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Spanish Flu - Palestine 1920 to Israel 2020

Palestine to Israel - 1920 to 2020

100 years ago Palestine along with the rest of the world suffered the ravages of the Spanish Influenza pandemic - globally between 20 and 50 million people succumbed - many of the famous among them.

The current pandemic has people from all over the world subjected to similar restrictions of their personal freedoms, ranging from freedom of association to freedom of movement. Israel at this stage enjoys one of the lowest coronavirus death rates globally. Looking back 100 years, I was amazed to discover that Palestine similarly had one of the lowest Spanish flu death rates among the civilian population. A very strange coincidence indeed, or is it more than coincidence? Globally the Spanish influenza pandemic resulted in the deaths of large numbers of the 20 to 40 year old group, an age bracket that does not not generally suffer fatal effects from influenza. This phenomenon could be related to the large number of servicemen who fell victim to the pandemic. Most of them would have been in the 20 to 40 year old bracket, living in close contact with one another during the the final stages of the First World War.

The Rules as Published in Doar Hayom, Haifa, February 1920

Extract From The Librarians | The blog of the National Library of Israel

  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 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

  4. Avoid crowded gatherings in closed places; avoid contact with others as much as possible, don’t even shake one’s hand when saying hello.

Spanish Flu in Palestine, 1918 -1920

Israel has been proactive during the Coronavirus pandemic with the introduction of various statutes limiting the freedom of its citizens and enforcing the wearing of face masks, which has borne fruit with relatively low numbers of infections and deaths. Looking back 100 years or so, it becomes obvious that this part of the world reacted in a similar fashion during the 1918 - 1920 Spanish Flu pandemic. Two instructions in particular, given to the population of Jerusalem by military governor general Allenby before the pandemic could spread, stand out as being very similar to the modern Israeli restrictions. The first was advising all residents to keep their mouths and noses covered with masks when outdoors, while the second was an instruction to teachers to send any children suspected of being ill with the virus to the nearest medical unit. If the medical tests were positive, the child in question was to be isolated immediately.

This extract from the Joint Distribution Committee Archives tells the story “The Influenza epidemic in Palestine was not as serious as it was in many other lands this year, perhaps particularly because of the energetic steps taken to combat it. The school children in Jerusalem and Jaffa who showed the slightest trace of incipient Influenza were sent by their teachers to the Medical Unit for medical examination. If the examination showed positive results, the child was immediately isolated, thus preventing, in large measure, the spread of Influenza among the school children.” You should bear in mind that much of Palestine was sparsely populated, with Jaffa and Jerusalem the major centres of urban concentration

Patients waiting to see a doctor at a free community clinic. Palestine, c. 1920 (JDC Archives).

Spanish Influenza - The Greatest Enemy

While reports indicate that residents of Palestine appear to have escaped the worst ravages of the Spanish flu, the military forces under Allenby’s command suffered devastating losses of manpower. The pandemic became a greater enemy than the combined Turkic German forces ranged against the Allied army. Information is not readily available on fatalities among the troops as a result the pandemic, but I have managed to establish the following data. Approximately 1.2 million men served with the Egyptian Expeditionary Force between 1915 and 1919, with 5,981 deaths from disease (malaria and Spanish flu), while there were also approximately 100,000 disease related evacuations from Palestine. Although malaria is a parasitic disease and the Spanish flu a viral infection, the symptoms presented by both were very similar. The cause of death in most cases could only be established by post mortem examinations, and then still leaving doubt. Malaria weakens the immune system which made victims more vulnerable to the flu pandemic, which resulted in many victims suffering both malaria and Spanish flu. Unfortunately, however, there are no accurate statistics. There were thus many doubts as to the actual cause of death, malaria or Spanish flu.

Australian members of the Desert Mounted Corps spent long periods in the Jordan River Valley, which was a fertile breeding ground for the malaria mosquitoes and the Corps suffered heavily. 1,707 men fell victim to disease out of a total strength of 40,000, compared to battle casualties of 198 killed or missing in action and 438 wounded. Australian military historian Henry Gullet says that between 4,000 and 5,000 Ottoman prisoners of war died from the pandemic out of a total of 20,000 who had been captured in the Battle for Jerusalem and subsequently held captive in the city.

Captain Jug O'Whisky

Ze’ev Jabotinsky who served as a captain with The Jewish Legion (38th Fusiliers Battalion) reported that the battalion entered the Jordan Valley on 16 August 1918 with 800 men. By the start of the battle for Amman on 22 September , battalion strength was down to 550 as a result of the Spanish flu, and then down to 150 a fortnight later. As an aside, Cockney soldiers who had difficulty pronouncing the surname Jabotinsky, referred to him as captain Jug O’Whisky.

Some Famous Victims of the Spanish Flu

Sir Mark Sykes

Among the famous Spanish flu victims with a connection to Palestine was Sir Mark Sykes of Sykes-Picot infamy (See last weeks post on San Remo). Sykes suffered a painful death from the ravages of the pandemic in Versailles while attending the Paris Peace Conference. He left a conference meeting to rest in his hotel room as he was feeling ill, and never returned, passing away in the hotel room on 16 February 1920. His biographer (1923), Shane Leslie, wrote that after meeting Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann in Palestine in March 1917, Sykes became a staunch supporter of the Zionist cause. He was apparently determined to ensure that the Sykes-Picot agreement did not impede or prevent the establishment of a Jewish homeland, despite his part in having negotiated the notorious concord . His was one of the last recorded deaths of the Spanish Influenza pandemic.

Frederick Trump

While not directly connected to Palestine or Israel, although his grandson President Donald Trump certainly is, one of the victims of the Spanish flu was U.S. businessman Frederick Trump. The young Friedrich Trumpf immigrated to the United States from Germany at 16, and died of the virus on 30 May 1918, aged 49. The Trump family anecdote is that while out taking a stroll with his son Fred (Donald’s father), he took ill and was immediately sent to bed. He passed away a day later, becoming one of the first victims of the Spanish flu.

Famous Survivors

Some of the famous who contracted and survived the pandemic and had or would have a direct influence on affairs in Palestine and later in Israel. Their number included British prime minister David Lloyd George, Franklin D. Roosevelt, president of the U.S. during WW2, Woodrow Wilson, president of the U.S. during WW1, German Kaiser Wilhelm ll and Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, who infamously refused to allow Ethiopian Jews to relocate to Israel after that country achieved independence in 1948.

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Fascinating as always, thank you Peter! I had no idea that Sir Mark Sykes fell victim to the Spanish Flu!

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