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ISRAEL: Swine flu and the P-word

April 30, 2009 |  8:44 am

Like many other animals, pigs are not kosher. But a loaded history has rendered them a deep cultural abhorrence to Jews, and the animal has come to symbolize the ultimate "otherness," the deepest expression of non-Jewishness and the worst of filth. In 1962, Israel passed a law prohibiting raising pigs for slaughter, permitting it only among certain predominantly Christian Arab communities -- although there are loopholes. A long-standing bone of contention, the subject has played a significant part in Israeli politics (see "Outlawed pigs: law, religion and culture in Israel"). 

Pig protagonists like that of "Charlotte's Web" are nearly a cultural impossibility. So profoundly loathsome is the pig that many pious Jews do not even call it by its name and refer to it as davar acher, ('the other thing" or "another matter"), a multipurpose euphemism for several unmentionables.

With swine flu confirmed in Israel, pigs are causing a different kind of stink.

Addressing the media a few days ago, the deputy health minister, Rabbi Yakov Litzman, said, "We won't say 'pigs'. We will call it 'Mexico flu'." This prompted immediate protest from Mexico's ambassador to Israel, who called Israel's Foreign Ministry to express offense and outrage. Litzman's office cited religion sensitivities and clarified that it had no intention of offending the friendly country, adding that Litzman warmly recommends using the term "South America flu," as recommended by international medical authorities.

Two Israeli men have been confirmed to have contracted the virus, both upon returning from Mexico, but other suspected cases tested negative. Israeli health authorities have raised the level of alert to 5 to match the World Health Organization influenza pandemic alert. Following a consultation Thursday, the government announced additional steps: Israelis are advised to refrain from travel to Mexico. The Foreign Ministry is suspending all delegations to Mexico and is asking Mexico to do the same for now. Doctors are being dispatched to all points of entry to oversee screening of passengers entering Israel.

Health officials from Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan plan to meet Friday for coordination, as Palestinians coming from Mexico enter through crossings controlled by Israel and Jordan.  

People who had been in contact with the confirmed patients were asked to refrain from crowded public places, including independence day festivities. One website reports that on a recommendation from a prominent rabbi, one yeshiva has separated tens of students who recently returned from their Passover family visits to Mexico until tests rule out the virus, and the classmates of a kindergarten-age relative of the first confirmed patient were asked to stay home from school for a day. The Israeli Embassy in Mexico had canceled its independence day reception.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's new government hasn't appointed a health minister. The health portfolio was entrusted United Torah Judaism, a party representing ultra-Orthodox Jews who historically decline full ministerial positions to avoid direct participation in Zionist government. That's why Litzman is formally the deputy health minister. With no minister above him, he has full authority in health-related matters but cannot vote in the Cabinet, including on those matters. Health organizations have petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court, demanding a full-time minister be appointed. Israel's health ministry regularly monitors influenza and charts the activity of various flu strains. 

Many have poked fun at Litzman's aversion to using the P-word (like this cartoon), some calling it a symptom of the disease of Israeli politics. At first they laughed, Litzman told Israel Radio, but now that others want to call it "South American flu," suddenly everyone's serious. Regarding Mexico's protest at his proposed name, he wondered aloud if now all of South America would take offense.

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem. 

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