In the early years of the state around one in eight Yemenite babies, many of them sick, disappeared and it is alleged that some were 'sold' to US families for adoption by WIZO, the US Women's Zionist Organisation, a new TV documentary alleges. There was a three-month window to allow parents to reclaim their children, however and this article does testify to the mayhem prevailing at the time, in which no adequate records were kept. Neglect, yes - but was there a state-sponsored conspiracy? No outright proof exists. (With thanks: Lily)
Last December, the Israel State Archives released more than 200,000
previously classified documents pertaining to this decades-long affair
that has come to symbolize the grievances of Mizrahim (Jews of Middle
Eastern or North African origin) against the establishment.
They include testimonies of parents who searched in vain for their
missing children and their graves for decades; of hospital nurses who
witnessed children being given away without permission; and of children
sent off for adoption who later tried to reconnect
with their biological parents. However, the documents provided no
outright proof of an organized and institutionalized abduction campaign.
The newly declassified papers also include minutes from the hearings of
the commission of inquiry established in 1995. Like the two previous
commissions that investigated the affair (the most recent being by
Justice Moshe Shalgi in 1988), this one also found
that most of the Yemenite children who disappeared had died of illness.
While the fate of several dozen children is still unknown, the most
recent commission of inquiry determined that none of the children had
The new documentary challenges these findings. A key testimony is
provided by Ami Hovav, who worked as an investigator on two of the three
commissions of inquiry. In an interview with Rina Matzliach, the
Channel 2 correspondent who made the film, Hovav addresses
the role of machers, or middlemen, in the disappearance of several
children. As part of his duties on the commissions, Hovav had been asked
to investigate reports, published as early as 1967, that Yemenite
children had been abducted and sold to wealthy Jews
abroad for $5,000 a head.
Interviewed in the film, Hovav relays that many of the Yemenite babies
and toddlers were put in child-care centers run by the Women’s
International Zionist Organization (WIZO), one of the largest Jewish
women’s organizations in the world.
“There was a rule at the time that if the parents didn’t show up within
three months to reclaim their children, the kids would be sent off for
adoption,” he states. “So there were these machers who would come and
get $5,000 for each child that was adopted.”
But it would be wrong, he says, to describe such transactions as sales:
“This was a commission they took, just like real estate agents. This was
Rare photos of Yemenite Jews in Sana'a taken by the German-Jewish adventurer Herman Burchardt in 1901. Full article in Haaretz here.
The film provides never-before-seen footage, shot by (the late campaigner Uzi) Meshulam’s
followers, of the 1995 commission of inquiry hearings. At one point,
Sonia Milstein, the head nurse at the Kibbutz Ein Shemer absorption
center, recounts how Yemenite children were systematically
separated from their parents and put in childcare centers. When asked
to explain why no records of their whereabouts were ever kept, she
responds: “That was the reality then. It was what it was.”
In more rare footage, a former doctor at a WIZO center in Safed tells
her interrogators at the commission hearings she has no recollection of
what happened to the Yemenite children housed at her facility.
Commenting in the documentary, Drora Nachmani – the
lawyer who interrogated the doctor and other witnesses – notes that
this sudden loss of memory among WIZO staff members was not uncommon.
“Some of the WIZO witnesses didn’t want to come to the hearings, and we
would have to chase after them,” she tells Matzliach. “Often, they would
insist we come to them rather than they come to us, as if they were
afraid of something. And sometimes they said
one thing to one investigator and something else to another.”
According to Nachmani, the WIZO day-care centers “were often the last
stop or the second-last stop in the whole chronology of events”
surrounding the disappearance of the Yemenite children.
“They were a central junction in this whole story,” she states.
The documents recently declassified by the Israel State Archives were
meant to stay under wraps for another 15 years. But in response to
public pressure, the government decided to release them sooner.
Mizrahi activists had been urging the government to open the state
archives for several years, arguing that the various commissions of
inquiry whitewashed the affair. A driving force behind the campaign has
been an organization called Amram.
Interviewed in the film, founding member Shlomi Hatuka notes that out of
more than 5,800 Yemenite babies and toddlers known to have been alive
during the first years of the state, 700 disappeared. “That is one out
of eight children,” he tells Matzliach. “And
if you take into account those parents who didn’t report their missing
children, it’s probably closer to one out of seven, or one out of six.”
The irony, he notes, is that families were told their children were
being moved from absorption centers to child-care centers for reasons of
health and sanitation, but many became ill there, ending up in
hospitals from which they never returned.
To illustrate the atmosphere of mayhem in those early days of the state,
Hovav recounts a story he heard from Milstein, the head nurse, about
what would happen when sick babies were taken to the hospital. “An
ambulance driver would pick them up and the babies
would be put in cardboard boxes that had been used to transport fruit,
bananas or apples,” he relays. “And there would be five or six of these
boxes in the back.”
Each carton, according to his account, had a little note attached to it
bearing the child’s name, address and destination. “When it would get
very hot,” he recounts, “the ambulance driver would open the window and a
huge blast of wind would come in. What would
happen then is that all those little notes would start flying in the
air. They would stop the ambulance on the side of the road, but they had
no idea after that which note belonged where.”
Asked to comment on the allegations raised against WIZO in the film, a
spokeswoman issued the following statement: “The process by which
children were admitted or left our facilities was handled exclusively by
the certified state authorities, while WIZO’s role
was restricted to caring for their health and welfare. The allegation
that the organization played a central role in transferring the children
to adoptive families is erroneous and is merely someone’s personal
interpretation of events. The same is true about
allegations raised by some of the interviewees in Rina Matzliach’s
Read article in full