the U.S. The X-ray treatments provided by Israel were extremely expensive. The final cost was in the range of 400-million Israeli pounds, which at the time were equivalent to British pounds. That would put the cost at least $800-million and possibly even higher (in 1952 dollars). That means the project cost far more than the entire national budget. Israel obviously couldn’t afford such a massive expenditure. The filmmakers offer one possible explanation: that the U.S. government, which had just bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, needed an outlet to do radiation testing. We couldn’t or wouldn’t do such experiments here because American medical standards would not permit it. So American officials “farmed” the operation out to Dr. Sheba and the Israelis, who had no such ethical problems with it.
The Arab Jewish children were viewed as defective and undesirable to begin with by the Ashkenazi elite like Sheba. Here is a passage from an Israeli academic monograph on early scientific and medical approaches from the Mandate period that bore the marks of eugenics and reflected an attitude that Ashkenzai Jews were of superior racial stock to Sephardim:
In fact, medical discourse was an important mediator of Orientalist ideas to the Jews of Palestine. Public medicine was one of the main ﬁelds of regular interaction between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews during the Mandate period, and this was reﬂected in the presence of Mizrahi Jews in this discourse. It often depicted members of various Mizrahi communities as variations on a single type – they were described as primitive, superstitious, ignorant, neglectful of their children, passive,lacking drive and the will to change – in general, as an essentially different type, physically and mentally, from the immigrants from Europe
So these Mizrahi children were suitable as fodder for the greater good of medicine. Though Nazi medicine operated in a context of a plan to exterminate the Jewish race in Europe, the experiments performed in Israel were not dissimilar in nature. Sheba knew his radiation dosage would harm children, even kill them. It turns out it did so on a far larger scale than he may’ve imagined. But the subjects were deemed expendable, just as Jewish subjects of Nazi doctors were. And tens of thousands were killed, just as the Nazis did.
The film suggests another possible explanation–that Sheba, who came to the U.S. both to collect the X-ray machines that administered the treatment, also fundraised among American Jews for treating the Ringworm children. Though I doubt he raised anywhere near the sum mentioned above, it’s possible American Jews donated generously to this cause. This should be a warning to such donors today to examine carefully whatever projects they’re asked to fund.
To be fair to Israel, it wasn’t the only nation which performed what were essentially eugenics experiments. The Nazis did so and even the U.S., in the Tuskegee experiments, deliberately allowed syphilis victims to die untreated. The difference, as I noted above, is that the U.S. never engaged in such ghoulish medical experimentation on a national level and never with victims in such numbers. Further, when there were victims, they could come forward and demand justice.
Israel has essentially sealed off access to justice, thus creating a monstrous stain on its medical and moral legacy.
I want to raise a strong note of caution. There are those who view the Ringworm project as proof that Israel’s treatment of the children testified to its embrace of Nazi values. That is one bridge too far for me. It’s far better to note the sheer evil of the experiment and the suffering it induced without having to claim that it turned Israel into a Nazi state or that Zionism itself was a Nazi ideology.
H/t Jonathan Cook.
The Ringworm Children testing of large radiation doses on humans.
he documentary won the award for “Best Documentary” at the Haifa International Film Festival and was featured as a documentary at the Israel Film Festival in Los Angeles in 2007. It is claimed in the documentary that the X-ray radiation used on the children was thousands of times beyond the maximum recommended dose and it is suggested that the program was funded by the United States in order to test the effects of large radiation doses on humans. In fact, the treatment in Israel was the same that was used elsewhere in the world.
The documented dosages given to the Israeli children were similar to (if not less than) that administered to children treated for ringworm at New York University Hospital between 1940 and 1959. A study from the early 1950s found X-ray treatment effective in almost all cases of ringworm. The documentary alleges that 100,000 children were irradiated, and that 6,000 of them died shortly after receiving treatment. Many of the ‘ringworm children’ later developed cancer, and in 1994 the Knesset passed a law mandating the Israeli government to provide them with compensation
The ringworm affair refers to circumstances involving an alleged number of 20,000 to 200,000 Jewish individuals who were treated between 1948 and 1960 for tinea capitis (ringworm) with ionizing radiation to the head and neck area within Israel. The population suffering from the disease in Israel at the time was composed primarily of newly-arrived immigrants and populations who were expected to emigrate, mostly from North Africa, as well as some from Middle East and elsewhere, but many Jewish children were irradiated in their home countries regardless of their intent to emigrate.
The irradiation of Mizrahi children is viewed by activists in Israel as the most salient example of injustices encountered in the 1950s as a result of shortcomings or irresponsibility on the part of authorities in the absorption in Israeli society of new immigrants.
Ringworm in Israel and Jewish communities
The scalp ringworm, also known as tinea capitis, mycosis, thrichophytia, and favus, was one of the most common fungal diseases in children in the Jewish communities in Israel and abroad since the 19th century. This X-ray treatment for ringworm has been used around the world as early as 1897. An estimated 200,000 children worldwide received X-ray treatment for tinea capitis in accordance with the standard Adamson–Kienbock procedure between 1910 and 1959, until griseofulvin, the first effective antifungal agent for ringworm, was introduced.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem treated ringworm disease among the religious Jewish community in Jerusalem using irradiation and the disease almost disappeared.
With mass immigration in the 1940s and 1950s, many new cases of ringworm surfaced, primarily among immigrant children from Asia and North Africa, due to crowded living conditions with deficient hygiene facilities. At this time, ringworm was still treated with irradiation, under the supervision of Hadassah Medical Center (Prof. Dostrovsky and Prof. Drukman).
Unlike in other countries, 100,000 Jewish (and Palestinian) Arab children were irradiated in order to treat the condition. While medical protocol of the day directed that no technician receive a dose higher than .5 Roentgen, those treated could received a higher dose. A lethal dose was considered 200 Roentgen (R). The children treated received individual doses of 350R. Sometimes, they received two doses (for a total of 600R). 6,000 of the victims died within the first year or so after treatment. To this day, many of the remaining victims suffer cancers, epilepsy, infertility, and other brain disorders. Even their children have been impacted through genetic abnormalities passed on from one generation to the next.
The treatment regime increased the risk of cancerous and non-cancerous growths of the head and neck area years later among a portion of the patients. A number of research groups in Israel and the world have followed patients who were irradiated as children, in order to examine this group’s susceptibility to cancerous growths. In Israel, this study was led by Professor Baruch Modan, who published an article in the medical journal The Lancet in 1974, in which Modan determined a strong causal linkage between irradiation of ringworm patients and the appearance of growths on the head and neck.
In light of Modan’s findings, in 1994, the Knesset passed a law requiring the Israeli government to provide compensation for damage to health resulting from exposure to such ringworm treatment. Compensation was available to patients (or their next of kin) treated with irradiation for ringworm between January 1, 1946, and December 31, 1960, and diagnosed with certain diseases as stipulated in the legislation. The law, however, placed the burden of proof on the claimant to submit factual evidence substantiating that they had received treatment – a proviso that generated public criticism.
The Ringworm Children
A documentary film in Hebrew entitled The Ringworm Children (Hebrew: ילדי הגזזת; Yaldei Hagazezet), produced by the Dimona Communications Center and directed by Asher Nachmias and David Balchasan, was released in 2003. In 2007, the film received the Best Documentary Film Award at the Haifa International Film Festival and was featured as a documentary at the Israel Film Festival in Los Angeles. The documentary harshly attacked Israel’s medical establishment in the 1950s, branding the episode “the ringworm children’s holocaust” (shoat yaldei hagazezet). It also harshly criticized the compensation law and the politicians involved in its passage.
Treatment of ringworm patients is viewed by Mizrahi activists in Israel as the most salient example of injustices immigrants encountered in the 1950s as a result of shortcomings, negligence, paternalism, or irresponsibility on the part of Israeli authorities in the reception and absorption in Israeli society of new immigrants.
It is stated in the documentary that the X-ray radiation used on the children was thousands of times beyond the maximum recommended dose and it is suggested that the program was funded by the United States in order to test the effects of large radiation doses on humans.
The documentary states that 100,000 children were irradiated, and that 6,000 of them died shortly after receiving treatment. Therefore, the documentary alleged, the campaign against North African immigrants to Israel – prior to or following their arrival – was only part of an international phenomenon whose scope is still being uncovered.
In November 2018, the creator of the film, David Balchasan, stated in a television interview that the film was the result of “work that doesn’t meet the scientific criteria”, and that he “cannot stand behind it”, as he considers himself an “honest man”.
Research was conducted by medical historian Professor Shifra Shvarts, in the first decade of the 21st century, Shvarts followed a handful of parenthetical references to international organizations in Israeli primary documents, uncovering a wealth of archival material in Hadassah and United Nations archives and subsequently in the archives of a growing list of countries.
During the years 1921–1938, there was a campaign among Jews in Eastern Europe (that is, among Ashkenazi Jews) in the course of which some 27,000 East European children were irradiated – in part to allow their families to emigrate, since ringworm was grounds for exclusion of immigrants to the United States and elsewhere.
A key figure in formulation and organization of the ringworm campaign among the Jewish community in North Africa was Professor Moshe Prywes, who would later become president of Ben-Gurion University and the founding dean of BGU’s Medical School. Prywes traveled to North Africa in 1947; following his findings there, he formulated a comprehensive program for eradicating contagious diseases among those planning to immigrate to Israel. The program was called T.T.T., for the three leading diseases the program would address: Tinea (Ringworm), Trachoma, and Tuberculosis.
Parallel to irradiation for ringworm carried out during the 1950s in the State of Israel, irradiation for ringworm was also carried out among children in Yugoslavia (94,000), in Portugal (30,000), and in Syria (7,000). About 4,600 children were irradiated for the disease between the years 1922–1958 in just one hospital in London.
The primary agent behind these ringworm eradication operations was UNICEF, which even assisted in the purchase of X-ray machines for this purpose. It supplied the two X-ray machines that operated in the immigrant intake and processing facility for immigrants in Israel, Sha’ar Ha’aliyah, nowadays part of Haifa. With the development of the drug griseofulvin for treating ringworm, UNICEF, as part of its policy devoted to eradicating contagious diseases among mothers and children, began funding the supply of the drug to all countries with a high incidence of ringworm.
There is a question of how many children of Moroccan origin actually suffered health issues as a result of X-ray ringworm treatment in childhood. Estimates in the aforementioned documentary film claim there were a hundred thousand persons or more. Others go even farther: a non-profit organization, established in 1999 to organize former patients and to ensure their compensation, put the number of Mizrahi children irradiated at 200,000.
Reports submitted to UNICEF by the Israeli Ministry of Health, published in the medical news, state that the number of children treated with irradiation in Israel between 1948–1959 was approximately 15,000. Testimony exists that shows that children of Eastern European origin who were suspected of having ringworm were also irradiated. It is hard to know their numbers but they most likely numbered a few thousand. According to Giora Leshem, who was Professor Modan’s statistical partner in his 1974 study (based on the Cancer Registry), it seems that the number of Moroccans who were irradiated was in the vicinity of 15,000 children.
- Davidovich, Nadav; Zalashik, Rakefet (Sep 2011). “HEALTH, RACE AND NATION BUILDING: THE CASE OF MASS RINGWORM IRRADIATION IN ISRAEL”. Korot: 135. ISSN 0023-4109.
Ringworm treatment was not taking place only in Israel. Already abroad, either as part of the medical processing conducted before the arrival to Israel or as part of Jewish medical aid conducted by organizations such the JDC and OSE, Jewish children were screened and irradiated, if necessary. This time, the main group screened and irradiated was that of Jews emigrating from Muslim countries. After World War II, with the killing of the majority of European Jewry, the gaze of Jewish aid agencies shifted to the East. The JDC and OSE were very active in public health campaigns among the Jewish populations in Morocco, Libya, and Tunisia.
- Rosenthal r. :”perspectives in ringworm of the scalp”, Arch. Dermatol, vol 9, p 431-448 (1947)
- Shore RE, Moseson M, Xue X, Tse Y, Harley N, Pasternack BS (April 2002). “Skin cancer after X-ray treatment for scalp ringworm”. Radiat. Res. 157 (4): 410–8. doi:10.1667/0033-7587(2002)157[0410:SCAXRT]2.0.CO;2. ISSN 0033-7587. PMID 11893243.
- Dostrovsky, Ringworm in Jerusalem’s Schools, Education ( Ha’Chinuch, Hebrew) , 9(1926) (p. 98.).
- Modan B, Baidatz D, Mart H, Steinitz R, Levin SG (February 1974). “Radiation-induced head and neck tumours”. Lancet. 1(7852): 277–9. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(74)92592-6. PMID 4130470.
- Silverstein, Richard (2014-10-12). “The Ringworm Scandal: When Israeli Doctors Killed Tens of Thousands of Arab Children”. Tikun Olam תיקון עולם. Retrieved 2018-08-07.
- “חוק לפיצוי נפגעי גזזת, התשנ”ד-1994” (PDF).
- “THE RINGWORM CHILDREN (20th Anniversary Israel Film Festival)”. israelfilmfestival.com. Archived from the originalon 2004-04-22.
- “The Ringworm Children (FANDANGO)”. fandango.com. Archived from the original on February 11, 2010.
- Israel Insider – Ringworm and Radiation
- Shvarts S., “Israel Health Policy and the Ringworm Case 1948–1959: New Findings – New Context”, The 25th Association of Israel Studies Conference, Beer Sheva, June 2009
- Shvarts S.; Romem P.; Romem I.; Shani M. (2009). “The Forgotten Ringworm Campaign of OSE-TOZ in Poland, Harefua”. Journal of the Israel Medical Federation. 48 (4): 125–9. PDF (Hebrew)[permanent dead link]
- Prywes Moshe, Prisoner of Hope, Zmora-Bitan-Modan, Jerusalem 1995 (178–190)
- Grin E.I. :”Epidemiology and control of tinea capitis in Yugoslavia”, Trans St. Johns Hosp. Dermatol, vol 47, p. 109–122(1961)
- Shvarts S, Sevo G, Tasic M, Shani M, Sadetzki S (August 2010). “The tinea capitis campaign in Serbia in the 1950s”. Lancet Infect Dis. 10 (8): 571–6. doi:10.1016/S1473-3099(10)70107-9. PMID 20670904.
- Ignjatovic B. [Mycotic diseases in Serbia (Tinea Capitis): Modern Campaign on their eradication.] Antimycotic Campaign in Serbia. [Library of the Institute of Hygiene of the People’s Republic of Serbia.] Belgrade; 1959; 1–91. (In Serbian with English summary).
- Shanks S. C. :”X-ray epilation of the scalp at Goldie Leigh Hospital Woolwich (1922–1958), Br. J. Dermatol., vol 79, p 237-238 (1967)
- UNICEF Archives, CF/HST/MON/1989-003.