Magazine article Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought

B'nai B'rith-Sha'ar Zion Hospital in Jaffa (1891-1921): The First Jewish Community Hospital in Palestine

Magazine article Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought

B'nai B'rith-Sha'ar Zion Hospital in Jaffa (1891-1921): The First Jewish Community Hospital in Palestine

Article excerpt

Until the beginning of the 1880s, the Jewish community of Jaffa - an ancient Mediterranean port dating back to Biblical times, situated today adjacent to the city of Tel Aviv-comprised no more than 650 people.(1) Most were Sephardi(2) Jews who eked out a livelihood. The only source of medical assistance in the late nineteenth century was the 16-bed Christian Mission Hospital which opened its doors in 1880. The hospital, however, was in the practice of closing down during the summer months. Moreover, the few foreign doctors staffing the hospital charged high fees for their services, beyond the means of the overwhelming majority of the local Jewish community.

The arrival of the First Aliyah(3) in 1882 - the first wave of Jewish immigrants to Palestine from Europe that signaled the beginning of Zionist settlement in Palestine was marked by the founding and development of several agricultural colonies in Jaffa's hinterland. These fledgling communities were populated by Zionist pioneers who wished to return to the land, and were backed financially by the Baron Edmund de Rothschild. This wave of immigration constituted a significant demographic change for the Jews of Jaffa: The Jewish community tripled in size to 1,500 inhabitants.(4) The number of Jews engaging in secular occupations such as commerce and trade, rather than dedicating their lives solely to religious studies, grew. Close economic ties were established with the new Jewish settlements that grew up around the city. Jaffa also attracted Jerusalem-born Jews who sought their livelihood in the growing city, as did members of the First Aliyah who did not succeed in integrating into the arduous life of the agricultural settlements.

The growth of the city's population,(5) together with the rise in the volume of human traffic entering or passing through the city only increased the problem of lack of medical facilities in Jaffa. In the outlying agricultural settlements organized medical services were available either on-site or at the Baron's expense elsewhere at private clinics. However, these arrangements for free medical care applied solely to the farmers under the Jewish philanthropist's patronage; Jewish day laborers and tradesmen had to appeal to the benevolence of the settlements' doctor for treatment, or pay a steep fee out of pocket for his services.(6) Discrimination in the provision of medical services led to much resentment and was the cause of strife between members of the settlement and the workers.

The Jewish agricultural workers organized a mutual aid system among themselves, capable of dealing with sporadic cases of illnesses among the group under normal circumstances. This arrangement, however, was not viable in the event of an outbreak of illness of epidemic proportions, when the number of workers too ill to work precluded any form of mutual support to cover medical assistance. When illness spread, in desperation, many sick workers flocked to Jaffa in hopes that the local Jaffa community would help them in their plight. While at the time Jaffa constituted the port of entry for Jewish immigrants and the center for Zionist endeavors to build a new society in the Land of Palestine, the city itself stood destitute, powerless to extend the medical aid so sorely needed. The only substantial medical assistance rendered was that of the physician serving the agricultural settlements, who came to Jaffa twice a week. "But, the pharmacy was empty - a pharmacy in name alone. The sick who became ill on other days and nights, at times when the doctor was not in town, fell deathly ill."(7)

The first attempt to solve the lack of medical facilities was initiated in 1886, by the Ezrat Israel ("Assistance to [the People of] Israel") Society - a benevolent association founded in Jaffa in the same year, by four individuals: the brothers Eliezer and Shimon Rokeach;(8) Haim Shmerling, a veteran resident of Jaffa; and Dr. Menachem Stein, a physician associated with the members of the BILU - a nascent Zionist movement that brought some of the first Zionist pioneers to Palestine. …

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