An Open Wound: The Scandal of the Kidnapped Yemenite Children

From time to time, the scandal of the abduction of Yemenite babies from the years 1948 through 1954 finds its way back into the headlines, leaving the entire country shaken and appalled all over again.

It is happening again now, but this time it will not end until all the classified documents from earlier investigations have been released.

What brought the subject back to light? The answer is simple: Someone in the government decided that all the materials should remain classified until the year 2071. His mistake was his failure to realize that the State of Israel is different today, and Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu has no qualms about allowing all the facts to come to light. The only problem is that there are hundreds of people in the country who are completely unaware that they are adopted, and whose lives are likely to be thrown into turmoil when the information is exposed.

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During the 1950s, Yemenite children were stolen from their parents’ arms in the State of Israel. This may sound bizarre, farfetched, and even unfathomable, but it is no longer questioned: It has been confirmed as fact. The State of Israel committed a crime against those children; their parents were told that they had died, while they were actually taken for adoption. In most cases, the children had been brought to a hospital or medical clinic for some reason, and they were taken from those facilities to be placed with the new families where they were raised.

Why were the parents silent? Actually, they weren’t silent at all. They screamed. They threatened. They pleaded. They wept. But no one listened to them. The Israeli government turned a deaf ear to their cries, hardening its heart to their anguish.

As for how such a thing could happen, we must turn back the clock to that period in the state’s history in order to understand it. The establishment viewed the Jewish immigrants from Yemen as a group that had emerged from the Middle Ages. In their view, the Jews of Yemen were primitives who adhered to a bizarre set of ancient traditions that had no relevance to the modern era. They felt that it was an act of kindness to those children to extricate them from a life of ignorance, poverty and backwardness, and to bring them up in an enlightened, progressive society. In short, the children were being given a chance for a good life. In most cases, they were given to well-established Ashkenazic families who were interested in adoption. The adoptive parents considered themselves highly privileged.

You can understand, then, that in addition to the actual abduction of the children, there was a campaign to tear them away from their religion. Children who had been born to Torah-observant parents were raised in secular homes, often on kibbutzim whose agenda was to deny everything about the past, creating a “new Jew” who had turned his back on the “golus mentality.”

yemenites-2_03This issue has never lost its relevance. There are times when it is at the forefront of the public agenda, and there are other times when it has received only marginal attention, but it has always existed. It is part of the collective memory of the State of Israel, one of the crimes committed by the state in its early years, and it is certainly remembered well by the families of Yemenite immigrants themselves. Those families have never forgotten the loved ones who were torn away from them. There are elderly Yemenite men and women who went on with their lives while contending with a searing inner pain. They have spent their lives hoping to be reunited before their deaths with their lost children. Everything reminds them of their stolen progeny. The pain of losing a loved one may decrease when they are actually deceased, but the grief over an abducted family member never subsides.

Even if some of the victims might have tried to forget their lost children, there was always something to remind them of their pain. One day, they would receive a letter from the Ministry of the Interior reminding them that the child had come of age to receive an identity card. A couple of years later, a summons to appear at the draft office would arrive in the mail. Those children who had been reported deceased were still listed in government records as living. This is a wound in the country’s heart that has never been closed, and this week the prime minister declared publicly that it is still a bleeding wound. How right he was.

The Uzi Meshulam Affair

The issue of the kidnapped Yemenite children has never been forgotten, but there have been times when it was neglected. Every few years, for one reason or another, the subject makes its way into the headlines again and the establishment is forced to calm the outraged public, usually by forming an investigative committee.

The last time the country was preoccupied with this issue at length was in 1994. At that time, it was a man named Uzi Meshulam who raised public awareness of the issue and did not allow it to be swept under the rug. Meshulam had a large following of Yemenite Jews. Many of them saw him as a great rov and mentor. He often equated the crimes committed by the State of Israel against the Yemenites with the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis.
I remember attending a wedding at the Heichal Dovid Hall in Yerushalayim at that time of heightened tensions. The chosson was a Yemenite bochur whose parents were my next-door neighbors. I was unaware that he was a devotee of Uzi Meshulam, and I was surprised to see a clean-shaven man serving as the mesader kiddushin. I asked a few questions about him, and another of Meshulam’s followers, who felt that I was speaking disrespectfully about him, nearly began pummeling me as a result. Incidentally, Meshulam’s lack of a beard was due to a medical condition, not by choice.

Meshulam’s followers were known to employ violent tactics, and the police made every effort to arrest him. At a certain point, Meshulam and his followers barricaded themselves inside his home in the city of Yahud while snipers shot into the yard, killing one person. The country was horrified by the incident, but the establishment continued its relentless struggle to silence him. Meshulam’s followers committed acts of violence, and he himself was placed on trial and was accused of ordering them to commit those crimes. He was found guilty and was sentenced to eight years in prison, but the general sentiment in the country was that he was innocent and had been singled out for persecution by the government, which feared the attention he had drawn to the issue of the Yemenite children.

Meshulam’s health began to decline in prison, and his followers claimed that the guards had poisoned his food. These accusations may be true, but we have no way of knowing. In any event, he passed away in the year 2013 at the age of 60. Very few people attended his levayah.

In 1995, one year after the upheaval created by Meshulam, an investigative commission was created in response to public outrage over the subject. The commission was headed by Supreme Court justice Yehuda Cohen, who was replaced by another Supreme Court justice, Yaakov Kedmi, after his retirement. In 2001, the commission publicized its findings. It had examined over 800 cases, and its conclusions were released in a lengthy report over 1,000 pages long. The commission had failed to locate 56 of the children who had disappeared, and it had concluded that they may indeed have been given up for adoption. In 733 of the cases, though, it found that the children had indeed passed away. The minutes of the commission’s meetings were strictly classified, by order of the government. Like the other commissions that had preceded it, this one, too, leveled harsh criticism against the government for its racist, discriminatory mistreatment of the immigrants from Sephardic communities, especially from Yemen, and for the unacceptable practices that led to details of the deaths being concealed, or negligence in the children’s care.

Who Gave the Order?

You certainly must be wondering why this issue has been reawakened now. The answer to that question lies in a recent decision at the State Archives.

In the neighborhood of Talpiot in Yerushalayim, there is a multistory building where the government stores all of its files. Classified files are kept under lock and key, away from the public eye – and rightly so. Any documents that are over 30 years old, though, are unsealed for public consumption. That is why you will occasionally read in the newspapers about documents that were newly released three decades after the events that they relate to. The secret documents released by the government include files pertaining to the Yom Kippur War, the Six Day War, and the founding of the state, as well as the Entebbe rescue operation, an incident whose fortieth anniversary has just been commemorated.

The archives also contain all the documentation relating to the vanished Yemenite children, including the records of all the investigative commissions that probed the affair. Two months ago, the official in charge of the archives decided that all of those documents were to remain classified until the year 2071. Let me repeat that, in case you haven’t internalized the significance of that date: the year 2071, more than 50 years from now. It was a highly suspicious move, to say the least.

On May 25, an urgent parliamentary question was filed in the Knesset. The text of the question was as follows: “Mr. Speaker and Madam Minister, my question relates to the documents from the commission that investigated the subject of the Yemenite children. Most of the documents in the State Archives on the subject have been declared classified for 70 years, until the year 2071. I would like to ask: Is the minister working to lift the classified status of the documents and to have the protocols of the commission released to the public? And if so, in what way?”

The response was delivered by Ayelet Shaked, the Minister of Justice. “Mr. Speaker,” Shaked began. “My friend, member of the Knesset Zehava Galon, I thank you for your question. The answer is yes: I have been working to that end, and I am continuing to do so. Because I consider it very important for these materials to be released to the public, I asked for a discussion to be held in the ministerial committee that oversees the archives, which is under my jurisdiction, in order to make it possible for the public to gain access to these materials, which have been classified for many years. I contacted the legal advisor of the Prime Minister’s Office to inquire about my own authority on the matter, both in the initial stage of examining the materials and in the second stage of releasing them to the public. I am aware of the sensitivity of the subject; there is a matter of individual privacy, of course, and there is also the tremendous pain that was suffered by a very large group of people.

“I received a lengthy response from the legal advisor,” Shaked continued, “and I will reduce it to the bottom line for you: Since the inquiry commission was disbanded, the authority to release these materials to the public has belonged solely to the government, and they can be publicized only by a government decision to that effect. In order for the government to make such a ruling, it is only natural that a large amount of material – hundreds of cartons’ worth of papers, in fact – must be examined. According to the legal advisor’s opinion, this must be done by a member of the government. The prime minister is automatically authorized to do that, but the government may also authorize any other minister to carry out the task. The advisor, Attorney Shlomit Barnea, mentioned in her legal opinion that there is good reason for the prime minister, who heads the government that established the investigative commission, or for the minister responsible for the State Archives to supervise the process. This means that the task should fall either to the prime minister or to me. It would be very fitting for the Minister of Justice to spearhead this effort and to submit a proposed ruling to the government, considering the fact that the responsibility for opening investigative commissions is part of my position.
yemenites-3_03
“If I were to summarize her opinion, then, it is that either the prime minister or I – which would be the most logical choice – or any other minister appointed by the government must begin the process of reviewing the relevant materials. After we received her legal opinion last week, I sent a letter to the prime minister asking him to decide who should be responsible for the process. It makes no difference to me; I am willing to accept any decision that he makes, whether it is for him, me, or some other minister to lead the process. Meanwhile, I am now waiting to receive the prime minister’s response on the subject, and I will do everything in my power to attend to the situation. I have been contacted by various groups of activists who are working on the matter, and Knesset member Nurit Koren has also spoken to me about it. As they say, I am on it.”

One of the arguments against releasing the documents is that it may cause suffering to the people who were taken from their families in infancy. Sometimes, the kidnapped children themselves were never told that they were adopted. They have lived their entire lives unaware that the people who raised them are not their true parents.

In the Knesset plenum, the questioner continued pressing Shaked for specifics. “Madam Minister, first of all, I would like to praise you for the initiative that you are taking so that either you or the prime minister will be authorized to deal with this matter. If I may be permitted to offer advice, I do not believe that the prime minister is capable of dealing with this among all his other responsibilities. I am not saying this cynically; I mean it. This is a very sensitive and very important subject, which is liable to be overlooked because of the prime minister’s many other concerns. I believe that the best way to get the job done would be for you to be authorized to examine the materials. There is something that I find highly objectionable about the situation as it stands: This is a highly sensitive and emotionally charged issue affecting 1,000 families, and things that may compromise their privacy can be blocked from public access, but it is unacceptable for the archives to be closed to the public until the year 2071. By that time, no one will be alive anymore, and the materials will no longer be of interest to anyone. I feel that the government has an obligation to make this information public, both in order to lower the simmering tensions and to deal with the unpleasant actions that the state has committed in the past.”

The questioner was joined by MK Yoav Ben-Tzur, who hails from a family of Yemenite immigrants himself. Here is what he said: “I would like to thank Minister Shaked for her initiative and her willingness to solve the problem. I am a child of a family that had two members go missing in one day in 1949 in the immigrant camp in Rosh Ha’Ayin; both my uncle and my cousin disappeared in a single day, and their fate has remained unknown to this day. As a result, I view it as a matter of tremendous importance for the files to be declassified. I would like to ask a simple question: Who made the decision for these files to remain classified until 2071 and why?”

Shocking Testimonies
in the Knesset

It quickly became clear that quiet would not be easily restored. Once the public’s passions had been stirred, the widespread sense of outrage quickly gathered steam. A number of Israeli television stations began investigating the matter again, and highly incriminatory accounts were uncovered once again – this time from the siblings of the kidnapped children, rather than from their parents. These family members related that they knew with certainty that their siblings, who were reported dead at young ages, are actually still alive and well, and that they had evidence to support their contentions.

This week, a highly charged discussion took place in one of the Knesset committees. The discussion was attended by representatives of the Ministry of Justice (which is headed by Ayelet Shaked, the minister who favors declassifying the documents), the State Archives, other organizations dealing with the subject, and families who claim that their children were stolen from them in the state’s early years. Many members of the Knesset were also in attendance. The chairman of the committee, MK Nissan Slomianski (Bayit Yehudi), opened the committee session by announcing, “The real question is where we have been until today. The situation is ludicrous: Everyone knows that the records of the inquiries exist and are sealed. It is as if the secrets of the State of Israel’s nuclear weapons are in those files. It seems utterly unreasonable to me.”

The Knesset members demanded that the prime minister revoke the classification of the files. At the end of the session, the committee released a statement that “the Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee of the Knesset calls for the release of the minutes of the commission that investigated the matter of the Yemenite children.” During the session itself, the participants called upon Binyomin Netanyahu to order the release of the materials. A representative of the State Archives stressed that in a situation of this nature, it is indeed possible to overcome the legal barriers and to allow for public access to the thousands of pages of records. The committee decided that if the government ignores its request, it will attempt to have a new law passed that will require the records to be released.

The prime minister, though, was quick to respond. Netanyahu announced, “The case of the Yemenite children is an open wound for many families who are still searching for the truth about what happened to their children. The time has come for the truth to be revealed and for justice to be done,” he added.

Dr. Yaakov Lazovnik of the State Archives related that he is in possession of over one million pages documenting the work of the commission. “I myself, and we as an organization, would be happy to open all the files to the public, but we still operate within the bounds of the law. The law imposes two limitations on us: one by virtue of the Archives Law and the second because of the Law of Privacy.” Dr. Lazovnik claimed that the government has the authority to order the archives to release the information, and that such a directive would override the limitation imposed by the Archives Law. At the same time, the government cannot order the release of material concerning private individuals, due to the Law of Privacy. “We must examine the materials to see what information they contain. If we receive permission, it will take us many days to review all the material and to eliminate any personal information it contains. There are 3,500 files, and my estimation is that it would take 1,000 days of work.”

MK Meir Cohen declared during the discussion that the disappearance of Yemenite children is a black stain on the history of Israeli society. “I am trying to imagine what would happen if a mother gave birth in the State of Israel today and was told the next day that her child had passed away,” he said. “This phenomenon indicated a terrible scourge of racism.” Similar comments were made by other participants in the session as well.

MK Naava Boker shared her own personal story: “My mother told me that she gave birth to a girl in a maternity ward, and then, for some reason, she was told that the baby had died. She demanded that the body be released to her so that she could bury the baby, but it didn’t happen. The doctors made all sorts of excuses, but there was no body and my mother returned home empty-handed. I also had an older brother, Tzion, who we were told had passed away at the age of a year and a half. Ten years ago, we learned that there are two kevarim bearing his name. When we questioned the chevrah kadishah, we received inadequate and unconvincing answers. I may have a brother and sister somewhere in the world today; I don’t know if they are alive or dead.”

Another participant in the session, Yossi Gamliel, shared a personal story that shook the entire audience: “My brother Yochanan was born in 1954. He was admitted to Kaplan Hospital and my parents were told that he had died and the hospital had buried him. In the 1950s, parents did not ask many questions. They returned home and sat shivah. His burial card said that he had been sent home, but we never received his body. Years later, we received notice from the Ministry of the Interior identifying his burial place, but we found a grave of a different child at the site. We were told that he had been buried underneath the other child.”

MK Nurit Koren, who has been leading the lobbying efforts on this subject, commented during the debate, “There are over 1,053 children who were abducted. We don’t want to lay blame anywhere; we simply want to close this wound and finally give these parents peace of mind.”

MK Yoav Ben-Tzur related that his uncle had located his own long-lost daughter after a separation of many years: “Toward the end of his life, he managed to find his oldest daughter, Kochava. She had been adopted by a different family. His sons and daughters do not know about this. After pleading at length, my aunt and uncle were permitted to see their daughter for ten minutes, but she wanted nothing to do with them. She had had nine children since then.”

yemenites-4_07The Records
Will Be Released

How will this issue be resolved? The government has authorized Tzachi Hanegbi, who was recently appointed to the position of Minister Without Portfolio and is himself the child of Yemenite immigrants, to begin reviewing the classified material. Hanegbi has promised to look into releasing all the minutes of the commission’s meetings to the public, excluding only information that may compromise the privacy of individuals.

“We won’t be able to resolve all the open questions,” Hanegbi has said, “but this may help lift some of the sense of mystery that has plagued us on this subject since the founding of the state.”

Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked offered to direct some of the staff of her ministry to assist Hanegbi in reviewing the materials.

Netanyahu added, “The issue of the Yemenite children is an open wound that continues bleeding for many families who still do not know what happened to their babies, to the children who vanished, and who are continuing to search for the truth.”