How do you declassify hundreds of thousands of documents in an explosive, painful affair to many Israelis in a matter of mere months, balancing privacy laws with the public’s right to know, with the full awareness that any redaction or omission — however slight or legally necessary — stokes a 60-year-old mystery, deepens residual distrust and anti-establishment sentiment and personal grief, and will be interpreted as a cover-up with the most sinister of intentions?
These were some of the questions the Israel State Archives grappled with in unsealing some 400,000 pages in the missing Yemenite Children Affair, according to the legal adviser of the archives, who works under the auspices of the Prime Minister’s Office.
According to Noomi Aldouby, the pace of the declassification process, which ended two weeks ago, “was unprecedented.”
Some 20 members of the archive staff, along with 10 students from August, unsealed the information in a matter of months, following the green-light from the Israeli cabinet.
“The archive has never opened up so much material in such a short period,” she said.
The staff worked quickly, understanding “that any delay — even when it’s real, because it takes time — only amplifies the suspicions. ‘Why is it taking so long? What are you concealing?’ We’ve heard these sorts of things,” she said.
But Aldouby stressed the sealing of the documents in 2001 for 70 years was ultimately a “technical issue” that came down to bureaucrats filling out a field on a computer form in accordance with the archive’s regulations.
Sometimes, she mused, “something done arbitrarily is perceived as intentional and therefore as damaging, harmful, as concealing some malicious intent.”
The case of the missing Yemenite children
Since the 1950s, over 1,000 families — mostly immigrants from Yemen, but also dozens from the Balkans, North Africa and other Middle Eastern countries — have alleged their children were systematically kidnapped from Israeli hospitals and put up for adoption, sometimes abroad.
Over the past several decades, the government has appointed three investigative committees to probe the case, with all concluding the majority of children died in the hospital and were buried without the families being notified or involved. The last panel to probe the affair in 2001 reached similar conclusions, but sealed the testimonies from the probe in the state archive for 70 years.
Disputed by scholars and seemingly refuted by probes, the case keeps resurfacing, not least because most of the families were not given their children’s bodies or informed of their burial places, death certificates were riddled with errors, and most of the missing children were sent army draft notices 18 years after their alleged deaths. And there have been cases where adopted children were able to confirm, through paternity tests, they were from Yemenite families who were told they had died.
The battle to declassify the files was spearheaded last year by various organizations representing the families that argued that there was no reason files from the state inquiries into the affair should remain concealed — unless, they maintained, the state has something to hide. The cause was quickly adopted by Israeli lawmakers, many with personal ties to the missing children.
With the files drawn from the state inquiry, there don’t appear to be any bombshell discoveries in the recently released mammoth trove of testimony that would upend that conclusion entirely. And while it is unlikely to offer the families closure, it does give them access to all the evidence that the panels had weighed before informing them of their conclusions on the childrens’ fate.
The transcripts also include for public perusal (Hebrew) hundreds of heart-wrenching personal accounts from the bereaved relatives of the missing children and local officials, painting a portrait of an ineffectual, unsympathetic — if not absolutely heartless — bureaucratic machine.
According to Aldouby, the public perception and fury over the classified documents reflected a “misunderstanding of the [archive] regulations.”
“The 70 years is something that is determined almost arbitrarily in the archive system,” she said. According to the archive regulations, “material that includes personal information of people, under privacy laws, is classified for 70 years. All material.”
“What we assume happened is that the moment this information was deposited in 2001, when the committee finished working, someone received it and gave it a preliminary evaluation, saw that it contained personal information… I don’t think someone sat down and said, ‘this here, we are going to seal it for 70 years.’ It’s simply one of the options, and it’s an option that is appropriate for personal materials,” she said.
Two types of documents are classified, she explained. The first are over concerns of harm to national security, foreign affairs, public safety. The second type is privacy protections.
“Pretty early on, we understood that the vast majority of this information in the case of the Yemenite Children is of the second type,” she said, later adding that two documents sealed for national security reasons have been examined and since declassified.
With the approval of the Shin Bet security agency, the archives also released for the first time the testimony of former Shin Bet chief Amos Manor, who appeared before the Cohen-Kedmi committee in 1998. In his testimony, Manor described the nascent security service as “unsophisticated and undeveloped,” but nonetheless asserted that “if there was something, some organized activity in the disappearance of Yemenite children, I imagine that in 1951, 1952, in little Israel — there were only 1.2 million or 1.3 million residents here — it would have been brought to the attention of the service.”
“If something like this happened, I imagine we would have given it to the police. We wouldn’t have dealt with it. This isn’t our job, but I don’t even recall the slightest awareness” of the allegations, said Manor.
Accessing adoptions and medical information
Aldouby described the various legal “dilemmas” the archive faced in balancing the public’s right to know and safeguarding privacy. Ultimately, adoption information remained classified due to Israel’s ironclad adoption laws, which prohibits publicizing adoption information without court approval. Sensitive welfare information, and medical records also remained sealed.
“Information on adoptions, we had no discretion, we had to seal everything,” she said. The archive plans to ask a court to declassify some 10 files on adoption, some of which were already published in Israeli media, and some because “one of the investigation committees found a link between a complaint and an adopted child.”
The Knesset is in the process of rolling back the archaic adoption laws that ban even adopted children from publicly acknowledging their roots without court consent. Aldouby said the archive worked in accordance with the existing laws. If something changes, the archive may reevaluate what can be released, she said.
The archive also decided to omit the graphic descriptions of some autopsies performed on some children, though the relatives may view the documents in full at the archive, as well as any other information relating to their missing relatives that was redacted.
The archive also decided to withhold information deemed liable to compromise the privacy of figures not necessarily tied to the affair, blotting out the reasons for hospitalization in the emergency room records, but keeping the names of the Israelis in the lists open. The committees had also sought personal information on nurses from that period, including report cards and personal evaluations, some of it negative. The archive decided that information could hurt the privacy of the nurses and decided not to release those personal files, said Aldouby.
The end of a painful affair, or the beginning?
Upon releasing the information, the archives highlighted some tidbits the staff found interesting. But some of that information, such as the Yemenite leaders response to the allegations in the 1950s, drew a furious response from the advocacy groups who accused the archives of offering interpretation of the affair. The outcry prompted the chief archivist to apologize, and underlined some of the lingering distrust between the families and Israeli establishment.
“Our job is to open up the material,” said Aldouby. “We aren’t another investigative committee, we aren’t supposed to say what really happened or didn’t. We aren’t supposed to draw conclusions. Our only goal was to open the material as much as possible, so that the public will see and the public will judge and decide.”
She also expressed the hope the “this process of opening up the material at least will restore some of the trust in the system” among the families.
“Again, without saying whether there are those to blame or not, what is true or not — there is something here that won’t heal after so many years. Being part of that, and knowing that perhaps we are doing something to heal this affair is very meaningful,” she said.
In the coming months, researchers will likely begin poring over the information, she predicted.
“You asked before if it’s the end or the beginning. So from the archives’ perspective, we have more or less finished what we can do. We opened what we have,” she said. “The story as a story has not ended. Our role, perhaps, has.”