Adapted from an article by Amit Naor, National Library of Israel
“Avoid crowded gatherings in closed places; avoid contact with others as much as possible, don’t even shake one’s hand when saying hello.”
You may think this is current advice on the coronavirus, but it’s actually the ninth directive in a list of guidelines published by the Hebrew newspaper Do’ar Hayom in February, 1920, when the pandemic known today as the Spanish flu raged all over the world — and in the Land of Israel as well.
The Spanish flu, otherwise known as the 1918 flu pandemic, spread rapidly across the globe following the end of WW I, with overcrowding and famine likely contributing to the disease’s outbreak. The flu infected approximately 500 million people, almost a third of the world’s population, and killed tens of millions. It was one of the deadliest pandemics in human history.
In the Land of Israel, where the population was relatively sparse at the time and largely rural, the disease didn’t hit as severely as it did in other countries across the globe. Nevertheless, it arrived there too, and the population and authorities had to adjust to a new situation. Even in 1920 — well after the major outbreaks of the pandemic across the world — residents were still being asked to adhere to strict hygiene rules.
Apart from being given basic cleaning guidelines, people were also instructed to isolate patients and even to inform the authorities if they encountered someone who was sick.
Eau exygenee Menthel Resorcine Borax was an ointment recommended against a runny nose. The guidelines also recommended airing out bedsheets on clear and sunny days, and sprinkling camphor or naphthalene powder on beds.
These were the days before disposable tissues, so disposing of one’s handkerchief immediately after using it wasn’t a possibility. Instead, the advice was to keep a handkerchief in a tin box with chunks of camphor and naphthalene. (Anyone know what camphor and naphthalene are?)
There is little information on the impact of the disease on the Land of Israel. Contemporary reports cite a low number of casualties in urban areas compared to Europe. According to a study on the subject conducted by Zalman Greenberg, there were approximately 40 listings of flu patients at Sharai Tzedek Hospital in Jerusalem in 1918 — and this is the only remaining documentation regarding patients infected with the disease in the country.
Greenberg also noted that in Tel Aviv’s Trumpeldor Cemetery, there are three tombstones with inscriptions stating that the deceased passed away from the “Spanish disease.”
The issue of language used in these reports is interesting. What was the disease called when it mysteriously appeared? The source of the virus wasn’t actually in Spain. Its common name, “the Spanish flu,” stemmed from the fact that most of the initial reports of the disease came from neutral Spain, a country that didn’t take part in WW I and which didn’t censor its press.
However, Hebrew newspapers hurried to align with other media outlets around the world and associated the disease with the Iberian country. Some newspapers wrote of “the Spanish disease.” The Yiddish press often used the phrase shpanishe magefa (Spanish plague). Eventually, “Spanish flu” became the dominant name for the disease.
The Hebrew newspapers still used the terms “grippe” (derived from French) and “influenza,” but gradually they also began using the word shap’a’at, meaning flu, which Eliezer Ben Yehuda coined as early as 1893.
In late 1920, the Spanish flu disappeared from the world just as suddenly as it had appeared. However, in the Land of Israel, the relatively new British Mandate authorities had to deal shortly after with the return of an equally threatening illness: the plague, which broke out in Jaffa and threatened Tel Aviv in 1922. Fortunately, thanks to the authorities’ determined actions, it was also wiped out of existence.