Photo Credit: Yonatan SIndel / Flash90
Israelis protest the Yemenite Children Affair in 2019.

Two weeks ago, the government of Israel decided to compensate immigrant families from Yemen and other countries who claim children were taken away from them and put up for adoption in the initial years following the establishment of Israel.

Money will be awarded to families who testified during the course of three government investigations that were conducted in the 1960s, 1980s, and 1990s, respectively. Each one concluded that children were not, in fact, kidnapped with governmental consent and sold for adoption.

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In announcing the decision, the government apologized for the way some olim were treated at the founding of the state, noting the suffering of families whose children died mysteriously and who were buried in an irresponsible fashion.

While this move was meant to put to rest this longtime scandal – known as the “Yemenite Children Affair” because most of the children who disappeared were from Yemen, significant numbers disappeared from Iraq, Morocco, Tunisia, and the Balkans as well – it seems to have only stirred up yet another round of anger, accusation, and protest. Some families are even refusing to accept the payment, claiming it’s part of a shameful attempt to cover up the truth.

To learn more, The Jewish Press recently spoke to two activists on opposing sides of the conflict. Nurit Cohen served as a Knesset Member (Likud) from 2015-2019, and as an attorney represents many Yemenite families trying to uncover the facts surrounding the disappearance of their children. Dr. Avi Picard, a lecturer in history at the Eretz Yisrael Studies Department of Bar Ilan University, accepts the government’s conclusions.

The Jewish Press: What can you tell us about the various government investigations of this topic?

Cohen: There have been three governmental inquiries. In 1995, the Kedmi Commission studied 1,053 cases, including children who were believed to be secretly taken away from their parents and sold for adoption to Jewish couples living in the United States.

The commission’s findings, which were published in 2001, determined that in the first six years of the State of Israel, 3,500 to 5000 infants disappeared but that there is no reason to think that any organized plan of kidnapping and adoption was involved.

The great majority of the children, they claimed, died of illnesses, finding only five certified cases of adoption. They reported that for a variety of technical reasons, death certificates weren’t issued. In addition, places of burial were not properly recorded and parents weren’t immediately notified of the deaths.

Unfortunately, the evidence and testimony gathered during the investigation were declared confidential for a period of 70 years. During my term in Knesset, I formed a special committee to examine the findings of the Kedmi Commission, demanding that all the evidence and testimony be made public.

Prime Minister Netanyahu acceded to my request and made a substantial part of the records available so that families could go over the material and respond.

What led you to become active in the matter?

I come from a Yemenite family. Elderly aunts and uncles experienced this atrocity firsthand. When I was elected to the Knesset, many older Yemenite families approached me, literally begging me to discover what had happened to their children.

The pain on their faces was as fresh as if the tragedy had happened the week I met them. They told me stories how healthy children disappeared from the special children’s home where they were kept in the government-run immigration camps for Yemenite olim. They were told that the children had become ill and had been transferred to a hospital.

A day, or days later, the parents were informed that their child had died and had been buried in an undisclosed location. In one case, a father threatened to take violent revenge on the local authorities, and the next day, his child, who had supposedly died, was returned.

What do you think happened to the missing children?

I believe they were taken away and put up for adoption. This happened in the years following the Holocaust and the war in Europe. Throughout the world, there was a great request for children who could be adopted.

But even if you want to accept the conclusion of the inquiry commission that no such adoption scheme existed, the fact that parents weren’t informed about the death and burial of their children is in itself a terrible crime.

In many cases, a name was posted by a grave with no way of knowing if that was the identity of the child buried there – or if there was anyone in the grave at all. It may have said, “Yosef ben Ovadia,” but that could have been any one of 500 children given the popular name “Ovadia.” I succeeded in passing two laws, one granting permission to open graves and the other to open adoption files.

Now that I am no longer a Knesset Member, I am representing in my private law practice several families who have petitioned the court to open graves that may contain children who disappeared, and we hope to receive permission by this summer. DNA tests can reveal if there exists a family connection.

In addition, I am working to have a national memorial day declared in honor of the unknown children and to implement a program of learning in Israeli schools so that the shameful affair will not be forgotten, or happen again.

I want the government to establish an educational center in honor of the olim from Yemen, where all the historic information and material of the government inquiries will be archived and made available to the general public. In my opinion, a new committee must be commissioned to truthfully answer all the unanswered questions and to open the graves to establish who is buried where, if at all.

As for the scores of children for whom there is no record of death, I urge all adopted people who have a Mizrachi or Yemenite appearance, and who think they may come from Israel and want to reconnect with their original families, to please contact me.

Why did the government just recently decide to offer compensation to families?

There are organizations that have formed to defend the rights of the victimized parents, notably families who still know nothing about the fate of their children. They threatened to bring private damage suits on behalf of all of the families, which would have cost the government a lot more money. The court told the government to settle the issue out of court.

Families who have identified graves will be awarded 150,000 shekels, and in cases without graves, 200,000. This applies only to the families who testified before the Kedmi Commission, and the previous inquiries, not to all of the families. So the government has found an inexpensive way to settle the scandal, except for the fact that there are many families who won’t be silenced by what they view as an attempted payoff in lieu of the government’s revealing the full truth.

A young Yemenite girl carrying her brother walking through the mud in the Beit Lid camp in 1950.

In your opinion, why after all of the official inquiries has the full story never been revealed?

The main reason is because the founders of the State of Israel were involved in what happened. If you do a search on Google, you’ll see that Ben Gurion said that the Yemenite children could be taken away from their parents because the Yemenite olim had no culture or anything of value. There were others like him who believed that Yemenite and Sefardi parents were primitive people.

The dominant view of the establishment elite was that by placing the children with Ashkenazi families, they could be educated and made into suitable material for the new socialist state. In their minds, they were acting in the best interests of the children and the state by placing the children in Ashkenazi families who could educate them in a fashion more productive to the modern needs of the country.

Valuable possessions were also taken away from the olim and sold – jewelry, holy books, and Torah scrolls. A terrible injustice was committed which still cries out to be corrected.

* * * * *

How do you explain the fact that after three, fact-finding, government inquiries into the Yemenite Children Affair, a large portion of the Israeli public still believes children were kidnapped and sold for adoption?

Dr. Picard: The story begins with the distressed families who rightly want to know what happened to their children. The first inquiry commission in 1967 studied some 340 cases and found that the overwhelming number of children died from disease.

The second government investigation, during the prime ministership of Yitzhak Shamir, investigated new information on 300 cases and reported that the fate of 65 children was unknown and that the others had died from diseases and plagues that were quite prevalent at the time.

In Yemen, 40 percent of all children died at an early age, as compared with 15 percent of the children in Israel, so the high rate of deaths is not surprising of this immigrant community in camps that didn’t have the highest level of sanitization. But since the families, and some politicians, weren’t happy with the conclusions, a few activist groups formed demanding a broader and more transparent examination.

Interestingly, they never helped even one family locate a lost child or relative. In my opinion, the motivation of a few of these groups was not always pure, as they wished to depict the state of Israel in a pejorative light. This was especially apparent with a group connected to Neturei Karta in the United States. They put out a book called Genocide in the Holy Land, parts of which were translated into Hebrew and distributed by a group of charedi Yemenite Jews.

Then Rav Meir Kahane published a book called Sefer HaShachor, which pointed out the travesties he saw in Medinat Yisrael, including the mystery surrounding the disappearance of the Yemenite children, which to him was a clear and immoral case of kidnapping.

Then, in 1994, Rabbi Uzi Meshulam, brought national headlines to the story when he barricaded himself in his home with armed students, demanding that an official state commission be established to answer outstanding questions raised in the book put out by followers of Neturei Karta.

Based on the research you’ve done, you believe that the kidnapping-adoption story is sheer fantasy?

It isn’t my research; it’s the consistent findings of the inquiry commissions. They found that 93 percent of the children died from disease. There were children who may have been offered for adoption, but they are the exception, and there is absolutely no proof that there was a planned and organized operation to abduct and sell children.

Not ever, ever, ever was even one case found whereby parents were told that their child had died and later he was discovered living. We know from the general research concerning adopted children throughout the world that 50 perfect of them eventually seek to reunite with their genetic parents, but no such cases have surfaced here. Where are they? The few cases that attracted public attention later turned out to be false.

And if there was indeed an organized, large-scale undertaking on the part of the State of Israel, or a small group of its leaders, to kidnap and sell, or give away, children for adoption, where are the records? None have ever been found!

In any operation like this, there have to be papers, letters, orders, communications of some sort involving immigration camp officials, doctors, and nurses, hospital personnel, adoption services, burial societies, etc., etc. Zero. If there ever was such a secret project, no one involved in it ever broke the silence and admitted its existence after 50 years of interrogation and investigation!

I don’t pretend that everything was 100 percent glatt kosher in the management of the immigration camps and that there weren’t many cases of neglect and apathy toward the families who lost their children. The manner in which deaths were reported and burials conducted was appalling.

But, on the other hand, there is simply no proof to support the claims of mass and systematic abduction. Instead, in the place of concrete evidence, there is a lot of heated emotion and testimony by a few handfuls of family members that was eventually proven false.

What do other historians say?

I don’t know of any accredited historian with expertise in this period who concurs with the protesting families and rejects the findings of the inquiring committees.

The official investigating bodies were what the families wanted. They approved the people chosen to lead the commissions. At first, they accepted the conclusions. Then outside groups came along and claimed the government was just manipulating the inquiries to cover up the truth.

The Kedmi Commission wasn’t appointed by the government at all, but rather by the Supreme Court. The families weren’t upset with the judges of the commission, but with their conclusions. They wanted to hear something different.

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Tzvi Fishman was awarded the Israel Ministry of Education Prize for Creativity and Jewish Culture for his novel "Tevye in the Promised Land." A wide selection of his books are available at Amazon. His recent movie "Stories of Rebbe Nachman" The DVD of the movie is available online.