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  • Kupat Holim, Dr. Isaac Max Rubinow, and the American Zionist Medical Unit’s Experiment to Establish Health Care Services in Palestine, 1918–1923
  • Shifra Shvarts (bio) and Theodore M. Brown (bio)


In 1920 a meeting took place in Palestine, 1 then under British rule, between Dr. David De Sola Pool, manager of American philanthropic funds for the Jewish community in Palestine, and Abraham Hartsfeld, a representative of Kupat Holim—the Hebrew Workers’ Sick Fund. 2 They had a stormy discussion about the amount of funding to be allocated for [End Page 28] the provision of health services to the workers. In the course of the dispute, Dr. De Sola Pool lost his temper and slapped Mr. Hartsfeld. This incident caused great indignation and led to an immediate response: a boycott of the American organizations active in the field of health services in the country. The workers demanded the removal of the American Zionist Medical Unit (AZMU) directed by Dr. Isaac Rubinow, which had been working in Palestine under the auspices of the Women’s Zionist Organization of America (Hadassah) and was funded by Jewish American philanthropies. 3

This paper examines both the activities of the American Zionist Medical Unit in Palestine at the beginning of the 1920s and its confrontations with various parties in the Jewish community in Palestine, as it attempted to implement its version of “Socialized Medicine.”

Medical Aid before the AZMU

The health status of the Jewish community in Palestine at the end of World War I was extremely poor. At the beginning of the war there were about 85,000 Jews in the community; by the end, only about 57,000 remained, and these were in dire physical and emotional circumstances. 4 Early steps to organize medical aid had been taken at the beginning of 1916, when the leaders of the community appealed to the Jewish community in the United States to grant them financial and medical aid because most of the hospitals and medical supplies had been confiscated by the Turkish military authorities and many physicians had been mobilized for service. In addition, the financial distress caused by the war affected the health of the Jewish community: epidemics spread very quickly, thousands died from hunger and the lack of medical care, and many others tried to escape by flight to Egypt. In June 1916, the World Zionist Organization (WZO), meeting in Copenhagen, appealed to the American Zionists to send immediate medical aid to Palestine.

News of this severe health crisis reached Jewish leaders such as Dr. Haim Weizmann, president of the WZO, and Justice Louis Brandeis, leader of American Zionists, and it was decided to dispatch medical aid. The actual execution of this task was assigned to the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, Hadassah, because it already had experience [End Page 29] in Palestine. When the United States entered the war in 1917, Hadassah’s medical aid program stopped abruptly because American citizens were not permitted to enter Palestine. Hadassah made contact with British military authorities in December 1917, shortly after Jerusalem was captured from the Turks. British permission to send aid was given in March 1918, but only after the personal intervention of Brandeis.

Hadassah in Palestine

Hadassah was founded in New York City in 1912 by a group of fifteen women, headed by Henrietta Szold, “to encourage Jewish institutions and enterprises in Palestine and to enhance Jewish ideals.” 5 The object of Hadassah’s work in Palestine was defined by Szold: “Not charity! We go to Eretz Israel [The land of Israel; Jewish Palestine, as it is called in Zionist circles] equipped with the experience of social-philanthropic work by American Jewish women; we plan to bring to the country the American medical achievements. . . . If we are able to bring order to this country of utter chaos, nobody could accuse us of being a charity society.” 6

The first Hadassah nurses, initially called “Bnot Zion” [Daughters of Zion], went to Palestine in 1913 through funding provided by the Nathan Straus family to open a maternal and child welfare center. 7 Two Hadassah nurses worked in Jerusalem until World War I broke out, at which time they were forced to return to...

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