How Israel Overcame the Polio Epidemic of the 1950s

In 1953, Dr. Jonas Edward Salk announced the encouraging results of his experiments with a new drug in the battle against polio, but he would soon meet resistance…

Children afflicted with polio are treated at the Tzrifin army base during a visit by Hadassah representatives and Israeli police officers, 1954, the Eddie Hirschbein Collection

In 1921, during a family vacation, Franklin Delano Roosevelt began developing alarming medical symptoms. At first, the 39-year-old attorney began suffering from debilitating back pains. After that, he experienced nausea and uncontrollable tremors, as well as a burning fever. He was bedridden for weeks. From day to day, he felt he was gradually losing the ability to move his feet. The doctor called to the scene provided a diagnosis that would accompany Roosevelt for the rest of his life: a severe case of polio, a disease that ravaged the entire East Coast of the United States during that fatal summer.

Although the future President of the United States was perhaps the most famous victim of polio in history, this disease had been plaguing humanity for thousands of years. First identified in 1789, it wasn’t until the twentieth century – when repeated polio outbreaks claimed thousands of victims – that a Jewish-American physician named Jonas Salk managed to develop the first-ever vaccine for the devastating virus.

Salk’s Vaccine Is Revealed

In 1953, Dr. Jonas Edward Salk published a radio-advertisement announcing the encouraging results of his experiments with a new drug, which he hoped could soon be developed into an effective vaccine for polio.

But after publishing his results, Salk’s work was met with derision and ridicule. His idea of injecting the “killed” polio virus (as opposed to simply weakened strains) into the bodies of children and adults initially seemed too bold – it was believed to be impossible to implement. Many doctors and researchers were quick to declare that the tailor’s son from Manhattan was nothing but an over-enthusiastic young scientist at best, a charlatan and crook at worst.

Salk chose to ignore the criticism. He felt that he couldn’t convey the significance of the vaccine using the conventional method – publishing his results in academic papers in order to convince the scientific community of the validity of his theories. Instead, Salk worked six days a week, 16 hours a day, to put his theories into practice. As he neared the breakthrough he’d hoped for, he searched for funding for the clinical trials that would prove his daring theory.


Dr. Jonas Edward Salk working to find a polio vaccine, photo from the 1950s

Although two of his employees in the lab resigned in protest at the “feverish and unreasonable pace” of the experiments, Salk was intent on beginning tests on human patients as quickly as possible. By the end of 1953, more than 7,000 children had received the vaccine. The experiment was beyond successful. After another two million children were vaccinated in one of the largest clinical trials in history, Salk was given permission to inform the American public that he had found a way to overcome the horrible disease. He added that he and his lab were giving up all patent rights – the vaccine they had been working on for years would remain in the public domain.

This was just the news the young state of Israel was waiting for.


The Israeli Vaccine

The news regarding the polio vaccine soon reached Israel and caused much excitement among its concerned citizens. In the summer of 1950, there was a severe outbreak of polio in Israel. Over one thousand children were hospitalized. Many suffered from paralysis, which was one of the most frightening symptoms of the disease. Parents ordered their children to stay at home, summer-camps were shut down, and the Ministry of Health forbade children under the age of ten (the most at-risk age group) from entering various recreational venues and places of business.




Children afflicted with polio are treated at the Tzrifin army base during a visit by Hadassah representatives and Israeli police officers, 1954, the Eddie Hirschbein Collection

At first, the Israeli government tried to buy the vaccine directly from the US, but public outcry prevented it. Many parents claimed it made no sense for the US government to sell vaccines to foreign countries when not all American children had been vaccinated. Therefore, Dr. Natan Goldblum was appointed to produce the vaccine locally in Israel, based on Salk’s methodology. Together with Prof. Tamar Gottlieb, the two doctors recruited a team and set up their laboratory in Jaffa.



Working to produce the polio vaccine in the Yaffa Goldblum lab, November 1956, the Eddie Hirschbein Collection

One year later, the vaccine was ready, and by January 1957, the mass-scale vaccination of Israel’s population was underway.

Mass-scale vaccination underway in Israel, the Eddie Hirschbein Collection

More often than not, when invited on honorary visits abroad, Dr. Salk declined. But when he was invited to Israel in 1959 for an official visit, he agreed and explained that the reason for his consent was his deep affection for the people and state of Israel. The doctor added that “what is being done in Israel is both profound and exalted. And I think the Israelis understand this, because they are the ones carrying out a revolution in the lives of the Jewish people.” In Israel, the good doctor was greeted with the respect and honor worthy of heads of state. He met with Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, from whom he received a certificate of appreciation on behalf of the State of Israel and the Jewish people.

David Ben-Gurion presenting Dr. Jonas Salk with a certificate of appreciation, Jerusalem, 1959, photo: Fritz Cohen


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The Israeli Roots of the Penalty Shoot-Out

Cherry tomatoes, soup mandels and penalty shoot-outs – all Israeli inventions! This is the story of the most significant Israeli contribution to the beautiful game


From the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

It was a hot summer’s day in July, 1994. Millions of viewers were glued to screens around the world, watching Italy and Brazil compete in the FIFA World Cup final, taking place at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. It was a tedious affair, with not a goal being scored, even during thirty minutes of extra-time. Thus, the stage was set for the great climax – the World Cup final would be decided for the first time by a penalty shoot-out! Football (soccer) fans who watched the event still remember how Roberto Baggio, the star of the Italian team, missed the final penalty kick, and the Brazilians were crowned world champions.

It seems that the roots of this dramatic scene reach all the way back to… Israel? Yes, the man responsible for implementing this method of deciding international football matches was named Joseph Dagan, an Israeli journalist at the time. It was he who came up with the radical new system which to date has caused the downfall of many a footballer, brought about countless moments of joy and despair for fans and players alike, and more than anything, contributed to extreme levels of tension and anxiety for all involved.

“The Cruelest of Them All – The Penalty Kick” Ma’ariv, February 23rd, 1969. For the full Hebrew article, click here

Until the 1970s, whenever a victory decision was required in a football tournament, matches which ended in a draw were primarily decided by playing a replay match in a neutral venue, or worse, by flipping a coin. Apart from the heavy burden that the replay matches placed on the players, they also led to complicated logistical problems, since it wasn’t always possible to schedule replay matches in tight tournament schedules. As regards coin flipping, there’s no real need to explain the problem – this odd method had nothing to do with sport, and matches decided in this way were naturally a source of much grief and disappointment. Penalty shoot-outs had been used here and there during several specific tournaments, for example in Yugoslavia. From there, the method spread to Israel where it was used in cup matches (the newspapers called it “the Yugoslav method”).

“The Decision Came by Penalty-Kicks, Bnei Yehuda-Maccabi Petah Tikva 5-2”, a report on a cup game in Israel from May 30th, 1968, by which time the penalty shoot-out was already in use. For the full Hebrew report, click here

Dagan was a sports writer for the Ha’aretz newspaper and soon became a member of the Israeli Football Association, being appointed its general-secretary. He had a front row-seat during the Israeli national team’s fantastic campaign at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico. At the time, there was no age limit set on players in the Olympic tournament, and the Israeli team included the likes of Mordechai Shpigler and Giora Spiegel, who would famously be part of the only Israeli team to participate in the World Cup, two years later.

Giora Spiegel playing for the Israeli national team, Ma’ariv, December 5th, 1969

The Israelis succeeded above and beyond expectations at the 1968 Olympics and reached the quarter-finals, where they played against the esteemed Bulgarian team. The game ended in a draw, even after extra-time, and the Bulgarians were finally declared victorious following a coin toss, continuing on to the semi-finals. Israel returned home, with only the flip of a coin preventing a sensational sporting achievement. However, Dagan had an idea. These games needed to be resolved differently – and following the incident, Dagan decided the penalty shoot-out, used to this day, should be established as the proper method for deciding matches which ended in a stalemate.

“The Coin Defeats Israel – After Extra Time”, Al Hamishmar, October 21st, 1968, for the full Hebrew article, click here

Micha Almog, who at the time was chairman of the Israel Football Association, brought Dagan’s idea to FIFA, the International Federation of Association Football, and in 1970, the method was approved by the international organization. Later that year, the penalty shoot-out was used for the first time in a cup game in England, and gradually, the system spread across the world. Penalty shoot-outs were first used in the World Cup in 1982, and since then, they have twice decided the result of the final. Although penalty shoot-outs have also been criticized over the years, no better method has yet been suggested.

“Penalty-Kicks to Replace Coin Toss”, a report describing FIFA’s decision to adopt the Israeli system, Ma’ariv, June 28th, 1970

Dagan, who passed away in March 2020, was officially recognized by UEFA, the Union of European Football Associations, for his contribution. In fairness, it should be noted that a German football referee named Karl Wald also claimed to have invented the method – at the exact same time – before offering it to the Bavarian football association, from where the idea reached FIFA. But as far as we’re concerned, with all due respect, this is yet another Israeli invention.


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The Story of Israel’s National Anthem

How did the only original written copy of "HaTikva" arrive at the National Library of Israel? And how does it differ from the version we know today?

Decades after his death, the author of Israel’s national anthem, HaTikva would become known as “the first Hebrew beatnik”. A more common moniker, and perhaps more fitting, was “Imber, the Wandering Jew”. Indeed, the title reflects some of the adventures of this man who was a bit of an enigma in the eyes of his contemporaries, and has largely remained one to this day. Even after arriving at the destination about which he wrote so many poems, he only managed to stay there for five years before moving on to continue his wanderings.

In 1882, Naftali Herz Imber closed the shop where he sold matches, charms and amulets in the market of Istanbul, and went to meet Sir Laurence Oliphant, a Member of the British Parliament and businessman. Imber’s initial goal was to declare before Oliphant that the Jewish people didn’t need Britain’s favors in order to return to their ancestral homeland. However, as he described later on, “when I entered, I laid my eyes on Mrs. Oliphant for the first time.” This was enough for the young man to come up with a new plan – a joint journey to the Holy Land. That same year, funded entirely by Oliphant, (Imber was broke and wouldn’t have it any other way), the three reached the port of Haifa.

Naftali Herz Imber, the Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel

After arriving in Ottoman Palestine, the members of this strange love triangle parted. The Oliphants, who were essentially Protestant Zionists before the term had even been coined in the modern sense, chose to travel and enjoy the beauty of the land and its holy sites, all while working on a plan to return the Jews to their homeland – which would, of course, hasten the coming of the Messiah.

Meanwhile, Imber, according to every available account, preferred to drink the days away. Whenever he found himself in the proximity of a fair maiden who caught his eye or a patron with enough wine at his disposal, the poet pretended that he had been struck by inspiration at that very moment, proceeding to “compose” the legendary poem which captured the essence of Zionist longing before their very eyes, Tikvatenu – “Our Hope”.

The impressions left by Imber’s time in the Land of Israel can still be witnessed today, in places such as Gedera, Yesod HaMa’ala, Mishmar HaYarden, and Rishon LeZion all of which claim, without exception, that the poem that would later become the anthem of the Zionist movement and the State of Israel, was written within the boundaries of their own territory.

In truth, Imber most likely began to compose the poem which would bring him world fame in the city of Iași in Romania, basing it on a German song, Der Deutsche Rhein (“The German Rhine”), which also opens every stanza with the words “As long as”. In 1884, in Jerusalem, he finally completed the composition. The final version of Tikvatenu consisted of nine stanzas. Later, the poem was abbreviated to two stanzas and some of the words were changed in order to fit the contemporary context of people returning to their homeland. The last modifications were made by Dr. Y.L. Matmon-Cohen, founder of the Herzliya Hebrew Gymnasium high school. Cohen replaced the words “the ancient hope” (hatikva hanoshana) with the words “The two-thousand-year-old hope” and replaced “To return to the land of our fathers, the city where David encamped” with “To be a free nation in our land, The land of Zion and Jerusalem”. These changes sealed the final version of the song, with its new name, HaTikva. In 1886, a farmer named Samuel Cohen composed a tune for Imber’s anthem of longing.

Three years later, when the farmers of the Jewish settlement of Rishon LeZion rose up in rebellion against Baron Rothschild’s bureaucrats, they would choose Tikvatenu as their protest song. Imber, who at that time happened to be visiting Rishon LeZion, was lucky enough to hear them singing – as he sat at the dining table of one of those very bureaucrats. This event marked the beginning of the song’s ascent into the heart of the Zionist pantheon, and it also served as Imber’s sign to continue his wanderings. He soon left for England, and from there on to New York.
During the last year of his life, Imber was admitted to a Jewish hospital in New York, where he met a young singer – Jeanette Robinson-Murphy. At her request, he wrote down the original words of the first two stanzas of his song, which would become the national anthem, on a piece of hospital paperwork that was at his disposal at that moment. In 1936, Ms. Robinson-Murphy sent the manuscript, the only one of its kind in the world as far as we know, for eternal keepsake at the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem.

Imber’s original handwritten text of Tikvatenu, the Schwadron Collection at the National Library of Israel


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That Other Time They Almost Declared a Jewish State (and No One Noticed)

In July 1943, in the midst of World War II, notable members of the "yishuv" gathered in secret in a Tel Aviv suburb, to proclaim the establishment of a Jewish government in the Land of Israel

Seated from left to right: Prof. Joseph Klausner, Abraham Krinitzi, Israel Rosov, and Dr. Abraham Weinschal

Few people are aware that the declaration of independence of the State of Israel on May 14th, 1948, (the fifth day of the month of Iyar in the year 5708, according to the Hebrew calendar) was preceded by another, almost clandestine ceremony, in which the establishment of a Jewish government in the Land of Israel was proclaimed. In many ways, that forgotten ceremony represented a last hurrah for the Zionist movement’s old guard.

“[British police] detectives were tracing our every move the entire day,” recalled Abraham Krinitzi, one of the organizers of the proclamation ceremony, in his memoir. Krinitzi, head of the local council, and later a legendary mayor of Ramat Gan, a suburb of Tel Aviv, had some experience with the British police. They had even called the settlement he headed “the incubator of terrorism,” because of its involvement in sheltering members of the underground. The day Krinitzi recounts was July 25th, 1943 – the day “The People’s Congregation” was set to convene in Ramat Gan.

The People’s Congregation will open at 11 am sharp…” – A Hebrew announcement published on the morning of the event in the HaMashkif newspaper

By the summer of 1943, news of the annihilation of European Jewry had begun to reach the country, and many in the Jewish community felt a sense of helplessness in the face of it. Alongside the call from Jewish leaders for cooperation with the British in their war against their mutual Nazi enemy, the underground organizations, the Haganah and the Irgun, announced a pause in the struggle against the British. The Lehi, another group which had split off from the Irgun, was then at a low point following the murder of its leader, Avraham “Yair” Stern, and the jailing of his successors.  The fact that many Jews enlisted in the British army and assisted in the war effort did not dull the sense of rage and powerlessness the Jews in Mandatory Palestine felt about the closing of the country’s gates to Jewish immigration and the negative stance of the British government toward any manifestation of independence.

Given this situation, a group of veteran Zionists of Jewish-Russian background who had been sidelined from positions of leadership around two decades earlier, decided to take action. The Zionist movement’s “changing of the guard” had left no room for the founding generation. They increasingly saw themselves pushed aside, not to mention taken aback by the struggle between the socialists and revisionists. Most of the members of this group naturally tended toward the right of the political map and identified more with a firm and independent approach in relation to the British Mandate.

Their idea was simple, even if not completely rooted in reality: The Jews of Palestine would establish a united front that was independent of the institutions of the Jewish Agency, which they perceived as weak and ineffectual. Based on relative political power, the parties would elect representatives who together would constitute a 120-member Hebrew parliament. Given the state of war in which Britain found itself, and in consideration of the loyalty demonstrated by the Jewish yishuv (the Jewish population in Mandatory Palestine), they believed Britain would recognize the independence of the Jewish authority to be established in Palestine and grant it limited independence, under its protection.

Krinitzi wrote in his memoirs, but not before he made a point of noting his own role as one of the idea’s initiators, that “the living spirit behind this was Dr. Avraham Weinschal.” Weinschal, a respected lawyer from Haifa, a friend of Jabotinsky’s and one of the founders of the revisionist movement in Palestine, made sure to include his likeminded ally and colorful figure Dr. Wolfgang von Weisl in this endeavor. The doctor, who had served as an officer in the Austrian army and bore a noble title, was, in addition, a respected journalist and welcome guest at the courts of Arab princes, who showed high regard for his vast knowledge of Islamic culture.

Von Weisl’s bold and daring nature suited the plan that was beginning to take shape. Perhaps more than it was meant to rebel against British rule, the plan was intended to defy the existing Zionist leadership and constitute a kind of “revolt of the elders.” Van Weisl needed help preparing for action and forging contacts with various groups, and for this task, he chose the young Uri Avnery, then barely twenty years old, who would go on to become a famous figure in the realm of Israeli journalism, activism and politics.


“The delegates in attendance”

In his memoir titled Optimistic, Avnery recounts meeting with Von Weisl and the latter’s failure to achieve the broad coalition for the establishment of a “government in exile.” Skepticism, along with partisan divisions, apparently prevented the great rebellion from being carried out to its full extent. Also, the close surveillance of the British forced Von Weisel to temper the plan of action.

Weinschal, Von Weisl and their friends decided to hold a large public meeting in which a “Jewish Government in Exile” would be declared. Krinitzi volunteered to host the gathering in Ramat Gan, in the auditorium of the Ohel Shem high school, today the Yahalom High School. The name of that select gathering— “The People’s Congregation” — from which the government was elected, showed the desire to achieve a broad consensus as well as the desire to not arouse the anger of the British,  by avoiding words like “government” or “parliament.”

The proclamation began with a symbolic act intended to show the loyalty of the Jewish yishuv: in the Great Synagogue of Ramat Gan, Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Toledano held a memorial service to commemorate those of the community who had died while serving in the British Army. Immediately afterwards, hundreds of the invitees walked from the synagogue to the school building, where the assembly was officially opened. Seated on the dais were the members of the directorate, Prof. Joseph Klausner, Israel Rosov, Avraham Weinschal, and Abraham Krinitzi, among others. Von Weisl’s name was absent from the directorate and from the list of participants. Was the decision to moderate the demands of that “temporary government” what caused him to leave?

Years later, Avnery, who was likely the youngest participant at that event, did not recall an extraordinary historical event. The long, pathos-filled speeches delivered by members of the directorate and other veteran public activists turned the historic proclamation of a Jewish government into yet another toothless public gathering. In the slim pamphlet of the collected speeches delivered that day, the anonymous publisher took care to note whether a speech was received with “sustained applause” or “thunderous sustained applause”. From the perspective of the young Avnery who found himself in a strange event organized by the “elders of the generation,” he remembered it as a particularly lackluster affair.

A Proclamation to the Hebrew People in Zion and the Diaspora” summarizing “the decisions unanimously agreed by The People’s Congregation“, which consisted mainly of proposals for further action to be taken later…

The text of the telegram sent at the end of that day to British Prime Minister Churchill, to US President Roosevelt, and to the Prime Minister of South Africa, reinforces the sense of a missed opportunity, the result of a lack of political daring. “The People’s Congregation that gathered in Ramat Gan,” the telegram says, “draws the attention of nations united in their fight for the freedom of the world’s peoples, to the severe violation of the rights of the Hebrew People, caused by the lack of recognition of the People of Israel as an ally, fighting party and equal partner with the other united nations.” Only towards the end of the telegram is the explicit demand made: “Basic justice demands recognizing the right of the Jewish People to be represented by a temporary Jewish government to share in the war and in peace building and to secure its future as a free nation in its homeland.”

Avraham Krinitzi was forced to admit that the historic conference ended only with proposals for action and the election of representatives, and no practical significance. However, the fact that British censorship prevented the event from being publicized in the press did not, he said, prevent the leaking of the news of its having taken place. Krinitzi mockingly refers to the blackout imposed on this “ideological terror” as the British called it, concluding: “Indeed, there are also those for whom an idea is terrorism, and perhaps not one of its less dangerous forms. It sows the seeds in hearts, in minds. And I know from experience: He who plants the seed is destined to see it grow.”


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