The Ringworm Scandal: When Israeli Doctors Killed Tens of Thousands of Arab Children
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 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.