[Excerpt] Recent careful examinations of American quarantines placed on incoming migrants have found that health officials were potent carries of bigotries rooted in the larger society; but usually historians have not paid sufficient attention to the complex challenges facing quarantine units in action. By examining the work of quarantine health officials dealing with migrating Jews from East Central Europe this analytical narrative seeks to show in detail important structural circumstances within which acts of bigotry manifested themselves between the 1890s and 1920s.
The narrative also has a larger agenda. Connections between public health quarantines and bio-cultural determinisms have long participated in the construction of public enemies. For instance in the 1980s, during the early years of the AIDS panic in the United States, public health officials could take for granted a citizenry that had long trusted in abstract empirical scientific knowledge and, for half a century, in the disease curing power of pharmacology's sulfa drugs and other antibiotics. Even so, in the first moments of panic all sorts of calls for screens and quarantine impacted on public policy discussions in ways reminiscent of the years between the 1890s and 1920s. During those years biological determinisms from the past had remained in the saddle. Even as modern public health programmes were becoming dramatically successful in fighting disease, they remained affected by hierarchies of bio-cultural notions, especially in apprehensions about immigrants as agents of dangerous contagious diseases.
That is one reason why this article focuses on Jews. The other reason derives from the evidence about Jews and disease in the places and times covered by this study. To be sure, there were other quarantines, involving, for example, resident Chinese and Italians; and in the months after the First World War potential incomers from Italy were at least as much an object of concern among American advocates of immigration restriction as were the Jews in Poland. But, in part, because of a typhus epidemic in that war-torn country, the association between disease and bio-cultural assumptions about Jews retained its traditional particularity in Western Europe and in the United States.