Mooreville Treats Eye Health in Mandatory Palestine

By Phyllis Jeffrey – A visit to Jerusalem’s Ticho House—once an optometry clinic—led Anat Mooreville to explore how eye health came to be linked with "visions" of the modern nation in British-mandate Palestine. On November 10, 2016, Mooreville, a postdoctoral fellow in Jewish Studies, delivered a talk entitled "Blind in Palestine: An Ocular History."

In the 1920s, Ticho House was the home-cum-clinic of optometrist Abraham Ticho. Touring the former clinic, Mooreville was struck by the many placards bearing tales and testimonials from former patients. The memorialization of Ticho House emphasized Dr. Ticho’s centrality in the community, as well as the diversity of his clientele, which included both Jewish and Arab patients. So significant was his impact on Jerusalem in the Mandatory period (1920-1948) that, in Hebrew, “in the days of Ticho” came to mean simply “the old days.”

That visit led Mooreville to her research focus: an investigation of public health campaigns in the treatment of trachoma (a bacterial eye disease causing blindness) that sought to eradicate the disease among both the Jewish settler and native Palestinian populations in early 20th-century Palestine.

In her talk, Mooreville explored how mobile trachoma treatment became a site at which a desire (on the part of both British and early Zionist authorities) to modernize poor populations through one-on-one treatment ran up against certain entrenched assumptions. The most notable of those assumptions was that Yemeni Jewish and Palestinian populations were essentially “oriental” and therefore incapable of being modernized. 

Travelling oculists

Discussing three cases of eye health work in mandate Palestine, Mooreville focused in particular on an anti-trachoma campaign organized and funded by Hadassah, an American-run Zionist organization in the pre-1948 period. That campaign sought to eradicate the disease within the Yishuv, the Mandate-period Jewish population. Dispatching travelling eye doctors, Hadassah sought to fight trachoma among the poor, Yemeni Jewish settler population. Hadassah “traveling oculists” would visit schools, administering eye drops.

Ticho House

But why the sole focus on trachoma? Because, Mooreville said, the ailment—a communicable disease of the eye often caused by poor hygienic conditions, and endemic to the Middle Eastern region—symbolized an oriental backwardness that threatened the vision of a modern nation. Unlike malaria—another disease considered ‘oriential’ by both Hadassah reformers and the British—trachoma was not life-threatening. This led to what traveling oculists viewed as maddening indifference among some afflicted. How could the future nation come into focus, as it were, if its members could not see clearly?

Ten commandments of eye health

The Yemeni Jews treated by Hadassah occupied, Mooreville noted, a liminal place within the Yishuv. Their immigration had been facilitated to provide a labor force—to enable wealthier Jewish farmers to employ coreligionists rather than Palestinians. Living in poor conditions and forming a kind of underclass to their European Jewish employers, Yemeni Jews were ambivalently subject to welcome as members of the nation, and suspicion and distaste as an “oriental” other. Their rates of trachoma were high, largely due to their poverty.

At times, injunctions for modern hygiene took on the tone of religious doctrine.

 

For Hadassah opticians, there existed a tension between viewing Yemenis as incapable of being reformed, and viewing them as medical subjects who could be healed. One consequence was that the limited aim of eye health was prosecuted through elaborate schemes of hygienic reform: instruction for women and girls; even, in one village, the proposal that a special school be built for the purpose. At times, injunctions for modern hygiene took on the tone of religious doctrine—as with Hadassah’s creation of a 1925 flyer promulgating “10 commandments” of eye health, which the populace was to adopt in place of “idolatrous” folk treatments. 

Local pushback

The excursions of Hadassah’s travelling oculists played an important role in mapping, recording, and codifying the region and its Yishuv population. Journeying to all 67 regions and issuing students with “eye health cards,” many viewed the work as in service of the Zionist ideal of “knowing the land.”

Yet conditions on the ground often obstructed their mission. In one village, local leaders argued that by providing free eye-health, the travelling oculists were usurping the role of their local health clinic, which depended upon local contributions to operate. This could be interpreted as local villagers resisting the aims of the center by claiming their own capacity to become modern. Village leaders, however, argued that by paying for a clinic their residents learned the modern value of personal responsibility. Faced with such pushback, many travelling oculists soon abandoned their initial “pioneer spirit.”

Complexity and ambivalence

The intensity of interest in eye health during the Mandate period also pushed some private eye doctors out of metropolitan areas. Elsewhere, they were forced to interact with a new clientele. That was true of one Dr. Ephraim Sinai—previously an assistant at Dr. Ticho’s popular practice. Driven out by the tight market in Jerusalem, Dr. Sinai embraced a new vision to “live among the Arabs,” and set off for Gaza.

Though up to 70% of the populace of Gaza suffered from trachoma—and despite paying a Palestinian boy to shout that “an eye doctor has come from Germany!”—Sinai found few new patients. His view of himself as a civilizing savior was at odds with reality.

In the case of Dr. Sinai as well as the Hadassah-employed travelling oculists, trachoma and the efforts to cure it in British mandate Palestine reveal the complexity and ambivalence of efforts to bring a vision of modern Israel into “focus.”

Learn more about Anat Mooreville

This event was sponsored by Jewish Studies and Science and Technology Studies, with additional co-sponsorships from the Department of History and the Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies program.

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