Beyond Silenced Voices: Gender, Power, and Psychiatric Care in Mandatory Palestine

In 1955, Israel’s parliament sought to reform the state’s outdated mental health legislation, a legacy of British colonial rule. Lawmaker Binyamin Avniel championed stronger powers for district psychiatrists, arguing that this measure was necessary to protect individuals with psychiatric disabilities from unscrupulous psychiatrists or manipulative family members (Knesset Proceedings, 1580). The specter of past abuses in Mandatory Palestine loomed large: Avniel recounted the case of psychiatrist Abraham Litvak, accused of locking up Ida Rubin, “a person who was not at all insane,” for alleged financial gain. While Avniel’s claim regarding Ida’s mental state cannot be verified, it underscores the dangers of medical authority. Ida’s story exposes the dark underbelly of medical power, which can undermine the autonomy and agency of vulnerable individuals, leaving them susceptible to exploitation.

Black and white image of a woman with short dark hair
Young Haya-Ida Rubin (1908-1980). Photo taken ca. 1935.

Ida’s life, as it can be pieced together from scant press accounts and genealogical detective work, offers a glimpse into a world of misfortune and questionable care. An orphan who had inherited a modest fortune, she became entangled in a web of deceit orchestrated by a relative who presumably sought to gain control of her wealth. In newspaper reports, however, Ida’s own voice is absent, overshadowed by the legal machinery and the court accounts shaping her narrative. Conflicts and contradictions in the existing records leave a trail of unanswered questions about Ida’s life. Combing through these documentary fragments, nonetheless, can illuminate the vulnerabilities and the risk of exploitation faced by individuals like Ida within the prevailing system of psychiatric care at the time. Her case, far from unique, reminds us of the need for a broader investigation into similar instances of potential abuse within their historical context.

The Story

An American citizen by birth, Ida spent several years in Palestine before returning to the United States. Her father, Izhak, had immigrated from the Russian Empire in 1904 and established himself in the United States as the ritual butcher for the Jewish community of Coatesville, Pennsylvania, where Ida, also known by her Hebrew name, Haya, was born in 1908. The family, including Ida’s female cousin, lived in this small town until 1924, when they set sail for Mandatory Palestine for reasons that remain unclear (“Disciplinary Inquiries”). Tragedy struck a year later when both of Ida’s parents died. Despite the loss, the young woman enjoyed some financial security thanks to a wise investment her father had made. Nevertheless, newspaper articles indicate that Ida’s mental state soon became unstable, prompting her cousin—now known as Mrs. Goldberg, after her marriage in Palestine—to intervene (“Hen-House Detention Case”).

Image of a Commonwealth of Pennsylvania birth certificate
Ida’s American Birth Certificate, dated January 26, 1908

Goldberg’s involvement was suspicious. While a psychiatric evaluation deemed Ida incapable of managing her affairs, Goldberg never sought to become her legal guardian (“Lawsuit against Dr. Litvak”). Instead, she petitioned the court to appoint two other American nationals as guardians. Her motivations are not entirely clear, but she seemed determined to limit Ida’s autonomy. To further complicate matters, in 1931 Goldberg sent Ida to Dr. Avraham Litvak, a psychiatrist with whom Ida’s financial situation became entangled.

Muddled narratives of Litvak’s involvement with Ida leave his true role and intentions unclear. Some portray him as protecting Ida from Goldberg, while others paint him as a figure wielding undue influence (“In the Trial of Dr. Litvak”). This ambiguity, amplified by Ida’s reported payments to Litvak, casts a second shadow of suspicion in the case: here, over the financial dealings and ethical implications of Ida’s medical care.

Driven by potential financial gain, Litvak likely used his expertise to label Ida “hyper-sexualized” and “humoral,” weaponizing her perceived vulnerabilities to justify his control. Confined to Litvak’s own clinic and stripped of agency, Ida became an object to be manipulated, her voice lost in the clashing narratives surrounding her case.

Ida’s situation worsened in 1935, when she was moved from Litvak’s clinic in Tel Aviv to an orchard managed by his wife in a nearby city (“Defense in the Trial of Dr. Litvak”). Unsettling rumors of Ida’s confinement in a chicken coop began to spread. According to newspaper reports, neighbors alerted the police about Ida’s living conditions, which ultimately led to a trial against Litvak for sequestration in 1937. Adding a further wrinkle to the matter, the American consulate in Palestine became involved in Ida’s case around this time and appointed a temporary legal guardian for her in the court proceedings.

The case became a messy affair. Many witnesses testified in court, creating conflicting narratives that both defended and accused Litvak. Although ultimately convicted of detaining Ida against her will, Litvak served a relatively short sentence of six months (“Dr. Litvak Is Sentenced”). A civil trial initiated by the American consulate in 1939 sought to demonstrate that Litvak had exploited Ida financially, but he was acquitted on the grounds of insufficient evidence (“Lawsuit against Dr. Litvak,” “It Was Not Proved”).

Meanwhile, Ida’s life continued to be steered by others. Following the trial in 1937, the American consulate transferred her back to the United States, where she was confined once again. A newspaper article mistakenly stated that she entered a psychiatric hospital in “Coastville”(sic) (“Civil Suit against Dr. Litvak”). This spelling error became the last documented trace of Ida’s life in the records of Mandatory Palestine. It is known, however, that she did enter a hospital: the Coatesville Insane Asylum in Pennsylvania, located in the town where she was born. Yet, the truth behind her return, and the reasons for her institutionalization, remain tantalizingly out of reach.

Image of a ship's manifest listing passengers
Ship’s Manifest: “Sailed from Haifa – April 4, 1937”

To truly grasp Ida’s experience, we must confront the unsettling reality of colonial psychiatry in Palestine. Historians of colonial psychiatry (Jackson 2005; Keller 2019; Sandal-Wilson 2023) have documented the inherent limitations of psychiatric care in colonial contexts, which was characterized by a focus on short-term solutions and a scarcity of resources. This environment often resulted in less oversight for psychiatrists compared to their counterparts in independent nations. Such limitations created a breeding ground for abuse, as exemplified by Ida’s case. Although Litvak’s license was temporarily revoked, his punishment was a rare instance of accountability. The shortfalls of colonial healthcare left vulnerable individuals like Ida at the mercy of potentially predatory intentions.

While the complete picture of Ida’s life remains elusive, her story reminds us of the importance of unearthing hidden narratives. How many other women experienced similar crises without leaving any traces in archives? How can we recover and amplify the voices of the silenced?

Beyond the Archives

Most of what we can recover of Ida’s story transpired in colonial Palestine, but its echoes resonate with the experiences of women whose humanity was overshadowed due to their gender and the stigma surrounding disabilities of the mind. Kim Nielsen’s scholarship, particularly her work on Anna Ott (Nielsen 2020), sheds light on this shared vulnerability across continents and historical contexts. Both Ida and Anna faced societal marginalization, institutional exploitation, and the silencing of their voices. Bound by patriarchal control and societal anxieties, their bodies and minds were policed and pathologized. While Ott navigated nineteenth-century America’s complexities of class and medicalization, Ida confronted the additional obstacles of colonial psychiatry and patriarchal control in Mandate Palestine, deprived of social networks that might have offered crucial protection. Her wealth attracted unwanted attention, but it did little to help her navigate the challenges of the local psychiatric care culture. Unlike Anna Ott, whose social class afforded her leverage within the American system, Ida, as an orphan, found herself even more isolated and vulnerable within a system designed to control, not heal. Even the intervention of the American consulate in Palestine, which extricated her from her immediate plight, did not guarantee a better outcome.

Reclaiming these silenced voices, as Nielsen does with Anna Ott, holds significance. It allows us to confront the limitations of historical archives, which are often biased and incomplete. By piecing together fragments of lived experience, we recenter the individual narratives of those marginalized, enriching disability history. Stories like Ida’s and Anna’s challenge us to confront the enduring legacies of power structures, institutional abuse, and gendered discrimination against women with disabilities. They remind us of the systemic forces that silence vulnerable individuals, urging us to critically examine the historical and cultural roots of this silencing. By weaving together these incomplete histories, we can work towards a future where disability and gender are understood as spectrums of human experience, not labels for exclusion.


According to public records, Ida spent the rest of her life within the confines of the Coatesville Insane Asylum, and later the Embreeville State Hospital, also in Pennsylvania. She passed away in 1980, the same year the latter institution closed its doors. The headstone that marks her resting place in the Jewish Cemetery of Coatesville reads simply “Haya, daughter of Shlomo,” identifying Ida by her Hebrew name but misidentifying her father, the former ritual butcher Izhak Rubin. This error suggests that by the time of her passing, after decades within the hospital walls, her history had faded from memory.

Black and white image of a large brick hospital complex, with caption in the upper left hand corner in red type indicating it is "Insane Hospital, Chester co. Home, Embreeville, Pa.
Embreeville State Hospital (Courtesy of

The partial records offer no insight into Ida’s experiences during her time in the American asylum system. Did she participate willingly in her treatment, or was she unable to challenge the decisions made about her life? Who benefited most from her isolation?

The legal battles over her wealth, along with the American consulate’s efforts to bring her back to the United States, raise questions about how others may have profited from her situation. Despite the consulate’s involvement, Ida’s voice and autonomy seem to have been lost. Ida’s final resting place, with its incorrect inscription, stands as a symbol of the erosion of her past and the isolation that marked her later years. While the legal battles eventually concluded, the true cost of the ordeal for Ida herself remains unknown, leaving a sense of unease and a desire for a more complete understanding of her experience.

Post Scriptum

The inclusion of a photograph of Ida, a somber portrait likely created during the legal proceedings in Palestine, presented an ethical dilemma. Although the nature and context of this image may perpetuate the stigma attached to Ida in her lifetime, the potential to restore a sliver of her subjectivity, however mediated through visual representation, proved compelling. As philosopher Emmanuel Levinas argued, true ethical responsibility lies in seeing “the face of the other,” recognizing their unique humanity. Confronted by Ida’s image, we are compelled to recognize her as an individual subject in the present moment, rather than a focus of legal proceedings in the previous century.

I am grateful to Mark Kendall for his assistance with genealogical research.


“Civil Suit against Dr. Litvak,” The Palestine Post, November 24, 1939, 2.

“Defense in the Trial of Dr. Litvak and His Father-in-law,” Ha-aretz, February 9, 1937, 1; 7 [Hebrew].

“Disciplinary Inquiries,” The Lancet: Supplement to the British Medical Journal, June 3, 1939, 307–8.

Knesset Proceedings: The 590th Session of the Second Knesset, May 10, 1955 [Hebrew].

“Dr. Litvak Is Sentenced to Twelve Months in Prison and Feldman to Three Months,” Ha-aretz, February 10, 1937, 1 [Hebrew].

“Hen-House Detention Case,” The Palestine Post, February 2, 1937, 5.

“In the Trial of Dr. Litvak and His Father-in-law,” Ha-aretz, February 3, 1937, 1; 4 [Hebrew].

“It Was Not Proved that the Defendants Took Haya Rubin’s Money,” Ha-boker, June 6, 1940, 6 [Hebrew].

Jackson, Lynette. 2005. Surfacing up: Psychiatry and Social Order in Colonial Zimbabwe, 1908-1968. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

“Lawsuit against Dr. Litvak and His Wife,” Ha-aretz, November 24, 1939, 8 [Hebrew].

Keller, Richard C. 2019. Colonial Madness: Psychiatry in French North Africa. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Nielsen, Kim E. 2020. Money, Marriage, and Madness: The Life of Anna Ott. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press.Sandal-Wilson, Chris. 2023. Mandatory Madness: Colonial Psychiatry and Mental Illness in British Mandate Palestine. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Marco Di Giulio is an associate professor of Hebrew Language and Literature at Franklin & Marshall College, in Lancaster, PA. He has written on the rise of the hygiene movement in Mandate Palestine and the history of the Deaf community in Israel, in addition to the vernacularization of the Hebrew language in the 19th and 20th centuries. Currently, he is completing a book manuscript that takes up notions of capacity to understand how disability operated conceptually and practically in Israel. Di Giulio received fellowships from the University of Oxford (UK) and the University of Pennsylvania, and his work has appeared in journals such as Journal of Social History, Jewish Social Studies, The Jewish Quarterly Review, Modern Judaism, The Journal of Israeli History, History of Universities, Annali di Italianistica, Hebrew Studies, and other scholarly venues. He serves as co-chair of the Division on Disability Studies at the Association for Jewish Studies.

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