What Drove a Record Number of Israelis to Suicide in the '60s?

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A Tel Aviv swimming pool in the '50s.
A Tel Aviv swimming pool in the '50s.Credit: Fritz Cohen/GPO
Oded Heilbronner
Oded Heilbronner

Toward the end of the 1950s, quiet descended on Israel. As the state entered its second decade of existence, the economic and social situation stabilized, and for a time, the security threats seemed to vanish. An imaginary calm was felt in all areas of life. In 1958, Israel marked its first decade and showed off its achievements. However, it was precisely during this “normal” decade that many experienced feelings of oppression and mental infirmity, anxieties and melancholy.

One manifestation of the depressive atmosphere that affected many Israelis was the relatively large number of suicides and attempted suicides, including an increase in the number of those taking their lives among immigrants from European countries. A close examination of the official data does not turn up an epidemic of acts of suicide per se, but still paints a grim picture.

At the end of the 1950s and in the early 1960s, relative to both the preceding years and the years that followed, and relative to their share in the population – there was a dramatic increase in the suicide rate among Jewish men aged 45 and above. (About 60 percent of this group were from Central and Eastern European countries, and were salaried practitioners of the liberal professions). The number of suicides in these years stood at 14-15 per 100,000 Jews aged 15 and above – a rise of 20 percent compared to the average of the previous decade. The increase of such incidents among European-born men accounted for most of the overall uptick.

Under the law, suicide in Israel was a criminal offense until 1966.

According to police records from that decade – which are not entirely reliable – some 170-180 people committed suicide every year during this period. According to the – slightly more reliable – data of the Central Bureau of Statistics, the average number was 190. In 1961, for example, 180 suicides (men and women) were reported, as compared to 139 in 1951 and 119 in 1952. Because the CBS was apprised of only a little more than half the cases of suicide, based on death certificates provided by the police on the basis of fragmentary information, we can surmise that the numbers were even higher.

Under the law, suicide in Israel was a criminal offense until 1966, when an amendment to the Criminal Code annulled the clause stipulating that “anyone who tries to kill himself shall be charged with a felony.” Judicial concern at the rising suicide rate can be found in an article published in 1957 by historian Yosef Nedava in Hapraklit, the journal of the Israel Bar Association, which dwelt on the legal and economic ramifications of the suicidal tendency. Surveying the courts’ attitude toward life-insurance laws, the article argued, among other things, that it was necessary to seriously address the legal situation created in the wake of these incidents.

In her 2016 Pthesis, Dr. Tal Strasman Shapira noted that following a meeting held in January 1960, the committee of the editors-in-chief of the country’s newspapers issued rules of self-censorship and instructed editors to play down coverage of suicides, or at least to use less extreme language in reports about them. Thus, it was decided in the meeting that, other than in exceptional cases, “In every report about suicide ... the fact of the suicide will not be mentioned, and one of the following phrases will be used instead: ‘died in tragic circumstances,’ ‘died suddenly,’ ‘died unexpectedly.’”

‘Sick of life’

Outdoor training at the Wingate Physical Education Institute in Netanya, 1959.Credit: Fritz Cohen / GPO

In 1958, the heads of the Society for the Promotion of Mental Health, Louis Miller and Avraham Weinberg, published a notice in the newspaper Davar expressing concern at the rise in the number of suicides. They called on the public to display greater sensitivity toward lonely and weak people, and urged the authorities “to establish a dense network of public societies and stations for consultation and mental treatment, which will provide mental care in a manner respectful to the recipient.” Most of the suicides, they maintained, were new immigrants who arrived in a country with a Western way of life, which was “marked by rapid social changes, high mobility, great tension and much loneliness.”

The number of suicides peaked at the beginning of the 1960s. The newspapers Kol Ha’am and Davar reported a wave of suicides in Tel Aviv during the month of the High Holidays, beginning with Rosh Hashanah. The descriptions were disturbing. A report in the daily Yedioth Ahronoth stated that “a government official put fragmenting explosives in his mouth” and that “a woman from Petah Tikva committed hara-kiri.”

Other reports were of a student who jumped to his death across from the Knesset building; a Jerusalem mother “who became worried when her son closeted himself in his room for a few hours, smashed the door down and discovered him hung with an electric cord around his neck”; a manager of Hamashbir Hamerkazi (a large wholesale supplier) who hanged himself; a zoo guard of 28 who “slaughtered himself with a knife”; a woman who “committed suicide by jumping from the third floor” and another woman who “left a letter in German and wrote that she was sick of life”; “a worker who turned black as charcoal ... when he climbed an electricity pole”; “a cleaning worker ... who stuck his head into a barrel of water”; a man and a woman from Haifa who “took their lives” when it became known that “they managed places of meeting for purposes of prostitution”; and “a 17-year-old from the Tel Aviv suburbs who tried to put an end to his life by swallowing 10 barbed pins.”

One 17-year-old from the Tel Aviv suburbs tried to put an end to his life by swallowing 10 barbed pins.

One unusual manifestation of the phenomenon in the early 1960s was family suicides. These cases occurred mainly among new-immigrant families from Central Europe. According to the weekly Ha’olam Hazeh, in the wake of these cases, “many army officers in the [neighborhoods of] Tzahala and Neveh Magen had to remove firearms from their homes in the presence of their children in order to calm them.” “Experts,” wrote editor Uri Avnery, “say that spiritual stocktaking and an analysis of the emotional life of the Israeli public are needed in order to reinforce the public’s shattered nerves.”

Lurid reports like these were not unique to the local press. Among newspapers of the Western world, particularly in the period between the mid-19th and mid-20th centuries, grisly descriptions of suicide were always considered “selling items,” and editors tended to add as much “blood” as possible even to the most banal reports. As Strasman Shapira noted, “An aura of sensation arises from the word ‘suicide,’ especially if it appears as a headline at the top of a news page. It stirs in the reader powerful feelings of horror, revulsion and curiosity ... Death by suicide is considered a news event. The reader is curious to know what led to the suicide or what caused it, as it’s an act that challenges our regular approach to life.”

The descriptions of suicides in Israel’s second decade had several things in common:

1. The panic that such acts generated in the public at the end of the 1950s, particularly in cases of group suicide – for example, of fathers who killed their family or parents who committed suicide together. This phenomenon was in evidence mainly at the end of the country’s first decade and at the beginning of the second. One of the best known cases was that of a physician from Ramot Hashavim, a community near Ra’anana, who murdered his family and then took his own life. Journalist Uri Kesari wrote in the newspaper Maariv in 1960, “Collective suicide is more informative about life in Israel than all kinds of statistics and information leaflets.” He added, “People in this country are not happy,” and the wave of suicides thus attests to “rust that has developed on the screws.”

2. The attention that was paid to culturally high-profile suicides, such as army officers and former inmates of death camps. Rumors were rife in the press and among the public about senior officers and Holocaust survivors taking their own lives, some because of conjectured mental depression, economic entanglements or difficulties of integration. The contrast between a story of success and heroism and a “dark secret from the past” – a death camp or problems of acclimatization in Israel – was grist for the mill of the newspapers.

The Carmelit underground subway in Haifa, the first in the country, Oct. 6, 1959. Credit: Moshe Frieden, GPO

3. A tendency to play up cases of people who jumped off of high buildings, such as the Tel Aviv Hilton or the Shalom Tower in that city – edifices that symbolized Israeli urban achievements. Suicide under the wheels of a train or of a passing car were also played up, as cases that reflected the accelerated modernization underway in the country.

4. The rise in the standard of living and in moral hedonism in the 1960s among the middle class was marked by cases of financial debt and sexual and family scandals, which also sometimes triggered suicide. These incidents were depicted in the public arena as constituting the moral price that material success exacts.

There’s no scientifically sound theory about the reasons or circumstances of suicide, and the views cited here are conjectures that were expressed at the time. Of course, changes in medical and social conceptions and diagnoses, relating also to the causes of suicide, led afterward to the phenomenon being approached and examined from other directions, both in Israel and elsewhere.

'Collective suicide is more informative about life in Israel than all kinds of statistics. People in this country are not happy.'

That said, it is still possible to note several possible causes for the dramatic rise in the number of suicides in Israel of those years. The sociological explanation argues that a connection exists between rapid processes of modernization and suicide. The modern Israel of the state’s second decade, which was “over-stressed,” noisy and edgy, can be characterized as a “society in overload.” This state of affairs was often described in surveys in medical journals and other publications devoted to sociological issues. Physicians and psychologists expressed concern that high-pressured life would provoke suicide among people with that propensity, and especially in those who carried traumas from their past.

Another explanation draws a connection between the alleviation of the collective distress and the rise in the number of suicides. Israel’s second decade was calmer, relatively, than the preceding one. Most of the suicides involved older people – immigrants from Europe or Israeli natives of European descent. It can be surmised that the majority of the suicides had experienced the Holocaust in different forms. Upon immigrating to Israel they were mobilized, by choice or by coercion, into the national security and social effort, and shared the economic burden of the austerity period.

Physician and historian Mark Dvorszecki, who studied mental health among Holocaust survivors, wondered about the hyperactivity that characterized the members of this group: “Will they not have to pay a high price for the heightened activity? Will the result of all this not be a late pathology of the Holocaust?” In a study published in the social sciences journal Megamot, the Israeli psychologist Israel Oron wrote, “The deeper and more existential is the external threat to society, the greater the prospect that more and more potential suicides will reflect on a lethal solution to their long-standing distress, but will implement it only when the threat has passed.”

The points cited so far can account for the relatively large number of suicides among those who immigrated to Israel in the 1940s and 1950s. But what is the explanation for the many suicides among native-born Israelis? We can assume that many of these victims experienced the local existential tension in Israel beginning in the 1940s: the Arab threat, the danger of a German invasion in World War II, the era of militant underground organizations, the War of Independence and the overall security tension, which lasted at least until the 1956 Sinai war. It’s possible that the relative calm that ensued when the military-security threats and the existential threats passed in the second decade, led to an increase in the suicide rate among them as well.

Oded Heilbronner is a lecturer in cultural and historical studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Shenkar College of Engineering and Design.