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Jewish History's Lesson for Handling Ebola

With the arrival of the Ebola virus on American shores, public conversation has shifted from fears of contagion to a focus on the ethics of quarantine and the rights of the contained. Quarantine is an ancient form of medical precaution, predating immunization by centuries. Its implementation, however, has never been strictly clinical. The question of who is quarantined is often bound up with pre-existing prejudices, and represents a field on which existing concerns over differences of race, religion and geographic origin are played out, confronted, tested and occasionally even rejected.

In 1713, during the last great outbreak of the plague in Europe before its eradication by vaccine, the Jews of Prague found themselves the subjects of such special scrutiny. Prague was a bustling Jewish metropolis; it had more than 11,500 Jewish residents, more than a quarter of the city’s total population. It was also dirty, cramped and crowded — walled-in, with only six gates offering access between the Jewish quarter and the rest of the city. When disease appeared, it arrived with special ferocity among the Jews, a ferocity noted by the city’s political and medical authorities alike.

The plague claimed its first victims in July, and by mid-August the containment of the Jewish population was complete. Imperial authorities ordered that the Jewish ghetto be boarded up, with only a small door to give access. Healthy Jews were sequestered in newly constructed barracks. The sick were placed in hospices outside the city limits.

Three poems, written in Judeo-German (a linguistic relative of Yiddish), tell of the deaths in the tens and hundreds in a single day. They share the cries of the sick and the mourners mingling, and evoke a stench of bodies so powerful that they could not be approached to be buried with last rites. The ghetto was so denuded of resources that men stripped houses for boards to build coffins, and women labored day and night to weave burial shrouds. As the holidays of the Jewish new year in September approached, festivals and mourning became indistinguishable: death and decimation loomed over the community...

Read entire article at The Forward Association