Israel’s lax attitude to lice
In Israel, lice is just another part of life with children. So, Debbie can easily compare notes with friends and parents about the trial, tribulation, and treatment for getting lice out of her daughters’ long hair.
“I only have one memory of lice growing up. I was sitting out in our garden, and my mother was combing out my hair in the sunlight. When we had lice, [people reacted in] horror, and we all stayed home from school,” says Debbie, 40. “But here, that is not the case. My kids get lice almost every week. I have to look for them all the time. It is very lax here. My kids talk about it. One of my daughters just told me how she pulled a louse out of her friend’s hair. She took a tissue and killed it.”
While that anecdote may seem gross to South Africans, in Israel, people are not judgemental about such things.
“In South Africa, there is definitely a stigma. Here, it is expected, and you are not judged,” says Debbie, admitting that is still difficult for her not to be judgemental. “Logically, I know my kids are not doing anything [wrong] to catch lice. It’s nobody’s fault. I try not to show them how disgusted I am.”
By law, teachers in Israel are forbidden to call parents or to tell children they have lice. The norm in most schools is that a notice goes out every month or so noting an outbreak of lice and asking parents to please do a lice treatment on their children. But nobody checks that it has been done.
“I find it depressing when I clean my daughters’ hair, and then the next day, they go to school and do the same thing with the same kids, and get lice all over again,” says Debbie. “When I see they have lice, I kiss my evening goodbye. I put on my girls’ favourite TV show, and let them watch all they want while I comb out their hair.”
In South Africa, the United States, and Canada, schools enforce a no-lice policy, and children found to have lice are not permitted back in school without a letter confirming that they are lice-free. In Israel, children with lice are just part of the everyday reality at school.
“My kids would never stay home because of lice. It really bugs me when I try to be a responsible parent and others don’t. It’s not a part [of living in Israel] that I particularly like, much like [losing my] Sundays. I didn’t particularly choose that, but it’s part of being here,” says Debbie.
Irit Livne, the Supervisor of Health and Health Education at the Ministry of Education, says that prohibiting children with lice from going to school punishes them for something they have no control over.
“In Israel, we have the law of universal education which guarantees education for every child. The child can’t be faulted for having lice. You are punishing the child and not the parent if you don’t allow the child to come to school,” she says. “It’s the parent’s responsibility to treat their child for lice. We try to educate about personal hygiene and cleanliness, but we are forbidden to offend or insult anyone.”
A teacher does have the discretion, however, says Livne, to involve a regional social worker if she sees an extreme case of lice infestation to determine if there is child-negligence involved. A teacher can also take a parent aside diplomatically and suggest that they check their child for lice, as long as it is done with tact and sensitivity and not publicly.
“It’s a problem, but it’s the parents’ responsibility to take care of it,” Livne says. “It’s an issue of mutual respect and responsibility.”
Amy Kolinsky-Dover, 46, originally from Canada and the mother of four boys, says it took her a while to overcome her Canadian sensitivity to lice.
“Where I come from, there is more of a stigma to having lice, but I’ve become more relaxed about it with my four boys. I got used to the culture. It was a process.”
While most Israeli parents take care of their children’s lice on their own, lice-treatment salons have opened up in Israel.
Most parents from English-speaking countries get into a tizzy when they find that their children have lice, and immediately treat them to get rid of the nits, says Devorah Ashkenazi, 31, the mother of three young children, who moved to Israel from New York nine years ago. She owns Lice Busters treatment salon in Jerusalem. The majority of her clients are English-speaking immigrants.
“Israelis are more laid back, and ask what the point of treatment is if the kids will just get it again. But it won’t go away if you don’t treat it. People here kind of give up, and feel like there is no end to it,” she says. “For us [Anglos], we are willing to spend money to clear the lice up. For Israelis, it is a luxury to clean it up professionally.”
In Tel Aviv, native-born Keren Friedman, 49, recalls that when she was in school, there were regular lice-checks conducted by the school nurse, and a note was sent to the parents of any student who had lice. But then the school nurses were done away with, and so were the lice-checks.
“Now, if a kindergarten teacher sees that a child has lice, the most she can do is write a general email or WhatsApp. There are some parents who are very alert to treat the lice, and others who let their kids walk around with lice,” says Friedman, who in 2012 opened up her lice-treatment salon Wish and Wash. “It crosses all borders, lice has no connection to any socio-economic, ethnic, or religious group.”
Her own clients range in age from babies to grandparents, and though there are many immigrants, native Israelis – Jewish and Arab – are also starting to come to her salon.