The Myth of the Kidnapped Yemenite Children, and the Sin It Conceals

It was the mid-1960s, and something odd was happening. Families who had arrived in Israel 15 years earlier—most but not all from Yemen—were getting IDF summons for their teenage children’s initial checkups. Yet their children had died as infants, and the letters seemed a cruel mockery. Unless … well, many of the grieving parents hadn’t actually seen the bodies of their dead children. They had come to the hospital ward one day and had been told, brusquely in most cases, that their child had died.

Bewildered as they were by their circumstances, which involved coming from a distant country and often living in large and confusing refugee camps, they had meekly accepted the word of the doctors. Now, as the stories accumulated, they began wondering. Perhaps their children were still alive, somewhere? Had Godless European-Israeli socialists been running a secret policy of kidnapping the babies of religious Middle Eastern immigrants, and keeping them as their own?

Yemeni immigrant mothers visit their infants at a hospital in Ein Shemer, 1950 (National Photo Collection)

So began the Affair of the Kidnapped Yemenite Children. There have been three official attempts to investigate what actually happened, each with greater authority than its predecessor. In 1967 the Yemenite prosecutor Yosef Bahalul and the police officer Reuven Minkowski chaired an investigation that heard complaints about the disappearance of 342 infants. It found that 316 had died. In four cases the authorities had lost contact with the parents and the children had been sent to adoptive families. Twenty-two cases were unsolved.

Between 1988 and 1994 a committee of investigation chaired by Judge Moshe Shalgi investigated 505 cases, 202 of them repeat investigations from the previous committee. Most of the children were found to have died, but the number of unclear cases rose to 65. The committee also looked through thousands of adoption files in order to locate any of the children who were unaccounted for, but with no success. Yigal Yossef, a committee member and mayor of the predominantly Yemenite town of Rosh Ha’ayin, refused to sign on the findings.

As the Shalgi investigation wound down in 1994, the mistrust between the state and Yemenite communities exploded in violence. Rabbi Uzi Meshulam, a charismatic figure who claimed thousands of children had been sold abroad—which is why none of them could be found in Israel—barricaded himself with armed followers near Ben-Gurion Airport. The siege ended 52 days later when the police stormed the compound; one defender was killed. Meshulam and his lieutenants were jailed.

Shortly thereafter, in January 1995, the government appointed a full-scale commission of inquiry chaired by Supreme Court Justice Yehuda Cohen; when he stepped down due to ill health, he was replaced by his colleague Justice Yaacov Kedmi—famous for being Israel’s top expert on the laws of evidence. The commission published its findings in 2001. It found 733 documented cases of children who had died and 59 cases with insufficient documentation. There had been no policy of kidnapping children. Still, it was possible, the committee speculated, that there may have been a handful of isolated cases where families lost contact with their living children who might then have been sent for adoption. No one could say for sure.

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Listen to the stories of the bereaved parents, and their confusion and disorientation resonate throughout. The insistence on the early investigations was led by the young adult siblings of the lost children. Today’s activists who are refusing to be silenced are the supremely confident grandchildren of those immigrants, who are as much the owners of their society as anyone. The parents were motivated by grief; their children by shame for their parents; the grandchildren by anger.

Photographs taken between 1948-1955 of hospitalized Yemeni children at Rambam Hospital, Haifa (Israeli State Archives)

In early 2016, the young activists chose a new tactic. Infuriated that the documentation was still sealed, they launched a campaign to see it. If the state has nothing to hide, let it open the documentation, they said; if it doesn’t there must be a dark reason. They recruited to their cause member of Knesset Nurit Koren, herself partly Yemenite, and Rina Mazliach, a veteran TV reporter. Each of the women mobilized additional colleagues and together with the activists made clear they’d not back down.

I was the head of the State Archives at the time, and as the public pressure refused to abate, we asked ourselves why we weren’t opening the files. There were convoluted legal reasons, but the more we looked the less sense they made. In May 2016 we told the cabinet that we would gladly unseal the files, if they gave a green light. The cabinet appointed Minister Tzachi Hanegbi to oversee our efforts; Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked sent a top official to assist in redefining the rules of privacy in as liberal a manner as the lawyers could dare, in order to enable our efforts.

We scanned hundreds of thousands of pages in a few days, recruited dozens of students to speed the process and implemented an advanced knowledge management system. Thousands of files were closely examined, and mostly opened. The full archives went online at the end of December 2016. They were unveiled by Benjamin Netanyahu, and were promptly accessed by over 100,000 people.

Yemeni babies at Rambam Hospital, Haifa, circa 1948-1955 (Israeli State Archives)

There are more than 1,500 files of investigations into the fates of individual children, all of which are listed on the homepage of the project. Take Haim, son of Said and Saada Gamil, for example, who was also recorded sometimes as Haim Giat. There’s his file from 1967, which opens with the transcript of his father’s tale:

We came to Israeli in an airplane, my wife and I with three of our sons, aged 15, 10 and Haim who was one. We were sent to Camp Gimel at Rosh Ha’ayin and put in a tent. After a few days a nurse came and took Haim to the children’s home where it was warm. My wife visited him and nursed him a few times a day. One day he wasn’t in his bed. A nurse said he was sick and had been sent to the clinic. My wife and son went to visit him there and saw him, but a nurse said we shouldn’t come to the hospital because the visits aggravate the child. We waited a few days then they went back to the clinic but were told Haim had been transferred to the hospital in Pardes Katz. We wanted to visit him there but a nurse told us we shouldn’t make the effort and he’d be home in a few days. We followed her instructions and waited. Then my wife and son went to the camp office to request some money to go visit Haim in Pardes Katz. The clerk said Haim had died and been buried. We never saw him, nor a grave.

The testimony is authenticated with Said’s fingerprint. In 1967 he still couldn’t write his name.

This particular family seems not to have presented itself to the Shalgi committee. When the Cohen-Kedmi Commission made its call for testimonies, Said and Saada were no longer alive—but two of their sons came forward to testify. The tone of their telling is different and there are added details: Their mother had refused to hand Haim over, but then it started snowing and it was dangerous to leave him in the tent.

I chose Haim’s file at random. You read these testimonies—one, then another, then a dozen, then hundreds—and you understand why the grandchildren won’t let go. It’s heartbreaking.

Protocols of an autopsy at the Beilinson Hospital, Petach Tikva, 1953 (Israeli State Archives)

But that’s not all that’s in the files. There are lists of patientsconfirming who was where; and who died when; and who was buried precisely when and where. Sometimes sections of the lists are copied into the case files of individual children (in Haim’s case, here). Sometimes there are specific, individual documents such as hospital reports by doctors, or death certificates. In Haim’s case there’s a detailed paper trail, from the local clinic in Rosh Ha’ayin all the way to his grave. It includes the initial fear of polio which caused him to be sent to the hospital, various medical reports and lab results at the hospital, an official death certificate, and the specific burial license in the Petach Tikva cemetery. Since we used an advanced tagging system, the public can research by subjects, such as prohibiting visits by parents, or medical personnel.

All three investigating committees have been castigated by families and activists for being sloppy, or perhaps intentionally negligent. One can follow the investigators in their daily work, here and here, for example. So far as I could see, they seem to have worked methodically and with great professional integrity.

There are no documents that tell or even hint at a governmental policy of kidnapping children for adoption. Not one. Had there been such a practice, there would by necessity be hundreds or thousands of elderly dark-skinned Israelis who grew up in light-skinned families in the 1950s and ’60s. These people don’t exist. So, the activists claim, the babies were exported and sold to rich and childless Jewish families in America, or perhaps elsewhere. The archives contain not a shred of evidence for this claim, either.

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Over the past three years I have sat in public discussions of the Yemenite Children Affair at the Knesset and elsewhere; I’ve followed the significant media attention given it; I’ve maintained personal contact with many of the main activists; I’ve watched three cabinet discussions. And while we were preparing the archives, I personally looked at hundreds of files and talked to the staff as they looked at thousands. From here on, I’m speculating, based on what I’ve seen, heard, and learned.

The stubborn staying power of the Yemenite kidnapped babies story comes from emotions, not historical data. There is none, and never was any—which is why opening thousands of files never made a dent. The activists merely moved their focus: The Big Secret must be in the Mossad’s files; or WIZO’s files; or in files that had been destroyed. As I was leaving my position a few months ago, they were speculating we had merely pretended to open everything while in reality opening only the “harmless” files.

List of deceased Yemeni children, 1967 (Israeli State Archives)

Yet many family members will admit, at least in private, that what they are seeking is not evidence of kidnapping, but closure for the deaths of their loved ones. They want to see a grave, not a scanned image of a Xeroxed copy of a list of graves from the 1970s. They want explanations for the demeaning behavior of arrogant medical staff and bureaucrats who brushed them off, and otherwise treated them as inferiors, or at least as bothersome. If you assume—as I’m inclined to do—that the overworked staff trying to deal with a tsunami of immigrants in a poor country were normal people, and sometimes even idealists, it is also easy to imagine the callousness, and obtuseness, and even contempt, with which the young parents were fobbed off. Some of it can be explained by pressure, some by prejudice. And some, perhaps, by the need indeed to hide a secret—just not the one the activists seek.

There are more than 200 files with information about autopsies. My personal opinion is that these may contain an important key to the entire story. Admittedly, while we were working on the files I asked my entire staff to look for a smoking gun and we didn’t find it. But there is circumstantial evidence that many of the deceased infants had autopsies performed on them. The medical staff was distressed by the high death rate, which was especially high among the Yemenites, and they sought explanations. The body of an infant after an autopsy has been performed is not something one wishes to show grieving parents, certainly not religious parents from an undeveloped country who don’t speak any of your languages, and who never gave their permission for the bodies of their dead children to be cut open.

There was no crime, but there was a sin. All sides were unfamiliar to each other and overwhelmed, in different ways, by their circumstances. Those in power did their best, with scant resources—and scant regard for the emotions of the immigrants they were tasked with helping. The immigrants were also doing their best—and have bequeathed their traumas to their more confident, better-positioned descendants.

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