When the Spanish Flu Arrived in the Land of Israel

The pandemic known as the Spanish flu spread across the world in the early 20th century, reaching the Land of Israel as well; we took a look back at the news reports of the day


Courtesy of the Otis Historical Archives, National Museum of Health and Medicine, Maryland

“Avoid crowded gatherings in closed places; avoid contact with others as much as possible, don’t even shake one’s hand when saying hello.” This was 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 World War I, with overcrowding and famine likely contributing to the disease’s outbreak. The flu infected approximately half a billion 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 here too, and the population and authorities had to adjust to a new situation. As we mentioned above, 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.

From Doar HaYom, February 9th, 1920. For the full list of recommendations in Hebrew, click here

On the Flu

Recently, a disease has been raging in Haifa, which is apparently that same Spanish Flu which wreaked havoc in Europe, claiming so many victims, even more than the Great War. And yet, here it won’t last long. Nevertheless, it has become quite dangerous here as well, especially in the Old City neighborhoods, where the Muslims and Sephardic Jews live, and which is quite gloomy and dark. Furthermore, these residents do not maintain hygiene and sanitary conditions.

  1. General sanitation and specifically maintaining clean bedclothes: on clear and sunny days, take out the bedclothes, sprinkle camphor or naphthalene powder on the beds, wash the floor, and let the breeze dry it.
  2. If you start suffering from a cold, even a mild one, use a handkerchief, which you should keep in a tin box, with chunks of camphor and naphthalene. Be especially careful of phlegm from the nose or throat. In case of a runny nose, gargle antiseptic medicine and use the following ointment: Eau exygenee Menthel Resorcine Borax. It is recommended to stay in a warm bed for a day or two.
  3. In case of a cold accompanied by fever, report this immediately to the government sanitary department and if possible, call the doctor”


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”. Here is an excerpt from a doctor’s report on the state of health in the country in 1919:

From Haaretz, September 24th, 1919. For the full article, click here

Dr. M. Borochov-Hoze

On the State of Health in the Country

(A short review)

This first year following our redemption from the agonies of war, has passed, compared to other countries, with relative peace. Although malevolent angels in the shape of contagious diseases and various plagues, which always follow war, and which accompanied the World War as well, have also passed through our country. Evil spirits blowing through the ravaged countries, trampled by armies, have blown through the air of the Land of Israel as well. “A scroll and a sword descended intertwined from heaven” – yet this is but a saying of old. It is a historical fact that in places where you find the sword, you come across epidemics and other exotic diseases. However, just like with the war itself, our brothers in the Land of Israel suffered less of diseases than the rest of the world. Lone cases of cholera, typhus, and recurring fever, and many case of the Spanish disease – a disease that has spread like a storm through all the fighting countries and their neighbors, and wreaked havoc upon them. – This disease claimed victims among our young soldiers, who survived the Turkish oppression. Nevertheless, casualties in our small country were fewer than those abroad.”


Naturally, in the early months following the outbreak of the flu pandemic, in the spring of 1918, when the information was still scant and incomplete, the Hebrew newspapers began publishing their reports. In June 1918, a journalist for the newspaper “Ha’Tzfira” (one of the leading early Hebrew newspapers, published in Warsaw), reported on the spread of the disease in Spain.

From Ha’Tzfira, June 13th, 1918. For the full article, click here

The Foreign Disease

I read that all public and government spaces in the capital have closed. The trams have stopped working. The factories and industries have shut down. The schools have closed and the students, who were anxiously studying for their exams, were sent home. More than one hundred thousand people are lying sick in their beds, and the disease hasn’t overlooked the king and his chief ministers, who have also caught this strange, wondrous illness, which has suddenly assailed Spain.

And I also read that the disease is spreading and expanding all over the country. The number of people afflicted by the disease has reached 10 million people. The military forces stationed in Morocco and the Canary Islands are also suffering. The doctors are helpless; all of the people are extremely fearful.”   


The pandemic raged for two years. During that time, Hebrew newspapers wrote brief reports about the pandemic spreading throughout the rest of the world, just as they reported on other daily news from around the globe with the help of news agencies.

From Doar HaYom, October 1st, 1919

“Madrid (today): the Spanish flu has erupted again. One hundred and twenty people died from the disease in the past two days.”


The issue of language in these reports is no less 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 World War 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). These papers were published in the United States and across Europe and reported more frequently on the topic as their target audience resided in countries that were more heavily affected. 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, and with the exception of a few outbreaks in Africa, the H1N1 virus which caused a worldwide pandemic, didn’t return until the swine flu outbreak of 2009. However, here 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. You can read about it on the Israel State Archive’s website.

A poster distributed by the British Mandate authorities encouraging the extermination of rats and mice – The Israel State Archives


And one more bonus tidbit:

Although the Spanish flu was left behind, various flu viruses remained with us, and even made their way into commercial advertisements! In 1957, there was an outbreak of another (much less fatal) flu pandemic around the world, known as “the Asian Flu.” “Eliaz” wineries from the Israeli town of Binyamina took advantage of the opportunity and published an ad with a recommendation that wasn’t necessarily approved by doctors:


Asian Flu or Regular Flu?

Either way, getting sick isn’t pleasant.

Golden Crown Cognac, from Binyamina’s “Eliaz Wineries” – is the best natural vaccine against flues and colds.

Drink Golden Crown Cognac, from Binyamina’s “Eliaz Wineries”.


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Historic Caricatures of Haganah Prisoners in British Custody

On the morning of October 5th, 1939, 43 members of a Haganah officer’s training course found themselves in handcuffs and being led by the British army to Acre prison; This is the album that tells their story

Putting aside the introduction and the assortment of press clippings, one might think that the album of the “Haganah 43” (the Haganah was the largest Jewish paramilitary organization in Mandatory Palestine between 1920 and 1948) was just another soldier’s yearbook filled with stories of their heroic deeds, funny caricatures, and photographs of smiling young men – the kind of military service that might be the envy of many.

“In the early dawn hours of October 5th, 1939, catastrophe struck during a secret military exercise in the Lower Galilee: Without warning, we were surrounded, stripped of our weapons and escorted to Acre prison where the gates shut with a bang behind us. It was a very different, not to mention much longer and much more tormenting ending than originally planned to officer’s training course No. 2…”

The introduction to the album, apparently written by Moshe Carmel

The detention coincided with the end of the collaboration between the British military and the Haganah during the Arab uprisings of 1936–1939, after which the British forces once again considered the Haganah one of a number of underground movements in the country that needed to be suppressed. The 43 detainees were taking part in a commander’s course at Yavniel, which was disguised as an innocent “Hapoel” physical training course. Many considered the severity of the sentence as the embodiment of the Mandatory regime’s malicious caprice—42 of the detainees were sentenced to 10 years in prison, and Avshalom Tao, who had pointed his weapon at the British, was sentenced to life.

They were taken first to Acre Prison and from there to Mizra Detention Camp. The detainees, who often referred to themselves as prisoners, testified that the sentencing was carried out “by a swift military tribunal which had the air of a rubber-stamp procedure”. Even worse than the conditions of their detention was the timing of the  Mandatory government’s decision to “impose years-long sentences on the 43 young Jewish defense officers,” one month into World War II, “when the Jewish community was summoned to mobilize  all its forces against Nazism, which was rising up to enslave the world and destroy our people.”

It was all true; everything was serious and urgent. And yet, it’s hard not to take note of the atmosphere of brotherhood, and dare we say, frivolity and humor that characterizes the album – once you get past the somber introduction. Let’s take a look.

The Haganah album in the Library’s collection was given as a memento to Major General Yohanan Ratner, a leader of the Haganah and an architect in civilian life. It opens with a  “memorial” page of sorts showing three detainees (from right to left) – Yaakov Gordon, Mordechai Plutchnik and Shlomo Ben Yehuda – who had fallen during their service in the Haganah, following their release from Acre Prison.

“In Memoriam to the members who fell in the fulfillment of their duties after the release”

On the next page, we find the course commanders (who were imprisoned with their cadets) – their names are not noted on the page. With the help of Omri Shabtai, we were able to identify the prisoner on the far right who appears above the caption “Supervisor” (the English word transliterated into Hebrew letters – סופרויזר). This was the prisoners’ representative in dealing with the prison’s staff. He would go on the serve as the IDF’s fourth Chief of Staff, as well as Israel’s Minister of Agriculture and Minister of Defense – the “Supervisor” was none other than Moshe Dayan, then just 24 years old.

Above and to the left of Dayan, dribbling a soccer ball, is Moshe Zelitsky (Carmel), who would go on to command the IDF’s Carmeli Brigade during Israel’s War of Independence, capturing Acre and the prison which had held him, among other exploits. To the left of Carmel is Raphael Lev, who commanded the officer’s course which had been interrupted by the arrest of the 43. Lev was a former battalion commander in the Austrian army and had also been active in the Republikanischer Schutzbund paramilitary organization.

On the bottom-left is “The Mukhtar” – Yaakov Salomon – who was the Haganah prisoners’ representative to the Arab prisoners being held at the facility.

“The commanders” – Moshe Dayan, the “Supervisor”, is on the far right

The picture below appears to show three of the prisoners “In Full Costume”, as the Hebrew caption suggests, wearing ponchos and mischievous smirks while brandishing buckets and a broom. The exact significance of the episode remains unclear, however.

“In Full Costume”

One page of the album is dedicated to the Jerusalemite prisoners, while others are devoted to those hailing from the cities of Tel Aviv and Haifa. Below is the kibbutznik page, which includes portraits of prisoners answering to such nicknames as: “Ulcer” (top right); “The Ballerina and the Hummus” (bottom-center); “Bunny” (bottom-left); and the “Preacher” of the group (top left).

“The Kibbutzniks”


The captions below the sketches read, from right to left, “Bad,Bad, Bad!”, “Who knows?” and “Oy vavoy!”. The photo on the left features Moshe Dayan on the right, as well as an unclear caption – ואפטימזס

Without an expert to help guide us through the album, many of the cryptic quotes and phrases remain unsolved puzzles: for example, on the next-to-last page, who are “The Captain and the Snakes”?

“The Captain and the Snakes”

At the end of the album is a press clipping reporting the joyous news: “The 43 are Being Released Today,” after almost a year and a half of pressure from Jewish leaders on the Mandatory authorities.

The 43 were freed on February 17th, 1941. According to the article: “From yesterday morning, small cars and busses filled with the prisoners’ families, friends and acquaintances flowed into the central bay near Acre. The kibbutz was designated as the greeting point, where they dined at noon.”

“The 43 Are Being Released Today”

Four months after their release, former detainee Moshe Dayan would find himself with an elite Palmach force in Syria, alongside British forces, in an operation in which he would lose his left eye.


Do you know the context of the drawings in the album? Can you provide us with more information? Feel free to write in the comments below or contact: Chen.malul@nli.org.il


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Marcia Freedman and the Fight Against Domestic Violence in Israel

Transcripts of the first-ever Knesset session dedicated to domestic violence against women reveals how indifferent, detached and even cynical Israeli politicians of the 1970s were when it came to this subject

Marcia Freedman, GPO

“The Knesset took a short break yesterday from the “heavy” topics to hear (with a half-grin, for some reason) about a particular kind of violence: ‘Women battered by their husbands’.”

Maariv daily, July 15th, 1976



Member of Knesset (MK) Avraham Givelber, the Deputy Speaker, who chaired the session:

Members of the Knesset, we move on to the next item on the agenda, presented by MK Marcia Freedman, regarding ‘women battered by their husbands.’ Permission to speak is granted to MK Freedman.

Marcia Freedman (Independent Socialist Faction):

Honorable Speaker, honorable Knesset – – –

Mordechai Ben-Porat (Alignment party):

What about the other issue, husbands who are battered by their wives?

Meir Pa’il (Moked party):

If a woman beats her husband, the husband should be arrested.

Marcia Freedman (Independent Socialist Faction):

I’m surprised you find this matter so amusing, and this proves exactly what I have to say today.


At the Knesset: ‘Women Battered by Their Husbands’… Discussion held in an unserious atmosphere…Davar daily, July 15th, 1976. Click to view the full article

Though it may be hard to believe, this was how the first discussion ever to be held in the Israeli parliament on the topic of domestic violence against women began. When MK Marcia Freedman raised the issue, she surely did not imagine her colleagues at the Knesset would find it entertaining. The minutes of the session show that instead of dealing with the problem, the MKs repeatedly responded with ridicule and laughter, raising “objections” by interjecting that women too, beat their husbands.


Minister of Health Victor Shem-Tov (Alignment party):

If a woman reports to the police that her husband beats her, do the police open a case file?

Minister of Police, Shlomo Hillel (Alignment party):


Pesah Grupper (Likud party):

And if the case is the other way around, and a man reports that his wife beats him, is a file opened then, too?

Meir Pa’il (Moked party):

There are some husbands it might do good to be beaten by their wives.

Minister of Health Shem-Tov:

MK Grupper, you don’t look like the kind of guy whose wife beats him.

Minister of Police Hillel:

You haven’t seen his wife – how do you know?

The minutes show how Freedman had to convince those present there was even a problem at hand. Even the minister responsible for these matters didn’t see what there was to discuss.

Minister of Police Hillel:

In all seriousness… I cannot say that there is a specific problem of violence inflicted by men against their wives.

Marcia Freedman (Independent Socialist Faction):

That’s the problem – that you don’t see it.

Yitzhak Golan (Independent Liberals party):

This has been a problem since the days of Ahasuerus and Vashti.

Minister of Police Hillel:

As I said, this problem is one of the many issues of violence in our society.

Mathilda Guez (Alignment):

It seems this is a very amusing topic.


‘The Knesset Discussed the Matter of Husbands Who Beat Their Wives’ Maariv daily, July 15th, 1976. Click to view the full article


Despite the “light” atmosphere and the common belief that the phenomenon was not one that required any special attention, Marcia Freedman did not hesitate, and  gave a riveting, shocking speech that created an opportunity to deal seriously with the matter for the first time in Israeli history:


In Shakespeare’s day, the law stated: ‘If a man beats a criminal, a traitor, an apostate, a villain or his wife – it is not considered a violation of the law.’ Today, the law and the police rightly protect all people from violent assaults, including criminals, traitors, apostates and villains. However, a married woman is still left forsaken, at the mercy of her husband, who may beat her more often than we may imagine.

Because of the conspiracy of silence regarding this issue, we do not have substantiated information as to the extent of the problem in this country. The police do not keep a record of most reports because, according to them, most injuries are limited to ‘bruises’, causing no bleeding or broken bones. Therefore, according to police policy, this kind of violence is not considered a matter of public interest.

Despite the conspiracy of silence, the estimated number of battered women in Israel is in the thousands rather than in the hundreds. A British parliamentary committee investigated the issue in England and found that one in a hundred men regularly assault their wives. There is no reason to assume our situation is any better. It is important to understand that violence against women is not a phenomenon restricted to poor neighborhoods or development towns.


Freedman did not hesitate to confront the police who demonstrated a forgiving approach to such violence:


When a woman turns to the police, she faces humiliating, belittling treatment. She is usually told, ‘This is not an issue of public interest. We don’t deal with domestic matters.’ Sometimes, if an officer considers himself something of a psychologist or moral keeper, he may say, ‘If you had behaved, he wouldn’t have hit you. Try to be nicer to him.’


Upon conclusion of the discussion, two proposals were put forth: The first, proposed by the Minister of Police himself, was that the topic not be included in the Knesset’s agenda. The second proposal was to assign the matter to the relevant Knesset committee. The result of the vote was 20:9, and Marcia Freedman’s proposition was accepted. And so, the issue of battered women went from being regarded as a matter “unworthy of public interest” to an official problem acknowledged by the Knesset and state authorities.

For MK Marcia Freedman, promises alone did not suffice. She was among the founders of Israel’s first shelter for battered women and a pioneer in the field of women’s rights in Israel.


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The Rebel Woman Who Fell in the Battle of Tel Hai

When asked to help the residents of Kfar Giladi, Devorah Drechler did not hesitate. When instructed to move on to Tel Hai she went gladly—and there she met her death


Portrait of Devorah Drechler from the Schwadron Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Everyone knows how it ended. Today, children in Israeli elementary schools are taught about the iconic Battle of Tel Hai which took place on the 11th of Adar, in the Hebrew year 5680 (March 1st, 1920). They are told of how the settlers held their ground in the famous courtyard of Tel Hai, despite all the hardships. How the dispute over the borderline between the British Mandate in the Land of Israel and the French Mandatory territories in Syria and Lebanon had turned the upper Galilee into a wild, no-man’s land. How the conflict between the French and the troops loyal to the deposed king of Syria created a particularly tense situation in the region. How armed Bedouins surrounded the courtyard of the Tel Hai settlement, demanding to search it for French soldiers. How the Bedouins eventually found a woman holding a gun and tried to take it from her, and how a riot broke out when she refused, marking the start of the great battle.

That woman was Devorah Drechler.

Drechler was born in the Ukraine in 1896. Though hers was the only Jewish family in her village, they nevertheless maintained Jewish traditions and were sympathetic to the “Hibbat Zion” Zionist movement in Russia. In 1913, Devorah arrived in the Land of Israel, to join her sister, Chaya, who had immigrated several years before and married Eliezer Kroll, a member of Hashomer (“The Guard”), the Jewish defense organization. Because of her sister and brother-in-law’s connections, Devorah also joined a group of Hashomer members who settled that year in the northern community of Tel Adash, known today as Tel Adashim.

Drechler quickly integrated into the group.  It was in this setting that she found a sense of purpose and satisfaction, a fulfillment of her dreams and ideas. Like most of the (very few) women in the group, she was assigned jobs that were considered “women’s work”. This entailed cooking, cleaning and laundering, while the men undertook the agricultural work, and in the case of Hashomer — security duty. The pioneers of the Second Aliyah (Zionist immigration wave) were certainly conservative in matters of gender and the local farmers, who had arrived earlier, were also reluctant to allow women to undertake these positions. Nevertheless, Hashomer women were usually capable of riding horses and firing weapons. These were important skills for women left on their own, at home, while their husbands and the rest of the men traveled to other settlements for work or guard duty.

A group of Shomrim (Hashomer guards) at Mesha (Kfar Tavor). At the center is the leader of Hashomer, Israel Shochat. From the Postcards Collection, the National Library of Israel

Drechler and the other young women were dissatisfied with the exclusion of women from matters of security, from secret committee meetings, and by virtue of that from full membership in Hashomer. The protest led to the decision to divide the organization’s women into two groups: active female members, who would have full and equal rights including voting rights in the organization’s meetings, and passive female members who, while being members, could not vote in the meetings or for the council. In the first group were the wives of the organization’s founders, such as Manya Shochat and Rachel Yanait, both of them women of high stature regardless, who had been part of the group for many years. The second group consisted of women who had married male members as well as single women, such as Devorah Drechler.

Zipporah Zaid, among Hashomer’s leaders, demonstrating her horse riding abilities

That was still not good enough. Drechler was one of the women who subsequently led the “women’s revolt” in the Hashomer organization. Ahead of the group’s annual meeting scheduled for the end of 1918, Devorah and two other women published a letter addressed to all members in which they announced that they would not be able to continue working unless their demands for equal and full rights were met. “And as we have been members in daily manual labor for years, so shall we be members in every aspect. There can be no meeting held without us, no secrets hidden from us. And if the male members do not have enough confidence in us for this, they must say so openly. Then we will know where we stand, and we will seek other ways to complete the work that brings us closer to our goal, which is the same as yours.”  At the meeting that followed, it was finally decided to accept all women as equal members in the organization, a decision that remained in effect until the final dissolving of Hashomer about a year and a half later. Although only two meetings were held after that meeting until the organization’s dissolution, researcher Dr. Smadar Sinai says it was still a considerable achievement for the young female members, among them Devorah Drechler.

Devorah Drechler, from Kovetz Hashomer, Labor Archive Publishers, 1937/8

The struggle for equal rights during those years was not just the concern of the women of Hashomer and Tel Adash. In the settlements and kibbutzim set up at that time, women fought for their right to take part in the “prestigious” agricultural work in the fields, and we mention here as well, the struggle of Miriam Bratz, “The First Mother” of Kibbutz Degania, whose story will be told in due course.

Devorah did not shy away from difficult tasks, as can be seen in her struggle for equality in her organization. During World War I, despite the fear imposed by the Turkish regime, she made daily visits to Hashomer’s prisoners in Nazareth, bringing them food and information. She also did not hesitate when the group sent her as reinforcement to Kfar Giladi, or from there to help defend the Tel Hai settlement: “On the front you go where they send you, no questions asked,” she was quoted as saying by fellow member Pinhas Schneerson, who assumed command of Tel Hai after the fatal wounding of Joseph Trumpeldor.

Portrait of Sarah Chizik, the second woman killed in the battle of Tel Hai, from the Schwadron Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

This was how Drechler came to be at Tel Hai and how she found herself assigned to a defensive position on the top floor of the courtyard’s main building. The fact that she carried a gun at such a tense and critical moment is indicative of her ability to use it if needed and the level of trust her friends placed in her. In that top floor room with Drechler was another woman — Sarah Chizik. According to the story, their bodies were found in an embrace, alongside the three other members of the group who were killed in the room. Both were exemplars of women who fought for their rights and did their part, whether toiling under the hard sun or fighting on the battlefield.



Thank you to Dr. Smadar Sinai for her assistance in the preparation of this article.



Further reading:

“Women and Gender in ‘Hashomer’: The First Defence. Organization in Eretz-Israel 1907–1939”, (Hebrew) Smadar Sinai, Ramat Gan, 2013

“The Book of Hashomer: The Words of Members”, (Hebrew), Dvir Press. 1957