Abortions Were Rampant in Pre-state Israel, Study Finds

Ben-Gurion and other leaders railed against birth control by means of abortion, which was primarily a result of the financial insecurity of the time.

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

Abortion was the most common form of birth control during the pre-state Yishuv, according to new research by Prof. Lilach Rosenberg-Friedman of the department of Land of Israel Studies and Archeology at Bar-Ilan University. Details of the research will be released on Sunday at the World Congress of Jewish Studies at Hebrew University.

Titled “Abortions as a Reflection of the Yishuv’s Complexity,” Rosenberg-Friedman’s lecture will shed new light on the subject of birthrates and abortions during the British Mandate period in Israel. Her research shows that abortions reflected built-in tensions within the pre-state Yishuv between the key value of creating a Jewish majority in the Land of Israel and a society that sought out modernity and copied society in Western Europe - including a family structure with few children.

"This is a topic that sheds light on the entire society and to a great extent it is still the conflict of our society until today. How we are both traditional and modern; conservative and also revolutionary," she said.

There are no official figures on the extent of Yishuv-era abortion, which was private and conducted underground. But the consequences are apparent from the birthrate figures of Jewish women, among other things. In 1944, the birthright was an average of 2.1 children per woman, one of the lowest in the world at that time. By comparison, the rate in Israel today is 3 children per woman. "There was a lack of economic security and personal security then," said Rosenberg-Friedman. "There were [the bloody clashes between Jews and Arabs] and the Germans about to conquer the land. Today with all the troubles, there is a sense of security," she added.

Research conducted in the 1940s by Dr. Tova Berman-Yeshurun, who interviewed some 3,000 women who had undergone abortions, established that financial insecurity was the the main reason that women ended their pregnancies.

The high rate of abortion was recognized at the time. Hebrew University of Jerusalem rector, Prof. Abraham Halevi Fraenkel devoted much of his speech at the 1940 graduation ceremony to the subject, which he considered to be the most burning issue of life in the Land of Israel. “The commandment in our souls and our belief is the first positive commandment of the 613 commandments in the Torah and its phrasing is short,” he told the young students. “Be fruitful and multiply.” Later, it would become know as the “demographic threat.”

In a passionate 1942 speech to the Assembly of Representatives, the representative body of the Jewish community at the time, then-Chief Rabbi Isaac Herzog not only compared abortion to the Holocaust, which was raging in Europe at the time, but hinted that the Holocaust was actually the punishment for the spate of abortions. Herzog’s speech became a milestone in the battle against abortion.

Yishuv leader David Ben-Gurion also related seriously to abortion and the low birthrate. "Would our enterprise in in the land have come about if our mothers had behaved like our daughters? Most of us never would have been," wrote Ben-Gurion in Hapoel Hatza'ir newspaper in 1943. He called the flight from raising children "moral degeneration of the capitalist civilization," and accused young people of thinking the world had been created for their personal enjoyment.

After the establishment of the state, Ben-Gurion initiated prizes for births, offering 100 Israeli pounds to every mother with at least 10 children. But when the prizes started, so did the dilemmas: What to do with a woman whose children were not all in Israel? And what about children who died during childbirth? But the biggest dilemma was what to do about Arab mothers who asked for the prize, which was intended to improve Jewish demographics. "Here Ben-Gurion faced a dilemma between his being a Zionist leader and his being a socialist," said Rosenberg-Friedman. Ben-Gurion decided in favor of equality. In the first years of the state dozens of women received the special grant, including Arab mothers.

Until the 1970s, few if any Israeli public figures expressed doubts about the battle against abortions. Shortly before the Yom Kippur War, when Minister of Religions Zerach Warhaftig tried to pass a law limiting abortions, Prime Minister Golda Meir responded harshly, "Do you want to be the landlords of my body?" she asked. Warhaftig replied, "And do you want to be the landlady of tens of thousands of young people who go off to the army and war?"

"That is the essence of the argument," said Rosenberg-Friedman. "If the child is private then what right do you have to take him off to war?"

Children dancing in the mud-brick building in the 1940s. Credit: Courtesy of Kibbutz Gesher Archive

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