WALTHAM — ”We are drowning in hygiene neglect, mainly in the Arab villages,” says an austere, white-capped nurse played by Israeli artist Tamar Nissim in her video “National Health.”
The video is in Nissim’s chilling “Contagious Truths” exhibition at the Kniznick Gallery at Brandeis University. The exhibition is presented by the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute.
Nissim borrows language for that video from mid-20th-century Israeli textbooks about hygiene. The show examines how notions of cleanliness enforce societal division, and it springs from the disappearance In Israel of babies and toddlers in the years after Israel’s 1948 founding. They were mostly children of Yemenite and Mizrahi Jewish immigrants (from North Africa and the Middle East) living in state-run tent cities erected due to a housing shortage.
Families reported more than 1,000 babies and toddlers missing. The nonprofit AMRAM keeps a database of the missing and testimony from family members, who allege Israeli authorities kidnapped and adopted the children out to Ashkenazi Jews (of European descent). Officials said the children died while receiving medical care.
It became known as the Yemenite Children Affair. Three Israeli government inquiries, the first in the 1960s and the last in the early 2000s, have been largely inconclusive. Testimony from the immigrant families detailed newborns who vanished from hospitals and children who never returned from doctors appointments.
Last year, the Israeli government approved a fund of approximately $50 million to compensate families but has yet to issue an official apology.
Nissim based the script of her video “The Hygiene Project” on language from the real-life testimony of mothers and nurses during the inquiries. In the video, the nurses malign the parents’ hygiene and breast-feeding practices. “We need to teach the mothers how to care for their babies against their will,” says one nurse.
The nurses speak in clipped tones and clinical terms as they mechanically go about their business. The mothers argue, but ultimately accede to the nurses’ unflinching authority.
“Contagious Truths” brings up the charged relationships among national identity, public health, and bodily autonomy — which we see in the US in the abortion debate and reactions to COVID-19. It calls out a particular misogyny aimed at women judged for the way they feed and care for their infants, or the way they keep a clean house. In the video “The Blue Will Shine White,” a young woman assiduously cleans bars of soap.
Nissim’s videos and displays of hygiene-related items highlight the construct of whiteness as a standard of purity — racially and as a marker for cleanliness. But the contagion this show brutally captures isn’t viral or bacterial. It’s the infectious fear emanating from those holding onto their power with white knuckles.
TAMAR NISSIM | CONTAGIOUS TRUTHS
At Kniznick Gallery, Women’s Studies Research Center, Brandeis University, 515 South St., Waltham, through July 8. www.brandeis.edu/hbi/artist-program/current-exhibition.html