Immigrants, disease and the Zionist ethos
During the aliyah wave after the establishment of the state, the Yishuv was, to a large extent, terrified of the immigration of Jews from Arab countries.
Late last month, when Interior Minister Eli Yishai said the children of migrant workers in Israel are a danger to the Zionist ethos and threaten us by opening the gates to more migrant workers who carry diseases, I was busy doing research on the history of ringworm treatment at the Sha'ar Ha'aliya immigrant transit camp near Haifa. I found this interesting quote:
"The Yishuv [pre-state Jewish community] is silent with its indifference ... and doesn't even grasp the extent of the danger facing not only children and their households, but the entire public .... Today ringworm is not only in the ma'abarot [refugee camps] ... although it is found there in abundance. The truth is that today ringworm appears in every city and settlement. Metropolitan Tel Aviv is in fact surrounded by a belt of ringworm that is closing in .... The majority of the ill were new immigrants from Eastern countries; the overwhelming majority are from among the residents of the ma'abarot. But children of Ashkenazi ethnicity have already been seen [with the disease]." (Al Hamishmar, May 1955)
Clearly, the similarity to Mr. Yishai's own comments is striking: "Foreigners" threatening mainstream Israelis with their "dangerous" diseases. Where lies the significant difference between this quote from 1955 and the minister's statement from 2009? In 2009 the menacing presence is the children of migrant workers. In 1955 the menacing presence was "Mizrahim" [Jews of Middle Eastern descent].
During the aliyah wave after the establishment of the state, the Yishuv was - to a large extent - terrified of the immigration of Jews from Arab countries (as well as of Holocaust survivors, I might add). They were afraid of the many inevitable changes (demographic, religious, cultural and social) that these "foreign bodies" would bring to this "ideal" society in the works. And these fears were often expressed through the rhetoric of disease: "We must protect the Yishuv from the diseases they are bringing."
This theme is found over and over again in the archives. This connection between migrants and contagion is not unique to Israel. It can be found throughout the world and throughout history. More often than not, one finds that it is an irrational fear of the "other" cloaked in the authoritative language of health and medicine.
Yishai's current use of this rhetoric is both ironic and alarming. The irony is that a person who is proud and vocal about his "Mizrahi" heritage would resort to the same discriminatory, inflammatory rhetoric that was so painfully used against "Mizrahim" in the past, including - in all likelihood - Yishai's own family.
The alarm is that, coming from the interior minister, this rhetoric is no longer just inflammatory, but also dangerous; it instills irrational fear in the minds of the public and encourages further discrimination against an already socially marginalized group.
Much wisdom is to be gained from historical knowledge. In this case we have seen that a child whose "diseases" threaten the State of Israel can overcome this irrational stigma to obtain great achievements.
Just imagine - he can even become interior minister.
The writer, a historian of public health, wrote her PhD on the quarantine of immigrants to Israel at Sha'ar Ha'aliya. She teaches at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.