The Children of Israel 13: To Suffer the Body Imperfect

After all the complications of the past two entries, let’s start with a simple fact. The State of Israel pays a private contractor to weigh Israeli children in Israeli schools.

One might guess that this is a fossil. Once Public Health was in the hands of the Minstry of Health that was dominated by the Socialist Party (MaPaM) (More on this in Losing It.) The Ministry engaged public health nurses in schools to pay attention to the health of children. Weighing was a way to detect malnutrition in a fledgling country with children from all over whose basic health was at risk after all the losses and travails of immigration. Made sense.

The Ministry of Health has not been in the hands of MaPaM for most perhaps four decades or more. Public health nurses have not been in the schools for, I believe, at least two decades. So there is absolutely no possible benefit to the child in his weight being aberrant because there is no one who could do anything with the information.

In addition, there is a worldwide debate about the negative impact of this practice. There are endless reports of children suffering deep public shame at just being weighed. It is not hard to imagine. On the way to the scales he or she is ridiculed by peers, “Don’t break the scales,” “Weight (pun intended) to see the face on the nurse when you get on the scales” or just “Good luck, Fatso.” Kids will be kids, in other words they will mimic prejudicial behavior of the adults all around them.

Wait a moment, I thought we were screening for malnutrition? Is there any evidence that the public weighing of children actually results in bringing down their BMI into “desirable” range? Is there even any evidence that attending to the BMIs of children has any positive impact upon their health? No, and no. No evidence. Well, what about “screening” for anorexia? The Ministry itself has never claimed that this was a goal.

OK, got that. We are weighing kids in school only because we always used to, only now it has only negative and no positive impact of the children. Looks like a no-brainer.

So it should be simple. Just weigh in on the Health Ministry… oops, the Health Ministry has been out of this game for decades. When public health nurses disappeared from school (since malnutrition disappeared) weighing was passed to the Education Ministry.

What? What is educational about weighing? Is it educational to encourage public shaming? To engage in practice without evidence?

So this ought to be even simpler. Turns out that the Education Ministry actually pays some private contractor to do what the public health nurses once did at the expense of the Ministry of Health. The Education Ministry should be happy to save some cash and stop doing something useless and detrimental that it never had any business doing anyway.

Allow me to add a personal story at this point at the risk of diversion. I once accompanied the young Co-director of the Middle East Children’s Association (MECA) to ask the new Minister of Education (the late Yossi Sarid) to provide continuing education credit for teachers who participated in the program (meetings with Palestinian teachers). She thought someone at my advanced age must be experienced in meetings with Minsters. I was not, but I made a good guess. I said, “First thing you say is that we are not asking for money.” She took my advice, Sarid grinned from ear to ear and said, “Come by every day.” We then asked for the credits and he immediately agreed. As we left smiling some of the bureaucrats in the Ministry asked what had transpired. We informed them, and their response was that the new Minster simply did not know what he was talking about, credits like that need to be approved etc. etc., it will take a year. It took less than a week.

So, let’s meet with the Minister and say, “Here is a suggestion to save you money and stop a (socialist [!])  fossil practice….”

Not so simple. Two (related?) obstacles. One, there are functionaries in the Ministry who are responsible for the program; this request has to go through them. Two, it turns out to be top secret classified information who in hell is the contractor who gets paid public money to weigh kids in public schools.

At this point I was enlisted by a prominent dietician in Tel Aviv, who could not get past Obstacle One and Obstacle Two and found me on the internet, to join her at a meeting of the Knesset (Parliament) Committee on Children’s Rights. We were given time to speak and presented our argument. (Protocol in Hebrew at this link). The Ministries of Health and Education promised to “look into it” and that was the end of that. There was another possible appearance at another Knesset committee, this time I absented myself because the manager of the committee could not guarantee that I would be given time to speak because the session was expected  to be heavily attended. My limited photogenicity simply does not justify showing my face where I cannot speak. In the end the session was very poorly attended and the same manager expressed outrage that I was not there to fill in the plentiful time left over. Whatever. The last Knesset Committee in January this year called for an end to weighing. (Hebrew link) The media mistakenly reported that this meant the weighing was stopped. I doubt it.

My colleague and I attempted over two years, including after January, to schedule a meeting with the person responsible for this program in the Ministry. To no avail. The last meeting was rescheduled at least 4 times on increasingly short notice. I got the point.

So what is the point?

The average person familiar with the current Israeli scene would assume that the contractor is or was related to someone in the Ministry and has a financial interest to keep getting paid for weighing kids. This is a first cheap shot, often correct.

But beyond this, there is an entire Ministry with a huge budget that consists mainly of well-trained educational experts. What makes this arcane program pass muster with them? And there are thousands of educational personnel in hundreds of schools. How come (to the best of my knowledge) not a single objection from a teacher, guidance counselor, psychologist or principal?

That is why I present this case as an example of Childism. ‘Business as usual” in the Ministry makes three assumptions (prejudices) all of which entail discrimination against children:

Assumption One: The child’s (over)weight belongs to the State.

Assumption Two: The State determines what constitutes a desirable body for its children.

Assumption Three: The State is free to make interventions “for the child’s own good” without consulting with the child.

Readers of this bog should have no trouble anticipating the next argument. Governmentality here supports Childism. Another case. Seen from a zoom out.

Since I have wasted no small amount of time and energy on demonstrating what not to do, I propose to look at what could be useful.

I have been thinking about empowering the voice of the zoom in. When children are abused by obligatory public weighing, who are present? Children, teachers and guidance counselors, and, indirectly, parents.

In 2016, I think we have such a readily available zoom out of social media that I fear we may miss the true zoom-in of face to face meetings which I think are still the core of change. Here are the steps I favor:

  1. I would like to see teachers meeting with kids and parents to hear of the negative emotional impact of the weighing. This I propose would be the essential face to face experience, and I-YOU moment free of control that informs all of the next steps. I think it is a mistake to skip this process and race to all kinds of content zoom-out pronouncements. I think that such experiences are irreducible and they form a sturdy root for the next steps. I think such roots create a relative immunity to all the governmental moves to disqualify the issue. We need people who can answer (mainly to themselves) “I have been there, I have met this shaming, this needs to stop now.”
  2. I would like to see teachers talking with their classes about diversity and about shaming. This involves expanding the I-YOU .
  3. I would like to see a guidance counselor or teachers meeting with parents about the same issue. Another I-YOU expansion.
  4. I would then like to see THREE outgrowths in the social media, one for teachers one for kids and one for parents. They could be separate forums on the same Facebook or other social media “SHAMING-FREE EDUCATION page. These pages are most effective, non-alienating and not-provocative when they are based on direct experience. Pages like this need the experiences at their roots.
  5. I am not someone who knows the what, when and how of social change, as it grows out of social media. Perhaps a petition or a demonstration or a flood of documentation or using some direct connection to the government. What I am stressing is that the basis of such change be in the direct personal experience in meeting people who suffer from an activity and becoming convinced of the need to give these voices a full hearing.

I admit that I was stymied for quite a while trying to formulate this approach. The reader can easily foresee many tiny but effective obstacles. The first would be that there is no value in the micro, in the personal meetings. This is where I believe that Buber comes to our aid. If we appreciate that there is a qualitative human difference between “It” discussions of content and “You” meetings with people who have suffered, then we will give first privilege to such meetings because we need them to transform us into participants in particular suffering that we want ended. That allows the voice of suffering to be carried directly. The second obstacle is that educational personnel cannot be enlisted for all kinds of reasons. My experience in Israel is otherwise. I believe that the direct meeting with suffering takes place between kids and teachers all the time. The problem is that these experiences of teachers are not given voice. So we are not really creating the “I-You” moments between teachers and kids, no one can do such for anyone else. Rather, I create “I-YOU” moments between myself and a given teacher which allows her to privilege to such meetings with her pupils. Third obstacle, the Ministry is deaf. I want to say something different here. I propose that we say that in the “It-world” everyone is deaf, and my “It” screaming in the “It” ears of the Ministry is part of the problem, not the solution. I would hope for a different process where the human beings in the Ministry have a different experience that they cannot reduce to an “It” when they are spoken to as “YOU” about experiences that are rooted in “YOU.” I am assuming that all human beings feel pain and limitation in the “It-world” and respond differently and naturally to the “YOU”-world. There the problem becomes a human one in the Ministry officials, and that is exactly the point. From here on the rest cannot be planned, because manipulating people is an “It-world” activity, part of the problem.

Pretty tentative ideas, no doubt. I want to stress here my invitation to my readers to join in this conversation based upon their own experiences.

About the Author
Alan Flashman was born in Foxborough, MA, and gained his BA from Columbia, MD from NYU, Pediatrics, Adult and Child Psychiatry specialties at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, The Bronx, NY. He has practiced in Beer Sheba since 1983, and taught mental health at Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University and Ben Gurion University. He is currently CEO of Family Instiute of Neve Yerushalyim, sponsoring a first fully accredited post-masters training in family therapy for the Haredi community. Alan has edited readers on Therapeutic Communication with Children (2002) and Adolescents (2005) in Hebrew, translated Buber's I and Thou anew into Hebrew, and authored Losing It, an autobiography, and From Protection to Passover.