Radiation and ringworm: a tale of social policy, racism, and health care – July 9, 2017

first published in Mondoweiss https://mondoweiss.net/2017/07/radiation-ringworm-social/

On June 14, 2017, the Israeli newspaper, Israel Hayom, published an extraordinary report documenting medical experiments on mostly Yemenite children who subsequently “disappeared”; those who died were autopsied without parental consent, the parents were often not allowed to see their dead children, and no death certificates were provided. Since Operation Magic Carpet, 1949 to 1950, when 49,000 Jewish Yemenites were airlifted to Israel to grow the Jewish population and counteract the procreating Palestinians, there have been three official inquiries exploring egregious and unethical patterns of behavior towards Yemeni children by the medical and social service communities. Previous Israeli committees concluded that no children were kidnapped, although some children died or were adopted by Ashkenazi families without the birth parents’ consents. Parents were simply told their children had died. Israel Hayom also documented an experimental treatment on four malnourished babies who subsequently died from the injection of a “dry protein” created from plasma as well as an attempt to prove (using faulty assays and assessments) that Yemenite children were of African descent by testing dead children for sickle cell anemia, again without consent. (There was no evidence for sickle cell but the researcher published a scientific paper before he was proven wrong.)

Despite the Israeli state’s efforts to delegitimize and silence this information, (no investigation, no crime), the kidnapping of up to ten thousand Yemenite babies in immigrant absorption camps for adoption by Ashkenazi families was well documented in 2013 and 2014 by the Israeli webzine +972. In the 2013 article, the information is based on the 2009 book by Shoshana Madmoni-Gerber, Israeli Media and the Framing of Internal Conflict: The Yemenite Babies Affair. While the Israeli press largely stood by the official state narrative (nothing could have happened and besides, data was classified or lost), this attitude was reinforced by racist stereotypes towards Yemenites as primitive, ignorant, and uncaring towards their children. In short, adoption was “doing them a favor.” Additionally, the fact that the cover-up persisted for decades reflects the continued racism within Israeli society and the medical establishment. The forcible transfer of babies is also defined by the UN as genocide and clearly no one in Israel is going to admit to that.

The 2014 +972 article is centered on revealing and painful interviews with adoptees about their experiences, abducted from their families via a variety of official and unofficial mechanisms, (shall we just call this human trafficking?) devoid of a paper trail, with devastated parents searching for years for their biological children, a theft unchallenged by the legal system. Some adoptive parents even registered their childrens’ birth certificates as their own biological children, retroactively with collusion from Ministerial clerks. Of course there was always the problem for the pale skinned Ashkenazi parents trying to explain their connection (which was usually loving and healthy) to their dark offspring and that was how the secret was often revealed.

Richard Silverstein in his June 15, 2017 blog added more tortured details: because Yemenite parents did not speak Hebrew and medical staff did not speak Yemeni-Arabic, children were assigned a number rather than a name, numbers were sometimes lost or confused, leading to further mistreatment and misidentification. More significantly, he notes the scandal involved the US National Institutes of Health “which paid Israeli hospitals nearly $1-million (in current value; then it was 160,000 Israeli lira) to provide fetuses of dead Yemenite babies and corpses of adults which were used in medical experiments to determine why Yemenites did not develop heart disease.”

Silverstein references the corollary tragedy of the Ringworm scandal which led me to his 2014 blog. I was vaguely aware that newly arrived Yemenite children were treated with radiation for ringworm, a benign fungal infection that resolves spontaneously during adolescence. This treatment caused longterm adverse consequences, but I have to admit, I had no idea of the gravity of this crime. Silverstein links to The Ringworm children, a damning investigative documentary that 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. (Don’t say you did not know.) In the 1950s, approximately 100,000 Jewish immigrant children from Arab countries were taken from their parents and without parental consent, their heads were shaved, their hair was plucked, they were placed on a table, sometimes in restraints, and given radiation doses up to 600 rads. The dangers of leukemia were known in the 1920s and by 1952 scientists understood that 0.3 rads was the maximum safe weekly dosage. The now adult victims speak with sorrow and rage of the thousands who died (buried in unmarked graves), either as children from radiation poisoning or in early adulthood from cancer, of a lifetime of scalp pain, open sores, high cancer risk, epilepsy, infertility, and social and psychological damage. It was gripping testimony that left me in tears and shock and I am hard to shock. It is worth watching.

The program was run by Dr. Shiba, Director of the Health Ministry, Division of Social Medicine, who was not only obsessed with ringworm as a contagious fungus, but more as a symbol of a social disease, a “black plague,” and of children that needed to be decontaminated, medically and socially. He was part of the Israeli medical establishment that viewed eugenics as a positive force and described Moroccans as “primitives,” “backwards,” “human rubbish,” and “defective people.” He believed that Ashkenazi Jews were genetically superior to Mizrahi Jews and that health disorders reflected a genetic weakness in the susceptible population.

Dr Shiba traveled to the US to fundraise and acquired a collection of Picker x-ray machines, old, outdated, and possibly army surplus. Treatments were performed by nurses with no training in radiotherapy and the machines were certainly not designed to treat ringworm with high dose radiation. In 1952 the Israel Radiologist Union acknowledged the safe doses for radiation, based on experiments in Nazi Germany, data from Hiroshima, and other countries such as the US. According to the documentary, radiation was used in the US to treat ringworm in the 1930s, but by the 1950s, the medical establishment was well aware of the medical harm, radiation damage, and ensuing court suits.

Beyond the obvious ethnic discrimination and undervaluing of the human life of children of color, the other sinister issue raised by the film involves the US military’s desire post-Hiroshima to understand the effects of high levels of radiation exposure. (Remember US troops were used as guinea pigs.) When that became socially unacceptable in America, the documentary suggests that Israeli officials might have been willing to offer some of their “human rubbish” as research material. Very strangely, during a time of economic impoverishment and rationing in Israel, more money was spent on the ringworm radiation “treatments” than the entire Israeli national budget, and these numbers are “off the books”. It seems records were hidden or filed under state secrets or “lost,” what appears to be an official conspiracy of silence. Picker still supplies Israel with x-ray machines and efforts by victims to open records, prove state culpability, and receive compensation have been stymied by the Knesset and the bogus Ringworm Victim Law.

To put this in historical context, eugenics was very popular in the US in the early 1900s, in fact we were a model for the Nazis. Lower doses of radiation were used to treat ringworm elsewhere in the world and elite Ashkenazi Zionists continue to share their racist views toward people of color and Arabs in particular with much of the Western world. US health care is guilty of many egregious practices. During my residency in the early 1970s we fought against sterilizing poor women, African Americans, and Native Americans without their consent, and then there were the decades of forced sterilizations of people with low IQs, “imbeciles.” And let’s remember similar racist and outrageous adoption practices for Native American children in the US who were wrenched from their “inadequate” families. Many recall horrendous medical experiments in the US like the Tuskegee Syphilis Study where for decades, African American men, without their consent, were observed rather than treated for syphilis which is a devastating disease.

Beyond these human, social, and political tragedies, important questions remain. Internationally, the Israeli medical system is considered first rate and the source of significant therapies and research, but no amount of success can mask the egregious treatment of Yemeni children and the subsequent cover-up. How can the adoption and radiation victims gain access to whatever records remain? If this is how the Israeli establishment treats Jews from Arab countries, can we imagine how they treat Palestinians? What is the US contribution to and complicity in this crime? And for me as a physician, why didn’t one doctor just say, NO.

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