Trauma and Memory: Reading, Healing, and Making Law

By Austin Sarat; Nadav Davidovitch et al. | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 7
Public Health, Law, and
Traumatic Collective
Experiences
The Case of Mass Ringworm
Irradiations

Nadav Davidovitch and Avital Margalit

The disciplines of public health and of law—each in itself and in the interaction between the two—contain the capability to remedy wrongs but at the same time have the potential to cause injury. The complex matrix of medicine, remedy, and injury constitutes a fascinating site for the exploration of private and public aspects of past injuries and attempts to bring about their healing. One unique social, medical, and legal event—the mass ringworm irradiations1 conducted by Israeli health authorities, mainly during the 1950s, and their aftermath—provides us with an opportunity to reflect upon the rhetoric and practices of public health and law in the attempts within these disciplines to remedy past injustices.

Between the years of 1949 and 1960, approximately 100,000 immigrants to Israel,2 many of them from North African countries, along with children already residing in the state, were irradiated against ringworm of the scalp. This medical procedure was a recognized mainstream medical treatment at the time.3 However, the scale and scope of this mass public health program postured the Israeli case as unique within the world. The newly established Israeli State invested tremendous efforts in the absorption of hundreds of thousands of immigrants, and the public health domain was a crucial part of this endeavor.4

According to the official narrative, this was a success story: ringworm and other infectious disease rates declined relatively rapidly. But the consequences were severe. Several decades after receiving the X-ray treatment, the immigrants who had been irradiated developed complications ranging

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