Delegitimizing Israel with the Yemenite Children Affair

13.10.22

Editorial Note

Last week, Academia for Equality, an anti-Israel academic group based at Tel Aviv University, announced a new exhibition at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) Brunei Gallery. The exhibition explores “The Missing Yemenite, Mizrahi and Balkan Children Affair.” Academia for Equality advertised “Now in Brunei Gallery at SOAS London: an exhibition on the case of the disappearance of children of Yemen, the Mizrachi, and the Balkans. The exhibition shows documents, testimonies, and photographs revealing the policy of separating children from their parents and how this policy led to disappearances and uncertainty about the fate of these children. The exhibition also presents the role of children’s institutions in the case – and the involvement of international organizations. For our friends in London – we strongly recommend visiting the exhibition, which will be on display at the museum until December 10th.”

 

Prof. Avshalom Elitzur and his peers founded a website for those unfamiliar with the “Affair of the Kidnapped Yemenite, Mizrahi and Balkan Children.” The website aims to “gather comprehensive and reliable information on the subject, to correct a distorted public discourse that developed around it, and to help grieving families find information regarding the fate of their loved ones.”

 

As the website explains, in the early years when the State of Israel was established, during an existential war and times of austerity, the young country of some 600,000 inhabitants absorbed close to a million new immigrants. The new immigrants were accommodated in temporary camps, in harsh sanitary conditions, and under raging epidemics. As a result, many difficult human tragedies occurred. Especially tragic was the case of immigrants from Yemen who arrived in Israel after arduous journeys while many arrived in poor medical conditions. In this reality, hundreds of families lost their children to deadly diseases. About a decade later, various sources spread rumors that the children did not die but were victims of kidnappings and were given up for adoption. These claims led to “The Affair of the Kidnapped Children” or “The Missing Yemenite, Mizrahi and Balkan Children Affair.”  

 

The SOAS exhibition, titled “Empty Cradles: Israel’s Disappeared Children,” explains that “The disappeared children belonged to Jewish families who migrated to Israel from the Middle East and North Africa in the 1940s and 50s and were staying in temporary immigration camps. Over half of the children were from Yemen. The state officially maintains that the children died, but the families were never shown bodies, graves, or death certificates. Instead, they believe their children were sent away to homes run by women’s organizations and in many cases illicitly adopted, perhaps even abroad. A growing body of evidence, much of which is assembled in the new exhibition, has been uncovered to support the families claims. The exhibition shares moving testimonies from mothers who had their children taken from them, often by force. It also reveals their experiences of condescension and racism by the Israeli authorities towards them, and how they were frequently accused of being unfit to raise their own children.”

 

The exhibition records “the policy of systematically separating Yemenite children from their parents, and how this led to their disconnection and disappearance. The exhibition also charts the role of so-called ‘baby homes’ in housing ‘lost’ children and putting them up for adoption. While the disappearances took place in Israel, the exhibition documents how international women’s organizations, including some based in the United Kingdom, were also a crucial part of the story. Publicity material from the time shows that volunteers, donors, tourists, and members of the public around the world were aware of, and involved with work, with the children and shared assumptions about the ‘unfitness’ of the parents, and even visited the ‘baby homes’ when many parents could not. The organizations involved still operate today, and many of the disappeared children could still be alive. Now families, campaigners, and researchers are hoping that conversations and awareness generated by the Empty Cradles exhibition may encourage members of the public with knowledge about these events to come forward.”

The SOAS exhibition is a blatant misrepresentation of the story. Worth noting that not a single case of any kidnapped child has ever been identified. Each time there was uncertainty, the authorities went so far as to exhume a child buried in a Tel Aviv cemetery and conducted DNA testing. The test proved that the child was of Yemenite origin, had died, and was not kidnapped, as the theory suggested. 

Clearly, the exhibition is not interested in unraveling the tragedy of the children’s death from diseases. The purpose is to delegitimize Israel.  

References

אקדמיה

02 October

 

עכשיו בגלריית ברוניי בסואס בלונדון: תערוכה על פרשת היעלמם של ילדי תימן, מזרח ובלקן
בתערוכה מוצגים מסמכים, עדויות ותצלומים החושפים את המדיניות של הפרדת הילדים מהוריהם, ואיך מדיניות זו הובילה להיעלמויות ואיודאות באשר לגורלם של הילדים. התערוכה מציגה גם את תפקידם של בתי הילדים בפרשהואת מעורבותם של ארגונים בינלאומיים בפרשה.
לחברינו הנמצאים בלונדוןאנו ממליצים בחום לבקר בתערוכה, שתוצג במוזיאון עד העשירי בדצמבר.



Empty Cradles: Israel’s Disappeared Children

Date: 23 September 2022Time: 10:30 AM

Finishes: 10 December 2022Time: 5:00 PM

Venue: Brunei Gallery

Type of Event: Exhibition

SOAS’s Brunei Gallery is pleased to present a major new exhibition, Empty Cradles: Israel’s Disappeared Children on display from 23 September to 10 December 2022. 

The disappeared children belonged to Jewish families who migrated to Israel from the Middle East and North Africa in the 1940s and 50s and were staying in temporary immigration camps. Over half of the children were from Yemen. The state officially maintains that the children died, but the families were never shown bodies, graves, or death certificates. Instead, they believe their children were sent away to homes run by women’s organisations and in many cases illicitly adopted, perhaps even abroad.

A growing body of evidence, much of which is assembled in the new exhibition, has been uncovered to support the families’ claims. The exhibition shares moving testimonies from mothers who had their children taken from them, often by force. It also reveals their experiences of condescension and racism by the Israeli authorities towards them, and how they were frequently accused of being unfit to raise their own children.

Documents and photographs reproduced in the exhibition record the policy of systematically separating Yemenite children from their parents, and how this led to their disconnection and disappearance. The exhibition also charts the role of so-called “baby homes” in housing “lost” children and putting them up for adoption.

While the disappearances took place in Israel, the exhibition documents how international women’s organisations, including some based in the United Kingdom, were also a crucial part of the story. Publicity material from the time shows that volunteers, donors, tourists, and members of the public around the world were aware of, and involved with work, with the children and shared assumptions about the “unfitness” of the parents, and even visited the “baby homes” when many parents could not.

The organisations involved still operate today, and many of the disappeared children could still be alive. Now families, campaigners, and researchers are hoping that conversations and awareness generated by the Empty Cradles exhibition may encourage members of the public with knowledge about these events to come forward. 

This exhibition is produced by researchers at Queen Mary University of London and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (grant reference AH/S012982/1). For press enquiries please email Lindsey Frodsham at l.frodsham@qmul.ac.uk

Organiser: Queen Mary University, Brunei Gallery SOAS

Contact email: l.frodsham@qmul.ac.uk

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Empty Cradles: An Exhibition on Israel’s Disappeared Children

A new exhibition opening at the Brunei Gallery will share stories of how the children of Jewish migrants in Israel were systematically removed from their parents in the 1940s and 50s.

On display from Friday 23 September to Saturday 10 December, Empty Cradles: Israel’s Disappeared Children brings together documents and photographs exposing the Israeli State policy of systematically separating Yemenite children from their parents and explains the role of so-called “baby homes” in housing these “lost” children and putting them up for adoption. The exhibition will also feature moving testimonies by mothers whose children were taken away by force, detailing the racism and condescension they experienced from the authorities.

To mark the opening of this groundbreaking exhibition, we spoke to one of the curators of the exhibition, Dr James Eastwood. James’s research concentrates on Israeli politics and society. We asked him a few questions about the importance of sharing these stories and what he hopes visitors will take away from the exhibition.

When did you first learn of the disappearances of children in Israel? What were your aims when you started this research?

I first learned of the disappearances from the work of the Amram Association, an Israeli organisation that campaigns for justice and recognition. They have done vital work in collecting testimonies from the affected families and raising awareness.

My aim with the research was initially to find out why this happened and what it could tell us about the nature of Israeli society. I’m still very interested in those questions. But as I worked more closely with Amram, they made me appreciate that we still need to investigate something much more fundamental: what actually happened to these children? Thousands of families have never received a satisfactory answer to this question, and there is much that we still do not know. The exhibition is an attempt to raise public awareness, but it is also an attempt to gather information. There are people and organisations, including some potentially based in the UK and around the world, who might know something – however small – which could help us uncover more of the truth.

What do you think were the reasons behind the widespread removal of children?

The immediate reason was a widespread belief among the Israeli medical and welfare authorities that these children would be better off away from their parents and placed in somebody else’s care. Their parents were seen as unfit to look after their own children, and even as a danger to them. The narrative of needing to “rescue” the children was very strong. But I think this immediate rationale also needs to be put in a wider political context, not only of racism towards the families but of the project of trying to build a new state and populate it with the “right kind” of people. There are strong parallels with comparable colonial projects – in the United States, Canada, or Australia, for example.

The new Israeli state was trying to establish its control over territory that it had recently conquered in war, and it was also absorbing a huge number of new Jewish immigrants – many of them from the Middle East and North Africa. These immigrants brought with them ways of life that the founders of the state viewed with suspicion and condescension. While the parents were often seen as beyond redemption, their children were seen as a malleable new generation who could make more of a contribution to the state – if they could be wrestled from their families.

How did racism play into the narrative of ‘unfit’ parents?

Racism is really crucial for understanding how this narrative operated. Modern hygiene was seen as a crucial component of European and Western identity, and this is the kind of society that the Zionist movement believed it was trying to build in Israel. Women’s organisations, in particular, believed in pursuing Western standards of cleanliness, infant care, and nutrition as a means of “civilising” new immigrants to the state. In addition, they stigmatised parents – and especially mothers – from the Middle East and North Africa as ignorant, unhygienic, neglectful, superstitious, and also often abusive.

The research of Dafna Hirsch in particular has been crucial for helping me understand this. The authorities also believed that centuries of living in Islamic societies had bred problematic attitudes towards infant welfare and had led to racial degeneration, which even manifested itself in the physical weakness of the children. When they removed the children from their parents, they believed they were rescuing them from racial deterioration and raising them in a modern setting. You can see this clearly in the literature they produced about their work, some of which we show in the exhibition. They emphasised the cleanliness and order of the “baby homes” they ran, highlighted the deficiencies of the mothers, and contrasted the babies’ brown skin with the whiteness of the linen and nurses’ aprons.

Have there been instances in other historical contexts of this happening? What makes this case particularly unique?

Yes, such instances were unfortunately common in the history of the twentieth century. Canada, the United States, and Australia systematically removed Indigenous families from their parents and placed them in boarding schools or gave them up for adoption. Britain removed working class children from their parents and sent them to the colonies to work as farm labourers. Many Latin American regimes also removed children from political dissidents, Indigenous communities, and the working classes. There are many more cases besides this – Spain, Ireland, Switzerland, the list is sadly long.

Israel is not the only country with a difficult past to confront. But there are a few unusual features of the Israeli case which make it distinctive. The first is the prominent role of medical institutions, including hospitals, in the removals – this is not something we commonly see elsewhere, where churches, schools, and prisons were the usual settings. The second is the fact that, unlike similar colonial contexts, the principal target for the removals was not the existing Palestinian population, but a racialised group of new Jewish arrivals to the state. We don’t often see this pattern elsewhere. And finally, Israel is also unusual because a full reckoning with the past has yet to take place. Thorough investigations, truth and reconciliation, apologies, and compensation have generally taken place elsewhere. While this has not always been to the fullest extent needed, in Israel, the process has been particularly lagging and inadequate. The problem is still commonly denied.

What do you think justice looks like for the families and children involved?

This is not really for me to say. But the demands which have been put forward by the Amram Association and others representing the families have included: a call for official recognition of the affair and its racist background; a public investigation of the medical aspects and scientific evidence, including DNA; adding the affair to school curricula in Israel; transparency in releasing relevant archival material; establishing a professional body to locate the children; compensation; and clearing the name of campaigners who struggled for recognition in the past who were vilified, including the late Rabbi Uzi Meshulam. Above all, whatever steps are taken need to be agreed with the families and satisfy their demand for answers.

Why did you feel it was important to tell/show people this story through an exhibition?

Exhibitions allow people to imagine and empathise with situations that they have not encountered themselves, but also to make connections with their own knowledge or experiences. For this exhibition, we wanted to connect people with a very unusual and difficult set of circumstances in a place and time quite far removed from them. But also to encourage them to see how this could relate to attitudes or practices, and perhaps even institutions and people they might recognise. Even though the events depicted took place in Israel, some of the organisations involved were founded and funded worldwide, including in the UK. One of the things that surprised us when researching the exhibition was how much material about these children was available in English and produced for English-speaking audiences and how much access people from Europe and North America had to the spaces to which the children were taken. And one theory that we wanted to explore and seek information about is the possibility that some of these children may have ended up abroad, as many people suspect.

What do you hope people take away from this exhibition?

Most fundamentally I hope the exhibition will raise awareness and persuade people of the injustice that took place. I want people to hear the voices of the families affected, and to understand the experiences and evidence which give weight to their concerns. I hope that people will leave the exhibition better informed about this story, with a sense that serious and legitimate questions still need to be answered about what happened to these children.

Do you hope that some of the children and families involved in this come forward after seeing the exhibition?

This is exactly what we are hoping for, even though we recognise this could be very difficult to achieve. More stories of disappearances and more accounts from people with questions about their childhood are coming to light all the time. With each person that comes forward to share their experience, we learn something new and important. But adoption and family reunion are complex processes. Some will wish these matters to remain private, and that is their right. We do not pretend that coming forward would be easy for those affected, and we want to be as respectful as possible of the pain and trauma this can involve, as well as of the positive experiences people have with their adoptive families.

Beyond the families and children directly affected, there may also be those with information or knowledge which could help others to answer their burning questions. A growing number of people who worked in the organisations where the disappearances took place have also given testimonies. Coming forward does not necessarily mean making a public disclosure. We encourage anyone who has a story or information to share to contact the Amram Association.

Empty Cradles: Israel’s Disappeared Children is showing at the Brunei Gallery from 23 September to 10 December and is free to attend. 

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Amram Association

The Yemenite, Mizrahi and Balkan Children Affair



The Affair

In the early years of the State of Israel, and especially in the fifties, thousands of babies and toddlers disappeared from their families – families of immigrants who came to Israel and were housed in transit and absorption camps. About two-thirds of the children were from families of Yemenite immigrants. According to low estimates, in those years every eighth child of a Yemenite family disappeared. The remaining third of the children were from other Mizrachi families – Tunisian, Moroccan, Libyan, Iraqi and others – and a small number were children of families who immigrated from the Balkans. Thousands of testimonies by parents indicate a similar method: parents were asked to give their children to nurseries or hospitals under the pretext that there “they will be given more appropriate care.” Sometimes children were violently taken by social workers or nurses, placed in ambulances and forcibly transferred to these institutions. The parents were not allowed to stay with their children and were told to go home and to return only to breastfeed their babies. A few days later the parents were told that their child had died. The parents never saw their child’s body and were not allowed to take their child to be buried. In many cases, parents did not receive a death certificate or received it much later, retroactively. A few dozen children were returned to their parents after the latter’s fierce protests, but the fate of most of the children is unknown. Many appeals to law enforcement agencies, government offices and various officials were unsuccessful. The children were not located and proof of their deaths was not found. On the contrary: some of them were found years later in the bosom of other families.

The affair came to light again a few years later, when most of the families received draft orders from the IDF for the children pronounced as “dead.” Over the years, and only after strong public criticism, official inquiries were conducted by the state. The first was an inter-ministerial joint committee of the Departments of Justice and Police, which operated between 1967 and 1968 (the Bahlul- Minkowski Committee). The Shalgi Committee, which was defined as a committee of inquiry and operated between 1984 and 1988, was the second committee. Only in the late nineties, after the protest of the late Rabbi Uzi Meshulam was the official investigative committee established, and it published its findings in 2001. Later a gag order was placed on all the committee’s materials, until 2066. All the committees concluded that most of the babies had died, and that the fate of about a dozen babies is unknown. The fact that the important materials of the investigation remained inaccessible and confidential for another seventy years creates serious resentment.

The manner in which the investigation committee dismissed the children’s disappearance is deeply disturbing. The Committee found it necessary to note that in those years official records were improperly taken and were in evident disarray, in order to dismiss the records in which it was documented that the babies had not died. At the same time, it relied upon lists of infants’ deaths that were composed retroactively, and accepted such records as a credible and reliable source of information. The committee did not see fit to investigate why two important archives related to the affair were destroyed around the time this committee operated, and it was satisfied with the explanation that the archives were destroyed “by mistake.” Moreover, the Committee focused on examining the claim of “establishment kidnappings,” but did not consider that it is highly possible that the disappearance of the children was a phenomenon which took place in parallel channels, under the auspices of an indifferent establishment which looked the other way, rather than being a result of a direct instruction or an expressed intention of the establishment (for further reading see Prof. Boaz Sangero’s article – Hebrew).

The adoptees and the missing adoption flies

Over the years we learn of more and more stories of children who went missing, and at the same time – of adults who have discovered they are adopted, and are trying to locate their biological parents. The adoptees all speak of a similar experience – on the one hand the desire to find out who their real parents are, and on the other hand – the great difficulty of confronting their adoptive parents, who perceive this move as ingratitude and distrust. Even those who manage to overcome these difficulties, tell us that in fact it is impossible for them to locate the biological family – adoption files do not exist, or exist but contain only partial records, and this does not enable them to locate the biological family. Families seeking to locate their children who disappeared encounter similar problems: non-existent documents, incomplete records, forged signatures and procedures which block access to information (especially in the Ministry of the Interior). Even in cases where parents were able to locate their child, they cannot force the disclosure on the child, for both legal and emotional reasons.

The tragedy of the families and the adopted children is manifold – the many parents whose child was taken away and have passed away in recent years without ever learning of his/her fate; children who were separated from their parents and families, many forced into institutions and orphanages, believing that they were abandoned by their parents; siblings and entire communities that grew up in the shadow of this tragedy. The families continue to bear the pain of this affair even now – when the denial and concealment prevent them from finding out what happened to their loved ones, or from the chance of finding some comfort in discovering what occurred, and perhaps reuniting with their disappeared children and siblings. (For further reading about the adoptees see Shlomi Hatuka’s investigative report).

Similar affairs from around the world

Similar affairs in the Western world, of removing babies and children from their parents, and handing them over to “more worthy” families or to institutions, have come to light in recent years. In Canada, Australia, and Switzerland children were taken out of families perceived as “backward,” and given to adoption or sent to an institution, as part of a policy of “assimilation” designed to re-educate those groups and eliminate their spiritual and cultural existence. In Ireland, young women who gave birth out of wedlock were forced to give their children up for adoption, imposed by Catholic institutions with the state’s approval. About 1,500 children and infants were taken from their families in the colony of Reunion and sent to France. They were falsely promised education and welfare there, but in practice they served as cheap labor, suffered psychological , physical, and sexual abuse, and were entirely cut off from their families. In Argentine, hundreds of babies of dissident parents were kidnapped during the military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983. In Spain thousands of babies were kidnapped close to their birth and sold for adoption after the parents were told that their child had died. The kidnapping was committed for financial gain, and it involved nurses, doctors, private hospitals and nuns. In many cases, exposing the affairs resulted in media exposure and heavy public pressure that eventually led to procedures of inquiry, recognition and the acceptance of responsibility by the state.

In the affairs referred to here, several factors that enabled the deeds exist simultaneously – racism, and a patronizing attitude that assumes there are parents and families who especially deserve to raise children, and on the other hand – there are families who do not deserve to raise their children, “inferior” people from whom it is acceptable and even desirable to take away the children. Families from the “wrong” groups – poor families, families of low social status, single mothers or families with a different culture or a different political outlook – all these are seen as groups that cannot and do not deserve to raise their children. These affairs, like the disappearance of the children of Yemen, the East and the Balkans, can be termed “crimes of racism and patronising”.


Demands and Goals

  • Official recognition of the affair of the children’s disappearance – infants and toddlers were taken from their parents by fraud and coercion. The children were given to adoption, sometimes sold for money, sometimes transferred to orphanages, all without their parents’ knowledge or approval.

  • Official recognition of the of the racist background of the affair – these actions became possible in the context of a racist and discriminatory perception of the immigrant families, most of them immigrants from the East, as families that are incapable and do not deserve to raise their children.

  • A public investigation of the medical and scientific aspects of the affair. The state must come clean regarding the nature of the medical treatments used on the immigrants, including experimental treatments for scientific research which were used on the immigrants without their consent.

  • Adding the affair of the children of Yemen, the East and the Balkans to secondary school curricula.

  • Complete public transparency regarding the affair, and the release of all the relevant materials and documents which are in government and private archives, in order to enable the children to be located and all the levels of the truth about the affair to be exposed.

  • Setting up a professional body for locating each of the children, including funding DNA tests for the families and the adoptees, and examining adoption and late registration files.

  • Clearing the name of Rabbi Uzi Meshulam.

  • Compensation for the victims of the affair

We have a number of purposes for re-igniting the public debate on the affair:

Providing a space for the families and their stories, for the enormous pain and suffering that was their lot, which continues to be denied by Israeli society. Even today the families are treated as suffering from “hallucinations,” and sometimes parents are even accused of abandoning their children. The families, who lost hope that the affair will be handled appropriately by the establishment, continued carrying the open wound without being able to speak legitimately about the tragedy that struck them. Therefore, the primary goal of our consciousness-raising evenings is “community healing” – not to wait for recognition by the establishment but to work within the community and for the community to alleviate even a little of the suffering of the families.

Carrying out the wishes of the deceased parents- many parents whose children disappeared continued to search for them, and they left us a will: “We want our children to know we did not abandon them.” Knowing this is important not only for the families but also for adopted children who grew up with a serious feeling of abandonment.

Applying public pressure to open the archives that are closed to the public. We demand to open the relevant files to any family and anyone who requests them, in order to understand what happened to their missing children, as well as full access to the testimonies given to the investigation committee by the different agents involved in the affair.

Israeli society must recognize the case as a serious crime of patronizing. The removal of children from their families by force and deceit is defined by the UN as genocide. Israeli society must learn from this affair of the dangers of racist and patronizing attitudes, and conduct some serious soul-searching concerning the past and present of this society.

Naama Katiee on the Kidnapped Children Affair (from the web series, “Prophets” – with English subtitles)

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