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.
Empty Cradles: Israel’s Disappeared Children
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, 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).
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 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”.
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, ” – 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: “” Knowing this is important not only for the families but also for adopted children who grew up with a serious feeling of abandonment.
. 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. . 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)