“Children of Our Future”: Climate, Degeneration, and Education in Hebrew Society in Mandatory Palestine (1917-1948)

Yair Seltenreich. History of Education. Volume 45, Issue 3. 2016.

Cultural Significances of Degeneration

The concept of degeneration captured and preoccupied European minds, particularly in the decades preceding the First World War. It comprised two main aspects: the very idea of optional deterioration of body and soul combined, with its nefarious implications for the individual, the nation and the race, and its growing menace as a consequence of expanding influences of modernism.

Degeneration meant morbid change in tissues, and hence in soul, due to excessive stimulation such as alcoholism or masturbation. Consequently, the degenerate person suffered from continuous, often fatal, decline in bodily and mental abilities. During the nineteenth century several assumptions were associated with the idea of degeneration: (1) Degeneration was connected with a dominant hereditary phenomenon. It was easily transmitted to future generations and its negative implications were much harder to eradicate. (2) It was strongly associated with atavism, an inherent tendency (like the predisposition to commit murder) which could have remained dormant for many generations, yet was potentially irreversibly provoked by a degenerative process. (3) Degenerates were those who succumbed to their lust, an idea that clearly involved individual responsibility, as pre-controlled conduct was sure to prevent degenerative deterioration. Consequently, degeneration was strongly associated with social or mental effects, such as poverty or non-masculinity. (4) Many believed degeneration was also stimulated by the constant instability of modernism. Modernism indeed was associated with uncontrolled attractions of expanding urban concentrations, decadent writings that blurred the line between right and wrong or technological innovations which, through unprecedented velocity or noise for example, generated tensions that were so intensive for body and soul during previous generations.

Medical, religious, judicial and educational authorities invested great efforts in order to limit the expansion of degeneration as far as possible and to contain its potential consequences. Struggling to create awareness, identify menaces and suggest preventive attitudes, they became highly successful in influencing fin de siècle European minds.

The concept of degeneration was put forward in 1840 by Bénédict Augustin Morel, a psychiatrist from the Parisian Salpetrière, who had already attributed notions of atavism and heredity to degeneration. About two decades later the theories of social Darwinism contributed largely to the diffusion of the idea of degeneration. Social Darwinism implied various theories, which all extended the Darwinian idea of natural selection to social arenas. Natural selection put forward better adaptability and ability of survival of the ‘fittest’, implicitly legitimising the marginality of the unfit, which could be inferior races, low-grade ethnicities or else degenerates.

Two books contributed in particular to the formulation of degenerative views. The first was Criminal Man, published by the Italian psychiatrist Cesare Lombroso in 1876. Lombroso found clear connections between physiognomy and criminal behaviour, which in itself was an expression of degeneration. He claimed that criminals underwent a process of degeneration, which, while affecting the soul, infallibly also left its imprints on the body, particularly on skulls. The body, in other words, became a visible reflection of hidden sentiments. The second book, Decadence by Max Nordau, a central European gynaecologist who later became a notorious Zionist leader, appeared in 1892. It soon gained influence in large intellectual circles. Much like Lombroso, to whom he dedicated his book, Nordau believed in the danger of atavism and blamed obsessive interest in sex, alcohol, symbolist writings and numerous physical and spiritual attributes of the decadent atmosphere that threatened the very foundations of European society and culture. More than any thinker before him, Nordau insisted on the danger of degenerative mass contamination. He believed that only through strict morality, meaning conservative morality, could social qualities be preserved. Modernity could be tolerated as long as it could assure sentiments of duty and responsibility. An important awareness of degeneration was similarly raised by Jean-Martin Charcot, the French psychiatrist, through his much publicised lectures on hysterics, in which he demonstrated the extent of what was then interpreted as physical and mental human abasement.

As already mentioned, no symmetry existed between positive and negative elements, the latter being much more persistent. Moreover, degeneration was inherited by succeeding generations, usually with graver consequences. Several cultural concepts played an important role in accentuating sensitivities towards degeneration: bourgeois culture, racism, masculinity and nationalism. Bourgeois culture, of which Nordau was a notorious preacher, helped set barriers against the danger of degeneration by defining the proper ways for self-control and proposing rightful responses to degenerative ‘contamination’. It was founded on moderation, thoughtfulness and careful preservation of social boundaries.

Racist ideas, in their fin de siècle form, were therefore clearly inspired by the idea of degeneration, which was considered as a real menace to the quality of higher races. Consequently, racial superiority was not assured unless it could protect itself from decadent infiltrations. The significance of that concept was not so much due to its novelty as to its intensity. The idea of degeneration now became a constant reminder of the possibility of irreversible racial degradation. Racial degeneration could be the result of neglecting self-control or otherwise by marrying into inferior races. The masculine model of a resourceful, courageous and noble male, which assured the preservation of European superiority, was also threatened by degeneration. Contemporaries were also haunted by growing infiltration of non-perfect males, Jews or homosexuals for example, into healthy social tissues. In positing ideas about ethnic integrity and superiority, nationalist discourse, much like racist discourse, necessarily focused simultaneously on potential menaces, mostly degenerative. Thus the French mind was obsessively preoccupied with low birth rates combined with physical deterioration of recruits, both attributed to the nefarious consequences of the massive national degenerative process.

Climate and Degeneration in European Culture

One other potential source of degenerative processes was climate. The concept that the cool European climate prevented tensions was an accepted principle in European medical thought. Georges Vacher de Lapouge, like other fin de siècle race theorists, was convinced that the superiority of the Aryan race was associated with the beneficial influence of the Northern European atmosphere. While a good climate was able to preserve physical and mental abilities, a bad climate contributed extensively to their degenerative deterioration and was an essential cause of the inferiority of non-European populations. In that spirit a colonial British doctor, James Ranald Martin, wrote in 1837 that ‘it was climate which made the Hindu heedless and slothful’. The Bengalis, who lived in a southern harsher climatic region, were consequently ‘utterly devoid of pride, national and individual’ and became insensible, cruel and ferocious. Even their music was not harmonious but rather seemed like ‘the noise made by cows in distress’. This idea was still dominant in 1908. Indeed climate was different from all other degenerative factors, which could all be subjected to human control, either in their individual forms of self-abuse or through their social forms, notably the effects of modernity. All those factors were the result of human activity while climate, conversely, was natural and therefore a virtually uncontrollable attribute.

Climate became a more important factor during the nineteenth century, which saw unprecedented waves of emigration to harsher climatic regions. It was, among other reasons, a consequence of modernity, which supplied the technological means for mass transports. During that century 20 million British residents emigrated, about a third of them to Africa or to Australasia, followed by simultaneously massive emigration of French, Dutch or Spanish. One result was growing awareness of the potential degenerative influences of a bad climate, ie excessively hot and humid, which over time affected not only health but also bodily and mental resilience. Women and children in the southern hemisphere seemed particularly vulnerable. It was seen for example through a higher stillbirth rate than in Europe. A lady who travelled by ship from India to England in 1864 found many passengers ‘debilitated by the climate, whose constitution could not be renewed’. The lethality of climate and environment was also seen from the fact that 4830 out of 70,000 Europeans in India died each year during the 1860s. In 1847 the percentage death rate of soldiers was seven times higher in Algeria than in France.

During the second half of the century the concept of a fatal degenerative influence of tough climate became a common idea. Colonialism subjected European bodies to unknown and constant climatic trials. Efforts at ‘acclimatising to climate’, such as drainage of swampy lands, aerated habitation or preventive medicine such as the regular use of cod liver oil , could have at most an attenuating effect on climatic vicissitudes. Many believed that lengthy stays in the colonies would result in forceful bodily decay, generating a lazy and feeble white sub-race. The French naturalist Bouffon claimed already in the eighteenth century that whites were less developed in America than in Europe due to climatic conditions. India in particular was considered a degenerative menace for the white race. One such menace was malaria, which, according to a British doctor, ‘ruins a race, sapping its stamina and destroying its power to work. There is no acclimatization to the effects of malaria either in the individual or the race.’ Malaria caused appetite loss, weakness, dejection and a long period of convalescence, often incomplete. British doctors in New Zealand concluded that a tropical climate provoked bodily deterioration among adults and mental degenerative decay among children. Others found that white bodies ‘seemed out of balance with the new climate’, and that children either suffered from bad teeth, became unhealthily pale or else tended to become more effeminate.

Fear of climactic influences on Europeans existed similarly in Dutch colonies in Southeast Asia. Doctors believed that the tropical climate affected women’s fertility. They also claimed that newborn white babies in the colonies were doomed to almost certain death while the survivors became prey to numerous tropical illnesses that could have fatal neurological effects. A Dutch doctor wrote in 1927 that the blond and white Dutch children belonged naturally to the white and blond dunes of the Netherlands, and that their residence in the Indies was therefore unnatural and harmful. Children, he claimed, acquired the characteristics of their race ‘also from the influence of … the sphere of the fatherland’. Races, it seemed, could not acclimatise to dissimilar climates. The only other potential degenerative attribute aside from bad climate was unfit education through the exposure of Dutch children to contact with local populations.

Regeneration and Degeneration in the Hebrew Sphere

The close of the nineteenth century found Jews all over Europe in search of newer meaning for their Judaism, motivated by a multitude of causes, some of them external like growing anti-Semitism, others internal, due to deep transformations. Such sentiments were particularly strong within small Eastern European Jewish communities, where the combination of conservative bigotry and endemic poverty left no hope for better lives for younger generations. Jewish youth revolted in various ways against this unbearable way of life. Some took refuge in radical left movements, like the Bund. Others opted for emigration, either to East European centres like Warsaw or Odessa or to the American continent or elsewhere. Many others still threw in their lots with Zionism. The success of the Zionist movement, founded in 1897, was due partly to its propitious emergence as a mass movement—facilitated to some extent by the efficiency of its organs, but I believe that its success was largely because it touched the right emotional chords within the hearts of fin de siècle Jewish youth. By combining romantic nationalism, secularist modernity, symbolic masculinity and racial regeneration, Zionism became the translation of an emotional state of mind into political and organisational patterns. In that way it seemed a real promise for fulfilment of inner aspirations.

The romantic aspect of Zionism was reflected in two main expressions. The first was the very idea of reintegrating Jews from all over the world into one national community. The second was the rapid passage of the Zionist Congress from a more general idea of a Jewish state anywhere to the more particular craving for a specific state in Palestine. Theodor Herzl, the charismatic founder of the movement, invoked the issue of Palestine in his famous book, though he himself was more guarded about the idea. Modernity was at the same time a means for creating the new nation and a symbol of change as Zionism aspired simultaneously for renovation and for detachment from despised diaspora life. Zionism needed therefore to forcefully become a secular movement, being in clear contradiction with millenary Jewish yearning for the God-sent messiah. In placing man as a substitute for God in fulfilling the mission of returning to the fatherland, Zionism was therefore imprinted with secularism: in its concepts of a modern national culture, in the new status it attributed to the Hebrew language or in its new attitudes to masculinity. Non-Jewish masculinity symbolised hegemony and control of decision-making, in particular a struggle against degeneration and its influences. By contrast, traditional Jewish masculinity was rather passive, based on Edelkeit, a sensitive and noble delicacy, and on the power of self-restraint. The main change introduced by Zionism was the adaptation of European codes of masculinity, mainly those concerning initiative, industriousness, physical power and courage.

The first Zionist leader who encouraged that transformation was Max Nordau (1849-1923), the author of Decadence. He warned that, unless Jews reverted to physical activity, decadence would consume any vitality that had still remained in the Jewish race. In a famous speech during the Second Zionist Congress he coined the term ‘muscular Judaism’. Such a regenerative programme, as Todd Presner suggested, tacitly responded to German anti-Semitic stereotypes of degeneration and abnormality.

In practice, Hebrew settlement in Palestine clearly adopted Nordau’s ideas. A steady effort to initiate a process of regeneration was undertaken during the first decades of the twentieth century in order to eradicate the degenerate diaspora characteristics and create a new masculine Hebrew type, productive and courageous. This ideal Hebrew type was above all a physical labourer, more specifically a farmer. The ‘return to the earth’ symbolised the apex of regeneration, physical activity combined with reattachment to local nature. ‘Mother earth’ symbolised national, ethnic and individual regeneration combined. Man was a tree planted in his field. Another important aspect of regenerative symbolism was the emergence of a Hebrew warrior type—fearless, prepared to defend national material and spiritual assets, ready to drench with his blood the clods of his earth.

Newborn children in Palestine were particularly adulated, representing the fruitful results of the aspired transformation. They were referred to as ‘sabras’, the name of a thorny but fruitful local plant. It was the physical attributes of the sabra body that so captivated the Hebrew collective imagination, as the reincarnation of desired regeneration. The healthy stature of the sabra, with iconic untidy forelock and sandals on his feet, was reflected in many artistic, literary, publicist or scientific aspects. The stereotyped sabra was represented as tall and erect, muscular and tanned, athletic with a beautiful bright look, a look that reflected fearlessness and calmness, a proud reincarnation of the European male type. There was equally a strong element of sense of place, which represented natural, authentic and organic belonging to the local land of the regenerated Hebrew. Much importance was given to excursions of school classes of all ages, which aimed to create direct associative ties between young pupils and their land through the five senses. Teenagers participated in challenging journeys to the remotest parts of Palestine. In that way, so it was believed, they became fearless, sturdy and undeterred: rightfully true male masters of their land. Physical resilience and mental education became main elements in assuring the Hebrew regenerative process.

‘Children of Our Future’

In nascent Hebrew society education was considered a central formative power of Hebrew youth. Consequently, the Hebrew Teachers’ Association, founded in 1903, quickly became a highly influential organ and a standard-bearer of modern ideas of Zionism and Hebrew regeneration. Even after the First World War, during which it lost much of its organisational functions to the Educational Committee of the Zionist Organization, the Association continued to retain highly authoritative influence in pedagogical domains. In 1929 the Teachers’ Association published an impressive Jubilee book. It opened with 11 articles by renowned educational authorities. Most of them re-evaluated the short but impressive past of Modern Hebrew education. Others pondered new paths to be undertaken in the future. But there was an exception. An article by Ya’akov Kopelevitz, titled ‘Children of Our Future’, vehemently attacked in picturesque language the new generation of Hebrew youth and, more specifically, the sons of European-born Jews. Indeed, Kopelevitz did not mince words when describing those youngsters:

For sixteen years I have been scrutinizing his [the youngster] particular Palestinian face, which has the aspect of a son of the desert. It is neither handsome nor respectful. It is gloomy, expressionless and hard-lined, sneaky and helpless at the same time, suspicious and ready to resistance. It expresses smartness yet all too practical with no spirituality whatsoever. It looks as if filled with tiny, melting grains of guile, like salt and pepper. It lacks innocence, dreaminess or shyness. It bears an Asiatic, still not Oriental, expression, sophisticated and evil, full of self-love, of bragging, like a slave who aspires to be king and hides its inferiority.

Kopelevitz considered that such a human type, repellent and unpleasant, which stood in opposition to ‘the glamour of Jewish boys’ faces in Europe, was the necessary consequence of the Hebrew settlement in Palestine, the fatal result of preferring the harsh climatic Orient to the cool and beneficial European atmosphere. Kopelevitz was sure it was impossible to create a European-like New Jew genetic specimen in the specific site of Palestine, only a ‘spiritual mutation, a combination of western ghetto and oriental bazar’. The combined inspirations for a regenerated people and for a renewed homeland in the fathers’ land stood in fatal opposition. In two or three generations the Hebrew people would become completely Asiatic both in body and in spirit.

Kopelevitz insisted again and again on the powerful influence of nature, through climate, which takes over body and soul, ‘as soon as the young boy leaves the threshold of his home’. Under climate influence the child ‘becomes insolent, unable to internalize the essence of prestige [= authority] of adults in the same natural way in which it exists in cultured countries’. Excessive periods spent outdoors generated many harmful features on ethical, aesthetic and moral levels. The child became unable to restrain his impulses, acquired no respect for the spiritual meanings of things and lacked the least self-control. In that way the Hebrew child adopted the material despicable mentality ‘of the neighboring [Arab] race’. The most harmful consequence of Palestinian weather resulted in the impossibility to control one’s impulses: ‘Under the firm hand of the sun man feels rather a subject than an object. Yet being a subject means the essence of impulsive and uncontrolled life, while having the feeling of being an object is the foundation of conscientious life.’

Such negative consideration of the sun was radical even at that period. The tanned sabra, on the contrary, was symbol of a healthy nature boy. The idea of the beneficial impact of calculated and regulated exposition to the sun was influenced by German ideas about health and nature. The tanned body as a positive element reflected a European concept of a beneficial, not degenerating, sun, a sun bestowing healthy light rather than harmful heat. Mordechai Berechiahu, a leading hygiene authority, stated in 1927 that the sun was able at the same time to strengthen or otherwise enfeeble. ‘Like each other medicament, sun became beneficial when moderately absorbed.’

The predominance of impulsivity as a degenerative consequence of climatic attributes was the leading idea in Kopelevitz’s article. Impulsivity was translated into growing anti-spiritualism, as was clearly reflected in the process of study:

They are wonderful, almost little geniuses, while in kindergarten; they still do wonders in elementary school; they are talented but already sluggish in high school; in the university they become very mediocre students, with no spiritual initiative, stuck to the mere exigencies of the official courses they follow. It seems that at that stage all their intelligence is oriented towards petty daily materialism, becoming embarrassed guests in a spiritual world…. In humanities, consequently, they are totally Asiatic.

The ensuing result was clear: with no Western character, based on the ability of abstract thinking, ‘we shall never be able to create anything new in Palestine, as it is impossible to create while in a degenerative state’.

Ya’akov Kopelevitz—An Eccentric?

Ya’akov Kopelevitz, the author of the article, was not an ordinary person. Born in Russia in 1893 he failed in his studies in a Russian Gymnasium and consequently immigrated to Palestine where he failed again in his efforts to enter the prestigious Herzlia Gymnasium in Tel Aviv. He finally studied for a year in Ezra Seminary in Jerusalem. Back in Tel Aviv in 1913, Kopelevitz struggled to survive during the years of the First World War. In 1920 he returned to Europe for six years, a period during which he studied in Rome, Berlin and Paris, married, had a son, betrayed his wife with her best friend, divorced and returned to Palestine. Following a short teaching career Kopelevitz, who would change his name in 1950 to Yeshurun Keshet, devoted the rest of his life to writing till his death in 1977.

Kopelevitz could be rightfully considered as an unloved son of the Hebrew cultural sphere, a fact that was barely concealed even in his obituaries. Romantic, hedonist, opinionated and quarrelsome, solitude tempted yet tormented Kopelevitz all his life. He often referred to his fascination with the wild nature of his childhood neighbourhood. Though hardly attractive he chased women obsessively from early youth. Soon after his arrival in Palestine he came to the unshaken conclusion that the gap between European and Oriental cultures was too broad ever to be bridged. He wrote profusely, mostly poetry and literary essays, and translated into Hebrew some European masters, such as Romain Rolland, Thomas Mann and Franz Kafka, but his pompous and excessively flowery style was not popular with the literary public. He was never seen as part of the Hebrew literary pantheon and was awarded the prestigious Bialik prize only shortly before his death. Already in 1919 his writings were considered uninspired by David Frischmann (1859-1922), a literary authority at the time, who also accused Kopelevitz of plagiarism. Kopelevitz, in response, mocked the heavy German dialect of Frischmann, whom he unjustly blamed for his literary exclusion. Like the French writer Stendhal, Kopelevitz said, he could sum up his life in the words: I lived, I wrote, I loved. But, he remarked, in his own case he would righteously add: I hated.

Kopelevitz did go into radical exaggerations concerning the degenerative fatality that was ingrained in the Palestinian climate. He dismissed even the foundations of Jewish morality, which was formulated under the influence of the local degenerative climate, judging it no more than a synthetic impulse. Only European culture, he declared, was able to create analytic thought, ‘as, in opposition to morality, it took an analytical direction of analytical retrospection’. Europe, or rather Northern Europe, solely achieved the desired harmony between impulse and metaphysics by binding the former to the latter. In the same manner he conceived the role of the teachers. Theoretically, said Kopelevitz, only the teachers might have been able to prevent the ‘Asiatization’ of the future Hebrew people but even they were fatally helpless against the predominance of nature’s power. A degenerative process as the sad price for romantic national aspirations was unavoidable. Some considered it a worthy price for national redemption, Kopelevitz knew, yet he himself could by no means accept it. He concluded: ‘All I wanted was to point to those unhappy facts. It was a heavy and sorrowful task. Pity me, my brothers!’

Jewish Ethnicities and Degeneration

The article contains some implicit worldviews that now might seem to border on racism, yet they were acceptable to the editors of the jubilee book as corresponding with mainstream concepts of that period. One of them is Kopelevitz’s emphasis on Lombrosian physiognomic ideas of the mid- and late nineteenth century, according to which facial aspects reflected inner character, ultimately of a total ethnic or social group. In Palestine, where unprecedented intensive encounters between Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews, that is Oriental and European, took place, reference to physiognomic considerations was indeed mostly common within the intellectual community of psychiatrists, sociologists, doctors or educators. Such ideas were shared even by Arthur Ruppin, as they were by leading psychiatrists during the 1920s.

Another idea was the dichotomist distinction between Ashkenazis, as representatives of hegemonic European culture, and Sephardis. Kopelevitz clearly presented the risk of degeneration as exclusive to Ashkenazis. Sephardis were pre-determined as culturally inferior, having already been degenerated through the damaging influences of the Oriental climate. Such thoughts were common in Ashkenazi circles, as proven for instance by the notes of Israel Weinberg, a schoolteacher from Tiberias. Weinberg stigmatised the Jewish Sephardi in the small community of Beit She’an as ‘remote from any influence of European culture’ and as ‘indifferent, which is a common trait for persons lacking any spiritual value’. He further spoke contemptuously of their being imbued with Arab culture, ‘which [estranges] them from our national culture and habits’. He concluded: ‘that makes the travail of the Hebrew teacher seventy-seven fold more difficult [and] any positive result becomes clearly deficient’. Weinberg was not alone within the pedagogical community in entertaining an almost racist malice towards Sephardis. A headmistress of a school for girls in Jaffa found her Sephardi pupils ‘rude and lacking talents, superstitious and undisciplined’. Haim Hissin, an illustrious doctor, considered Sephardis as ‘ignorant, sloppy, prejudiced, hallucinated and apathetic’. Kadish Yehuda Silman, a leading poet, wrote in 1936: ‘they are insensitive and opaque…. Laziness and negligence are their hallmark.’

Kopelevitz thus touched a sensitive nerve: An Ashkenzi regenerated mind was considered among Ashkenazi circles as essential for the successful formation of the New Jew type. The pedagogue Noah Nardi referred to research from 1925, which found that Jewish children in the USA were the leading group among immigrants in intelligence tests in primary schools. The average IQ for children of Polish Jews was the highest at 102.8, followed by non-Jewish Swedish (101.2) and Russian Jews (99.5).

Was Kopelevitz unique in his fears of unavoidable degeneration of Ashkenazi intellectual capacities under the Palestinian climate or did he express tacitly accepted notions in the Hebrew educational arena? Such considerations, if they indeed existed, stood in opposition to the whole idea of Hebrew regeneration. Many articles written by local pedagogical authorities since 1910 and even until the early 1950s in the semi-scientific periodical Hahinukh (‘Education’) referred directly or indirectly to issues of degeneration, its causes and its consequences. Already in 1911 Haim Harari referred to the impact, both physical and mental, of degeneration on future generations. He harshly blamed parents for excessive subjection of their children to impulses. But which parents? To judge by the frequency of abnormalities among their children they were mostly both Sephardi and Ashkenazi families who had lived in Palestine for several generations, implicitly already affected by its climate:

The extreme poverty of Yemenite Jews, the residential density among North African and Ashkenazi Jews, the lack of hygienic norms, bigamy among Sephardi [which signifies promiscuity]—all those are causes of the many physical and mental illnesses which are inherited by their children.

Harari distinguished between two degenerative progenies: undisciplined children and retarded children. The first were ‘irritated and irritating’, recognisable by their arrogance, talkativeness and difficulty in concentrating. They were, in addition, eccentric and conceited children. The retarded children represented a more serious problem, as they lacked moral capacities altogether. ‘Their brains were incapable of containing anything and they lived rather like beasts. Their aspect and movements caused constant disgust and their mental and physical inabilities complicated enormously any effort to educate them.’ There were, he conceded, modern tendencies to educate such wretched individuals, yet it was impractical to find educators who had to be professional and compassionate at the same time. Influenced by eugenic ideas of his time, Harari pondered whether ‘it was not preferable to exterminate those miserable beings as soon as they were born, rather than condemn them to a life of suffering’.

Additional Degenerative Threats

The issue of heredity, particularly in connection with degeneration, was invoked again and again in Hahinukh. Fischel Schneersohn, who explained degeneration as a response to a continuous traumatic situation, considered the First World War to be a major cause of degenerative reactions, which resulted in unprecedented numbers of ‘problematic children’ throughout Europe. While recognising the existence of the degenerative phenomenon in Palestine, Schneersohn warned against simplistic and generalising interpretations in the manner of Kopelevitz. His recent research, he wrote, proved that ‘the percentage of problematic (debilitated and nervous) children in Tel Aviv schools was smaller than in Jewish schools of Warsaw and Kovno and also smaller than what Binet found in French schools’. But while degeneration was a European issue, Schneersohn did find a correlation between the occurrence of problematic children and the primitive Oriental environment in which they grew up. I shall return later to the concept of Oriental culture not only as simply primitive but as a consequence of a lengthy degenerative process. Another researcher, Shlomo Baruch Uhlmann, inspired by fathers of eugenic theory Francis Galton and Karl Pearson, emphasised both the important influence of body on spirit and the particular impact of heredity on spiritual appearances. The implied conclusion corresponded with Kopelevitz’s concept: if climate was indeed detrimental to the body, mental degenerative implications became self-evident.

Similar ideas were also shared by the authoritative Mordechai Berechiahu. Berechiahu equated neurotic abnormality with disharmony, often the result of a degenerative process. Neurotic effects were more easily observable in children than in adults. Such children ‘opted for hallucinations…. They much preferred an illusionary cosmos, peopled with imaginary creatures.’ Thirty years later he still considered that there was a high correlation between the economic situation and degeneration. He wrote that tests conducted in Jerusalem and in Tel Aviv in the early 1940s ‘have proven that eighty percent of retarded children were offspring of retarded parents, while only twenty percent were retarded “by chance”’. But what stood at the basis of degeneration? An answer was to be found in Berechiahu’s book from 1925, which preceded Kopelevitz’s article by four years:

Climate has a significant influence on people’s fate, as it affects whole regions…. It affects physical health but also mentality, sexual maturity as well as cultural creativity. Facial aspect, physical stature and cultural expression reflect all too clearly the impact of climate…. We can thus see anywhere that the north overcomes the south. Even in the same country northerners often dominate southerners…. An Englishman in India loses half of his creative ability. Colonizing people who moved from north to south lost thereby both their energy and their initiative.

Pedagogical and Hygienic Responses

The response of the Hebrew institutions to the danger of degeneracy was twofold: pedagogical and medical. The pedagogical sphere recognised even before the First World War that it was able at most to limit and slow down climatic degenerative influences. Nissan Turov, an influential pedagogue, had already approached the theme indirectly but clearly in 1911, when he wrote about the influence of the nervous system on the acuity and alertness of the five senses. Senses, he stated, had a determining impact on learning abilities. ‘Indeed, it was nature’s duty to develop correctly the child’s senses, helped by the greatest teacher of all—the environment.’ When the environment defaulted it was the teachers’ task to constantly exercise the senses of their pupils and prevent their ‘too fast lethargy, particularly through cleanliness and also by avoiding the exposure to too trying stimulations’, such as climate. Hygiene, considered through environmental, corporeal and mental prisms, thus became an essential factor for the beneficial creation of the regenerated Hebrew pupil. Such a view accentuated the role of the teacher as a hygienic agent under the patronage of the medical system.

Contrary to Kopelevitz, many doctors and pedagogues believed in the positive ecological contribution of the Palestinian environment to Hebrew regeneration. Local youth were described as displaying an aspect of conveyed confidence, fearlessness and lack of a sense of inferiority. They were ‘taller than their parents, broad-shouldered, tanned, muscular and thin, bright-sighted, with a slow and self-assured walk’. Such beneficial results demanded clever/smart management of the local risky climate for which Hebrew society took various measures. Kibbutz architects were thus well aware from the 1920s of the importance of acclimatising public and private buildings, for instance by spatial distribution of construction according to wind direction or by building large roofs which exceeded the building line. A leading doctor, Dr Hillel Yoffe, suggested that ‘classrooms should be erected in a northwestern direction so as to prevent the sun penetrating them’. In 1920 Levinsky Teachers’ Seminary sent its upper class for a lengthy agricultural initiation but took care to warn against prolonged stays in the fields, as excessiveness could be harmful to the pupils’ physical resilience and health. Parents too tended to develop a more mitigated view concerning the damaging nature of outdoor public spaces, allowing their children to spend most of their free time there. Many experts also downplayed the dangers of climate and considered noise more damaging to human constitution than exposure to local climate. Dr Israel Rivkai, for instance, recommended exposing babies to fresh air but ‘in a quiet shaded garden, silent and frequented by few people’. The seashore was also considered undesirable, not so much for its sunny atmosphere as for the unbearable noise that cancelled the beneficial influence of sea breezes and exposed children to agonising nerve stimulation.

Another climatic danger came from stagnant water, a combination of heat and moisture that always haunted medicine as a potential source of malaria. Such nuisances were systematically drained, initially by massive plantation of eucalyptuses and from the arrival of the British through extensive canalisation. Consequently cholera, also associated with contaminated water, practically disappeared from the Palestinian landscape after the First World War. Other efforts were made in the domain of nutrition, in order to increase bodily resistance to climatic harm. A fruit- and vegetable-based diet, noticeably tomatoes and oranges, rich in vitamin C, was successfully introduced into the Hebrew sphere. Productive work, particularly agriculture, was considered regenerative though it required lengthy exposure to heat. Much energy was equally invested in the development of sports activities, also through mass gymnastics inspired by the German idea of turnen, which preferred mass gymnastics to competitiveness. Not by chance was the motto of Hapoel, a leading sports association, ‘multitudes, not champions’. Corporeal activity was followed by frequent showers, which became almost a cult, cleaning and refreshing sweaty bodies.

The existence of a powerful, mobilised Hebrew society in Palestine contributed much to the accomplishment of regenerative activities. Like other mobilised societies, it was based on voluntary contribution in the achievement of commonly shared idealistic goals and consequently willingness of the masses to adopt patterns of conduct designed by the cultural elite. A mobilised society instilled sentiments of discipline into young parents, deemed responsible for the regenerative transformation of their children. Doctors and nurses, psychologists and psychiatrists, alongside teachers and kindergarten monitors, all gave meticulous instructions for optimal approaches to all possible aspects of children’s lives and routines and controlled their meticulous implementation. They also adamantly warned disobedient parents against detrimental consequences. The leading organ that reinforced medical influence on Hebrew society, apart from the notable efforts of the British mandatory authorities, was the American Zionist Medical Unit (AZMU).

From the start of the 1930s the care for Hebrew ‘problematic children’ gradually came under the responsibility of psychiatrists rather than educators. This was partially due to massive immigration to Palestine of psychiatrists of German origin during the 1920s and 1930s. In 1929 comprehensive IQ tests of all Hebrew schoolchildren were conducted, and allowed, under the auspices of the School Hygiene Unit, centralised and systematic classification, categorisation and intervention, albeit not always strictly professional. Teachers, alongside school doctors, became a major source of observation, detection and information regarding social and developmental aspects among their pupils. Berechiahu, as head of the unit, requested that each school doctor be acquainted with child psychiatry and himself be psychoanalysed. Berechiahu was almost certainly inspired by ideas of racial hygiene, popular in Germany from 1905, which saw the solution for racial regeneration not only in genetic but equally in social, ecological and economic terms of betterment. Psycho-hygiene, as Schneersohn wrote in 1938, was essentially a preventive method, intended for early detection, already during childhood, of potential individual abnormalities, in order to obviate later development of ‘anti-social elements’. Yet that particular function had to be essentially pedagogical rather than medical, as ‘what is the aim of education if not to restrain and reform the most dangerous hidden powers within society’? Such ‘hidden powers’, as already noted, were implicitly degenerate Sephardi Jews. In his article Schneersohn drew the line between two different, though basically interrelated processes: regenerating Sephardis, albeit at a very slow pace, and preventing their degenerative influence on Ashkenazis.

Kopelevitz saw climatic influence as permanent, stronger than any cultural or spiritual attribute, and therefore rendering meaningless any effort at a solution, while medico-pedagogic mainstream concepts, put forward by Berechiahu and Schneersohn, conceived climatic damages as relative and hence approachable through well-elaborated strategies. It might be said, then, that Kopelevitz was more reflective of mainstream European colonialist thought of the time, which, as Stoler and Beattie have shown, considered natives as final products of historical degenerative processes, mainly due to climate.

Both Kopelevitz and Schneersohn feared Ashkenazi degeneration into a Sephardi-like type but they differed in nuances. While Kopelevitz put forward a natural attribute in the form of climate, Schneersohn emphasiaed a social one, the negative influence of the Sephardis, which he considered ‘the most dangerous social elements’. Both, however, saw the role of education primarily as coercive, protecting the positive parts of society, while its enriching role remained a secondary element in that context.


The mid-nineteenth century put forward two influential ideas: the evolutionary theory of Darwin and the idea of degeneration formulated by Morel. While the first emphasised a process of racial adaptability, the second accentuated the dangers of genetic deterioration. Both theories revolutionised racial concepts, as they highlighted the instability of permanent racial features and accentuated the impacts of racial mutability. Both considered individual issues, which involved self-responsibility, but at the same time social concerns, which legitimised institutional control. Individuals and society had to identify domains of opportunities for genetic progression or, alternatively, of dangers for deterioration, formulate strategies, put them into practice and evaluate their consequences. Eugenics, which aimed to avoid reproduction of the ‘unfit’, was one of the most popular strategies in the first decades of the twentieth century, and popular also among the Hebrew psychiatric establishment.

In this context, was the issue of degeneration as raised by Kopelevitz a productive contribution to public discourse in Hebrew circles, or was it, rather, an esoteric outcry? Was he the first to notice the potential futility of the whole New Jew regenerative idea? And why did such a radical text appear in a book that stood under the sign of mainstream constructivism of the educational establishment?

The answer seems to be in between the two options. The demarcation line between genetic improvement and control of degenerative process was blurred as long as it concerned the New Jew ethos, because the same pedagogical and hygienic strategies served both aims at the same time. While Kopelevitz was not original in raising the problem of Palestinian climatic conditions, he was unique in his determining consideration of it, excluding any potential solution and seeing the new local ‘race’ as doomed to degeneration. Pedagogical and medical elites, while well aware of the initial problem, gave much more credit to the continuous efforts invested in its solution or, at least, its containment. I think that the Teachers’ Association chose to publish Kopelevitz’s ideas, which drew attention to a threatening and real danger, in order to rouse alertness and prevent complacency among teachers. The Association must have entertained the hope, not to say the assurance, that those teachers, as an intellectual elitist group, would succeed in distinguishing between the alert sounded by Kopelevitz and his discouraging conclusions.

If transnationalism means cultural inspiration then both Kopelevitz’s article and the attitudes of the hygienic-educational circles in Hebrew society attest to its power. The cultural struggle of Hebrew society in Palestine to liberate itself from traditional concepts of Diaspora Judaism could not have succeeded without a solid alternative cultural framework to inspire it, and that framework was European. Much like European societies at the start of the twentieth century, the nascent Hebrew society was fascinated by regeneration to which it attributed all modernist and romantic hopefulness and anxieties. In that context this article might contribute to research concerning the role of hygiene and education in framing other national entities in the making.