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NYU Scholar Reports Eugenics Part of Psychiatric Practices in Mandatory Palestine, Israel From 1930s Through 1950s

May 18, 2009
N-468, 2008-09

Eugenics was among mainstream psychiatric practices in Mandatory Palestine and in the early years of the state of Israel, New York University’s Rakefet Zalashik reports in her book, Ad Nefesh: Refugees, Immigrants, Newcomers and the Israeli Psychiatric Establishment (Hakibbutz Hameuchad; Hebrew).

The work, which chronicles the practices of the region’s psychiatric community with Jewish patients from the 1930s through the 1950s, also recounts the widespread use of shock therapies long after they’d been abandoned in other parts of the world.

However, Zalashik notes that the findings must be viewed in their historical context.

“Most of the somatic therapies from the first half of the 20th century today seem radical and inhuman, and their usage by psychiatrists a few decades ago often appears difficult to understand or accept,” she observes. “However, one should not ignore the context in which these therapies were invented and implemented. On the one hand, the dominant belief among psychiatrists from all schools at the beginning of the 20th century was that medical progress would enable the creation of a new rational social-moral order that would alleviate human suffering. This optimism strengthened the assumption that the expansion of knowledge by continuous scientific research would lead to an understanding of mental diseases, which in turn would produce more effective therapies for psychiatric patients.”

European-trained psychiatrists who immigrated to Mandatory Palestine, forming a nascent psychiatric community there in the 1930s, took with them the belief in eugenics as a method for ensuring a durable society. This period also coincided with the worldwide adoption of shock therapies, such as inducing coma through an overdose of insulin.

“In the 1930s and the 1940s Jewish psychiatrists in Palestine adopted somatic therapies quickly and enthusiastically,” writes Zalashik, a Dorot fellow in NYU’s Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies and the university’s Taub Center for Israel Studies. “But the choice to use a certain therapy didn’t derive from its ‘scientific validation,’ and sometimes not even from its impact on the mentally ill, but mainly from its availability and relation to other economic and technical means available to psychiatrists.”

“In contrast to other places, the use of these methods persisted in Israel for many years during the period when they came under sharp criticism by the worldwide psychiatric community,” she adds.

The psychiatric community’s faith in eugenics, or the science of improving the human race, was also driven by economics-that is, those seen as a burden to society would drain scarce resources-but also by a desire for a “healthy nation,” Zalashik concludes.

Its proponents included Kurt Löwenstein, a psychiatrist and neurologist, who promoted eugenics at a 1944 medical conference in Tel Aviv. In his lecture, he argued against allowing those with mental disorders from bearing children. This view was held by others in the medical community, notably Dr. Yosef Meir, who led a health maintenance organization for three decades.

“Who is entitled to bear children? The search for a correct answer to this question is the concern of eugenics, the science of improving the human race and protecting it from degeneration,” Meir wrote in a 1934 guide for parents put out by his HMO. “This science is still young, but its positive results are already of major importance … Is it not our duty to ensure that our nation shall have sons who are healthy and whole in body and mind?”

Zalashik’s previous scholarship encompasses representations of the Holocaust in Israeli society, including those in literature, art, law, political institutions, health, and education.

Reporters interested in speaking with Zalashik should contact James Devitt, NYU’s Office of Public Affairs, at 212.998.6808 or

This Press Release is in the following Topics:
Graduate School of Arts and Science, Research

Type: Press Release

Ad Nafesh: Immigrants, Refugees, Newcomers, and the Psychiatric Establishment in Israel

Ad Nafesh: Immigrants, Refugees, Newcomers, and the Psychiatric Establishment in Israel

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