The Ringworm Scandal: When Israeli Doctors Killed Tens of Thousands of Arab Children Tikun-Olam Tikun Olam-תיקון עולם
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.