Malaria, as much as government policy, kept the Land of Israel vacant. In 1902, a report on the distribution of the Anopheles mosquito and malaria in Upper Palestine describes the conditions. “It (Palestine) was guarded by a small company of Turkish soldiers, and the platoon had to be changed every month because malaria sickened and debilitated everyone after 10 days.”
Reports of early Jewish settlement from the end of the 19th century describe widespread fatality from the conditions in Israel. Around the Sea of Galilee, 95% of workers in the Jewish settlements suffered from Malaria. Of the approximate 75,000 Zionists which arrived in the land of Israel between 1882-1914, about half had either died or left by 1914 because of the severe conditions, including malaria.
Even the British army under General Allenby, famous for receiving the surrender of Jerusalem in 1917, collapsed from malaria in 1918 after the battle of Megiddo.
No successful campaign had ever been launched which did anything other than control the disease. Before 1917, the only experience in dealing with malaria control anywhere in the world was by General Gorgas at the Panama Canal. Their efforts involved thousands of men, vast sums of money and was too costly for most countries – particularly the slowly crumbling Ottoman empire. Even Balfour’s declaration could not hope to encourage masses of Jews to settle in Israel if malaria held sway.
Enter Louis Brandeis, president of the American Zionist Federation. He saw the negative impact of malaria on the Zionist enterprise. He approached Chaim Weizmann to invest in his efforts but they declined. Brandeis put up $10,000 of his own money and teemed with Dr. Israel Kligler, Zionist and brilliant public health scientist, to come up with a new, affordable method for dealing with malaria. More than that, though, he saw the solution not as malaria control but malaria elimination and ushered in a new model of public health.
Involvement of the community and culturally-sensitive education were the bulwarks of the new approach. Instead of employed personnel, individuals could impact the spread of the disease. Kligler went to Palestine in December 1920 to direct Hadassah Hospitals’ laboratories. He shared Brandeis’ vision: no Jewish homeland without eliminating malaria. His plan included: detection and treatment of carriers, destruction of breeding sites, use of quinine as a prophylactic, education through lectures, pamphlets and home visits, and a change in attitude to convince the public that malaria is preventable.
Mandatory Palestine did become malaria-free, but only after the death of Kligler. One of the Jewish missions is fixing the world, Tikkun Olam; and by not taking a fatalist approach to malaria, but rather a proactive stance to beating this disease, Israel provides a model for the rest of the world.