Politics of an Israeli crime: The ‘lost children of Yemen’

Yemenite immigrant family in Israel, 1949
Yemenite immigrant family registering at Tel Aviv government office, 1949. Photo: Israel State Archive

Mizrahim – Jews of Middle Eastern family background – are very much in vogue in Israel. And more than ever, the large middle-class liberal camp among Ashkenazim – Jews of European family background – have become a punching bag.

This is where the Right and Left come together: The Right loves Mizrahim because they are its electoral base and hates liberal Ashkenazim because they have always been the enemy; the tiny but vocal Mizrahi Left is into Mizrahi pride and slams Ashkenazi liberals for their cultural “hegemony”; the Ashkenazi Left naturally goes along with the Mizrahi Left, while Ashkenazi liberals sit around muttering. (Disclosure: I am an Ashkenazi liberal.)

Onto this map, the decades-old tragedy and controversy of the “lost children of Yemen” has resurfaced. It basically pits the Right and Left against Ashkenazi liberals, whose socialist forebears were in power during Israel’s first years, when about 1,000 or more immigrant children from Yemen, mainly, with some from other North African and Balkan countries, went missing forever.

This week Likud cabinet minister Tsachi Hanegbi, who is in charge of a new investigation into the lost children, said hundreds of them were ‘abducted.” To his credit, though, he added the following day that from the documents he’d seen, the Ben-Gurionite establishment of the time was not behind it, contradicting what Yemenite and Mizrahi activists and their supporters charge.

I’ll cut to the chase: Despite the by-now popular belief, the early Israeli powers-that-be and their operatives did not kidnap those children and give (or sell) them to childless Ashkenazi couples. Instead, in roughly 90% of the cases, the missing children in fact died at the time in clinics and hospitals. They died because they were gravely ill when nurses in some of the transit camps convinced the parents to let them take the babies for treatment.

Not kidnapping, but criminal negligence

However, the crime that was committed by the “establishment” – who in this case were the people who ran those overwhelmingly crowded, chaotic transit camps where the Yemenites lived in utter dependence – was to lose track of which deceased baby belonged to which family. The parents couldn’t bury their children because no one knew where they were, and no one could confirm they were dead.

And so those families have naturally assumed ever since that their lost children were alive, somewhere.

But the people who ran those camps didn’t steal those 1,000 or so children who died – they lost them. The guilty party was not the Ashkenazi establishment of the time, but only the people (all or virtually all of them Ashkenazim), who were in charge of the transit camps from which the Yemenite children went missing. The crime they committed was not mass kidnapping or child trafficking, it was criminal negligence on a horrific scale.

Yemenite immigrants in Israel, 1950
Yemenite immigrants in transit camp near Ein Shemer, 1950. Photo: Pina Hams / Israel GPO

How do I know this? In 1995 I did a magazine cover story for The Jerusalem Post on the lost children of Yemen, as the third official Israeli investigation into the scandal was beginning. I talked to lots of Yemenite families and activists who made the case for a kidnapping conspiracy that stretched from the ambulance drivers all the way up to Ben-Gurion, and a cover-up that had been going on ever since.

I read about the two previous investigations that had been held. The first, in 1967-68 and headed by a police investigator and state prosecutor, studied the cases of 342 lost children, and concluded that 316 of them had died, four were alive (including two who were adopted) and 22 were unaccounted for.

The second investigation, in 1988-1994 and headed by a retired district court judge, examined an additional 301 cases of lost children, finding that 222 of them had died, 14 had disappeared before arriving in Israel, and 65 were unaccounted for.

I also talked to Dov Levitan of Bar-Ilan University, the leading academic researcher into the affair. His discovery of some 200 previously undocumented deaths of Yemenite children in the transit camps, as well as his detailing of the “humiliating, inconsiderate treatment” Yemenite families received from camp authorities, got wide media coverage in the mid-‘80s and helped bring about the second investigation of the missing children.

I talked to Ami Hovav, a private investigator of Yemenite heritage who took up the case in the mid-‘60s at the behest of Yemenite activists, and who sat on the first two investigative panels.

Levitan and Hovav told me that the vast majority of the lost children of Yemen had died back then. How did they know? Hovav:

“I’m also a Yemenite, born in Israel, and believe me, when I started researching I had a great ambition to catch these cradle-robbers. But after the first eight months or so of intense work, I saw I was finding nothing like this. Instead, I kept turning up death certificates and burial certificates [of missing Yemenite children].”

He suggested that the parents had not been informed of the deaths because hospital and camp authorities didn’t know how crucial it was to record the children’s long, unfamiliar Yemenite names in full so they could be identified. The deaths were announced, he said, by camp officials going from tent to tent with a megaphone. “If they called out ‘Yihyeh Sharabi,’ there might be 80 families with a child by that name,” he said.

Hovav also said that in hundreds of instances, the authorities would not have been too eager for the parents to know about their children’s deaths, because in burying them they would have seen, to their lasting horror, that the bodies had been dissected in autopsies.

There was, however, one very deliberate, malicious crime committed against the Yemenite immigrants, Hovav and Levitan said. Israeli immigration emissaries in Aden, the transit point for the Yemenite Jews’ flights to Israel in 1949 and 1950, tricked the bewildered immigrants out of a treasure in ancient holy books and manuscripts, as well as gold and silver jewelry. “Some immigration emissaries got rich from smuggling the property and selling it,” Levitan said.

The whole thing was a horror. And the traumatized victims, the families whose children were taken from them by Israeli officials and lost, understandably do not believe Israeli officials decades later who say evidence shows their infant sons, daughters, brothers or sisters really did die.

Uzi Meshulam death notice
Notice of July 21, 2013 death of Uzi Meshulam; day is now memorialized by Yemenite and many other Mizrahi activists in Israel. Photo: Yoram Shorek

I went to see Yigal Yosef, then mayor of Rosh Ha’ayin and the leading establishment figure among the Yemenite activists. He had lost his infant sister, Esther, in a transit camp in 1953, but he remained absolutely sure that she had been sold into adoption. As proof that she didn’t die in 1953, he showed me photocopies of her death certificate from that year, her burial certificate and her hospital pathology report listing the causes of her death: pneumonia, stomach disorders, malnutrition and other illnesses.

To me, this was obvious proof that his sister had indeed died. To Yosef, it was obvious proof that the authorities had conspired to make it look that way. How did he reach that conclusion? The death certificate was dated before the burial certificate, which was the opposite of the usual, official order, he claimed. Also, he noted, the doctor’s stamp on the pathology report wasn’t signed.

“They say she’s buried in Mahane David cemetery in Haifa,” Yosef said with a cynical laugh.

There are tens of thousands of official documents connected with the lost children of Yemen. There are death certificates, burial certificates, pathology reports, adoption records and other papers that have led three separate investigative committees, as well as Hovav and Levitan, to conclude that about 90 percent of those children died of natural causes.

To believe they were instead kidnapped and given away or sold, one must believe that those documents were forged, and that literally thousands of Israeli officials down through the decades, from nurses to prime ministers, were in on the scheme.

Finally, the conspiracy theory of the lost children of Yemen won’t wash.

Case closed? No way

In 2001, the investigative committee that had begun its work six years before, under the chairmanship of a retired Supreme Court justice, announced that of the 1,033 cases of lost children it examined, there was documentary evidence showing that 972 of them had died back then. As for the others, five had been adopted, while the fate of 56 children could not be determined.

No matter. Today a Likud cabinet minister is going through the files again, and he says hundreds of the children were abducted, and Mizrahi activists are writing op-eds, and they’re observing the death of Rabbi Uzi Meshulam, the violent, crackpot guru of the movement in the ‘90s, as the “Day of Remembrance and Awareness for the Yemenite, Balkan and Mizrahi Children Affair.”

And no one of influence will challenge their theories for fear of being branded a racist and a defender of what was, beyond a shadow of a doubt, a crime of historic scale – it just wasn’t the mind-shattering, evil conspiracy it’s now widely assumed to have been.

Yes, Israel’s Ashkenazi establishment in the old days commonly treated the Mizrahi immigrants as inscrutable primitives, and screwed them over in lots of ways. But at the same time, that socialist regime expended great efforts and made great sacrifices for them.

And they did not steal their children and give them to childless Ashkenazi couples. That is tantamount to a blood libel against Israel’s founders. The families of the lost children of Yemen cannot be blamed for spreading it; they’ve been scarred for life. But the politicians and other activists and fellow-travelers of the Right and Left who profit politically from that libel are another case altogether.

For further reading:

No ‘smoking gun’ on Yemenite children’s abduction, but hundreds didn’t just disappear, says Israeli cabinet minister (Haaretz)

Panel on Yemenite children rejects conspiracy theory (Haaretz)

Why is the Left silent on the kidnapping of Mizrahi children? (+972)

The disappeared Yemenite babies (Tablet)



Neo-fascists threaten the West; in Israel they’ve already arrived

From America to Austria, belligerent, xenophobic ultra-nationalism is rising. But its hold on power in Israel is far more secure — and uncontested.

Israeli neofascists
Members of right-wing organization Lehava protesting the wedding of a Jewish-born woman and a Muslim man in Rishon Letzion, August 17, 2014. Photo: Ofer Vaknin

I hear a lot of Israeli liberals saying that yes, things are bad here, but they’re bad everywhere. On the one hand, Avigdor Lieberman is running the army, a majority of Israelis believe the soldier who executed a prone Palestinian in Hebron behaved “responsibly,” and it’s gotten so that even Roni Daniel, Channel 2 news’ superhawk, is wondering whether his children should leave the country.

But on the other hand, they point out, America has Donald Trump. In Austria, the party of Jorg Haider just came within an inch of taking over. In France, Marine Le Pen is the rising power. All over Western Europe, even in Scandinavia, the neo-fascists are gaining strength.

So Israel isn’t alone in its slide into the swamp of belligerent, xenophobic ultra-nationalism — it’s happening in the most “enlightened” countries of the West. We’re in no worse a political predicament than they’re in, according to this view.

But this view is mistaken; our political predicament is worse. In the 21st century, the forces of belligerent, xenophobic ultra-nationalism have a much stronger, more secure hold on power in Israel than they do in any Western country (not counting Eastern Europe).

Israeli right getting more radical, powerful

Netanyahu has been elected prime minister four times, and each of his governments is more right-wing than the last. Meanwhile, the so-called center and center-left parties grow increasingly antagonistic toward the Palestinians and the Israeli Arab parties, until it’s become a bad joke to refer to them (except Meretz, the lone party of the Zionist left) as a liberal opposition. And now their leader, Isaac Herzog, has left them more divided and weaker than ever.

In Israel today, the right-wing powers-that-be are only getting more right-wing and more powerful; except for the Supreme Court (to a limited degree), there’s nothing and nobody to hold them back.

In America today, the situation is quite different. The president, now in his eighth and last year, is Barack Obama, the sort of liberal politician who has become extinct in 21st-century Israel. And even if the grotesque Donald Trump does win the November election, the Democrats, with their larger share of the electorate, will have a good chance of beating him the next time. The Republicans have no hope of ruling American politics without challenge for nearly a generation like the Likud and its allies have done here. Over there it’s the Democrats, davka, who have such a hope.

In Austria, the Freedom Party, running on the anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant platform common to all European far-right parties, came within 0.7% of the vote to winning the presidency. But not only did it lose, the winner was a member of the liberal Green Party. And even if that result gets turned around in the coming years, the liberals will almost certainly remain contenders for power in Austria, unlike what’s happened in contemporary Israel.

In other Western European countries, even France with its National Front, the demagogic, nativist parties and movements are growing — but they are all still at a far remove from having national power such as that enjoyed here by Yisrael Beiteinu, Habayit Hayehudi and current-day Likud.

European consensus still liberal 

Since World War II, Western Europe has developed a strong liberal, tolerant consensus; this is fraying due to the large influx of Muslim immigrants and refugees and the influence of radical Islam in their ranks, but it remains the norm. By contrast, liberalism and tolerance for Arabs, while always a stream in Israeli politics, only came to the fore during the Oslo years — and even they were interrupted by Netanyahu’s first term. Since Oslo imploded in 2000, this stream has been steadily drying up — except during the anomaly of Sharon’s disengagement from Gaza – while the racism and militarism of the right keeps running stronger.

Western Europeans have problems with immigration, refugees and jihadism, and often with economics; these problems may grow to the point where they derange the public and the neo-fascists start taking power. But this hasn’t happened yet, and there’s a very good chance it won’t.

Israel, on the other hand, is a tiny ethnic-religious minority in a hostile region on a permanent war footing with its neighbors. Israel believes (wrongly) that it has done everything it can to make peace and been turned down, and so it trusts its security to the subjugation of the Palestinians and the periodic bombing of Syria and Hezbollah, with no expectation or even reasonable hope that things will change.

This is a much more deeply entrenched and volatile problem than the Western Europeans, or, certainly, the Americans have been dealing with.  What ails Israel is the sort of condition that’s just made for a long-term takeover by belligerent, xenophobic ultranationalists, which is what’s happened here and hasn’t happened there. No, unfortunately, this is not a Western country we’re living in.

Originally published in Haaretz.com, May 31, 2016.