'Do not have children if they won't be healthy!'
By TAMARA TRAUBMANN*
(11 June 2004) -- A SHOCKING new study reveals how key figures in the pre-state Zionist establishment proposed castrating the mentally ill, sterilizing the poor and doing everything possible to ensure reproduction only among the `best of people.'
Castrating the mentally ill, encouraging reproduction among families "numbered among the intelligentsia" and limiting the size of "families of Eastern origin" and "preventing ... lives that are lacking in purpose" -- these proposals are not from some program of the Third Reich but rather were brought up by key figures in the Zionist establishment of the Land of Israel during the period of the British Mandate. It turns out there was a great deal of enthusiasm here for the improvement of the hereditary characteristics of a particular race (eugenics). This support, which has been kept under wraps for many years, is revealed in a study that examines the ideological and intellectual roots at the basis of the establishment of the health system in Israel.
These are some of the findings of a doctoral thesis written by Sachlav Stoler-Liss about the history of the health services in the 1950s, under the supervision of Prof. Shifra Shvarts, head of the department of health system management at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. They were presented at the annual conference of the Israel Anthropological Association at Ben-Gurion College.
The father of the theory of eugenics was British scholar Francis Galton. It was he who coined the term -- which literally means "well-born" -- at the end of the 19th century. The aim of the eugenics movement was to better the human race. Galton proposed a plan to encourage reproduction among "the best people" in society and to prevent reproduction among "the worst elements."
Between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, Galton drew many followers and his ideas spread rapidly to other countries in Europe (among them Germany, France, Italy, Denmark, Sweden and Belgium), to the United States and to some countries in South America. In various countries laws were passed that allowed for the forced sterilization of "hereditary paupers, criminals, the feeble-minded, tuberculous, shiftless and ne'er-do-wells." In the United States, up until 1935, about 20,000 people -- "insane," "feeble-minded," immigrants, members of ethnic minorities and people with low IQs -- were forcibly sterilized, most of them in California. The Californian law was revoked only in 1979. According to Dr. Phi lip Reilly, a doctor and executive director of the Shriver Center for Mental Retardation, in 1985 at least 19 states in the United States had laws that allowed the sterilization of people with mental retardation, (among them Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Minnesota, Mississippi, North and South Carolina, Vermont, Utah and Montana).
"Eugenics is considered to be something that only happened in Germany," says Stoler-Liss. "Germany was indeed the most murderous manifestation of eugenics, but in fact it was a movement that attracted many followers. In every place it took on a unique, local aspect. It is interesting to note that both in Germany and in Israel a link was made between eugenics, health and nationalism."
Stoler-Liss first encountered the eugenics texts of doctors from the Yishuv when looking for instruction books for parents for a research project for her master's degree. "I presented a text at a thesis seminar and then the instructor of the workshop said to m e, `But why aren't you saying that this is a translated text?' I replied: `No, no, the text isn't translated.' `In Israel,' he said, `there are no such things.'"
One of the most prominent eugenicists of the Mandatory period was Dr. Joseph Meir, a well-known doctor who acquired his education in Vienna, served for about 30 years as the head of the Kupat Holim Clalit health maintenance organization, and after whom the Meir Hospital in Kfar Sava is named. "From his position at the very heart of the Zionist medical establishment in the land of Israel in the mid-1930s, he brought young mothers the gospel of eugen ics, warned them about degeneracy and transmitted the message to them about their obligation and responsibility for bearing only healthy children," says Stoler-Liss.
Thus, for example, in 1934 Dr. Meir published the following text on the first page of "Mother and Child," a guide for parents that he edited for publication by Kupat Holim:
"Who is entitled to give birth to children? The correct answer is sought by eugenics, the science of improving the race and preserving it from degeneration. This science is still young, but its positive results are already great and important -- These cases [referring to marriages of people with hereditary disorders -- T.T.] are not at all rare in all nations and in particular in the Hebrew nation that has lived a life of exile for 1,800 years. And now our nation has returned to be reborn, to a natural life in the land of the Patriarchs. Is it not our obligation to see to it that we have whole and healthy children in body and soul? For us, eu genics as a whole, and the prevention of the transmission of hereditary disorders in particular, even greater value than for all other nations! ... Doctors, people involved in sport and the national leaders must make broad propaganda for the idea: Do not have children if you are not certain that they will be healthy in body and soul!"
'Problematic and dangerous'
In its full version, the article, which was published in the "Health Guard" section of the now defunct labor Zionist newspaper Davar, the doctor proposed castrating the mentally ill. Stoler-Liss found many more examples in the "Mother and Child" books that were published in 1934 and 1935 and in journals like Eitanim, which was edited by Dr. Meir.
"The support of Dr. Meir and other senior people in the health system for these ideas has been kept under wraps for many years," claims Stoler-Liss. No one today talks about this chapter in the history of the Yishuv. In the mid-1950s Dr. Meir's articles were collected into a book that came out in his memory. The article mentioned above was not included in it. Stoler-Liss found a card file with notes scribbled by the editors of the volume. They defined the article as "problematic and dangerous." "Now, after Nazi eugenics," wrote one of the editors, "it is dangerous to publish this article."
During the latter part of the 1930s, adds Stoler-Liss, when word came out about the horrors that eugenics in its extreme form is likely to cause, they stopped using this word, which was attributed to the Nazis. Overnight eugenics organizations and journals changed their names and tried to shake off any signs of this theory. Dr. Meir, however, during all the years he was active, continued to promote the ideas of eugenics. At the beginning of the 1950s he published an article in which he harshly criticized the reproduction prize of 100 lirot that David Ben-Gurion promised to every mother who gave birth to 10 children. "We have no interest in the 10th child or even in the seventh in poor families from the East ... In today's reality we should pray frequently for a second child in a family that is a part of the intelligentsia. The poor classes of the population must not be instructed to have many children, but rather restricted."
"I'm not making a value judgment," says Stoler-Liss. "Zionism arose at a certain period, in a certain ideological atmosphere -- there were all kinds of ideas in the air and there were also eugenicist Zionists. Some of the doctors were educated in Europe, and at that time the medical schools taught not only medicine but also the theory of eugenics."
Judaism of muscle
Dr. Meir was not the first Zionist leader who supported eugenics. According to studies by Dr. Rapahel Falk, a geneticist and historian of science and medicine at Hebrew University, other major Zionist thinkers -- among them Dr. Max Nordau, Theodor Herzl's colleague, a doctor and a publicist, and Dr. Arthu r Ruppin, the head of the World Zionist Organization office in the Land of Israel -- presented the ideas of eugenics as one of the aims of the Jewish movement for national renewal and the settlement of the land.
"Many people dealt with eugenics as a theoretical issue," says Stoler-Liss. "They even set up a Nordau Club with the aim of researching the racial aspects of the Jewish people and ways of improving it. What was special about Dr. Meir and the group that joined him was that for them eugenics was a very practical matter." They wanted to pursue applied eugenics.
"Gynecologist Miriam Aharonova also wrote extensively on the subject of eugenics," adds Stoler-Liss. "In articles for parents under headings such as `The Hygiene of Marriage' she gives a list of eugenic instructions for parents -- from the recommended age for giving birth (between 20 and 25), to the recommended difference in age between the father and the mother (the reason for which is the betterment of the race) to a list of diseases that could infect the spouse or "be transmitted through heredity to their descendents after them." In the diseases, she mentions "syphilis, gonorrhea, tuberculosis, alcoholism, narcotics addiction (fondness for morphine, cocaine, etc.) and diseases of the mind and the nerves." In the volume of "Mother and Child" published in 1935, s ays Stoler-Liss, the publication and discussions by doctors who supported eugenics was greatly expanded. Why, in fact, did they not use force? The establishment had a great deal of power over immigrants and refugees.
Have eugenics really vanished?
The eugenic chapter in the history of Western culture has been closed, but have eugenics really disappeared?
"Eugenic thinking is alive and well today," asserts Stoler-Liss. "It is expressed mainly in the very high rate of pre-natal tests and genetic filtering [of genetically deviant fetuses]. Mothers are very highly motivated to give birth only to healthy children and the attitude toward the exceptional, the different and the handicapped in Israeli society is problematic."
At hospitals today future parents are offered a plethora of genetic tests that diagnose the fetus before birth. Some of them are aimed at identifying serious disorders, like Tay-Sachs disease, a degenerative disease that causes a painful death in infancy. Others, however, are aimed at screening fetuses with conditions like deafness and sterility, the bearers of which can lead full and satisfying lives.
* Ha'aretz newspaper, Israel, 11 June 2004
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