Families of disappeared Yemenite children demand state open secret files

Relatives decry ‘hush money,’ say they just want the truth, after cabinet approves NIS 162 million settlement over kids who vanished after arriving in the country in 1950s

Israelis protest as they mark a memorial and awareness day of the Yemenite Children Affair in Jerusalem on July 31, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Israelis protest as they mark a memorial and awareness day of the Yemenite Children Affair in Jerusalem on July 31, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A number of families of immigrants who say their children and siblings were taken from them in the 1950s in the Yemenite children affair demanded on Tuesday that the government reveal confidential documents relating to the matter, and decried a newly announced compensation plan as “hush money.”

The call from the families came the day after the government approved a NIS 162 million (almost $50 million) compensation program over the issue.

The issue involves over 1,000 families — mostly immigrants from Yemen, but also dozens from the Balkans, North Africa, and other Middle Eastern countries — who have alleged their children were kidnapped from Israeli hospitals and put up for adoption, sometimes abroad, in Israel’s early years.

The official explanation is that the children died while under medical care, but many families do not believe this, insisting their children were taken away and given to childless couples of European backgrounds. Although previous inquiries have dismissed claims of mass abductions, the suspicions have lingered and contributed to a long-simmering fault line between Jews of European origin and those of Middle Eastern backgrounds.

Israelis protest as they mark a memorial and awareness day of the Yemenite Children Affair in Jerusalem on July 31, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Though on Monday the state expressed regret and understanding of the suffering caused to the families, there was no official apology for what remains one of the most controversial and sensitive issues in Israeli society.

“The children didn’t die, and if they did, where did they bury them?” Yona Iraqi Hacohen, a 77-year-old woman who says three of her siblings were taken, said to the Walla news site.

“It is hush money, that’s what I think. Where were they all these years? I am angry because my parents are no longer [with us], and I promised that I would not give up until I die,” Hacohen said.

The absence of an official apology drew criticism from those who have assisted the affected families as they sought answers to what happened to their children, as well as complaints that the terms of the plan exclude many of those who were part of the saga.

Families claim the children were taken away from their parents by authorities, who never told them of their fate. They argue that the incidents were not an assortment of unconnected cases but rather reflected policy at the time.

Michael Sharabi, whose mother was told at the time that her infant son died, criticized the compensation, saying that was not the aim of the protests.

“We never spoke about monetary compensation; we asked for the truth to be revealed,” Sharabi said.

“We want them to open all the cases and hidden files, recognize the responsibility of the state, and apologize to the families for all the injustice,” Sharabi said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at COVID-19 vaccination center in Zarzir, northern Israel, February 9, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement on Monday that “the time has come that the families whose babies were taken from them receive recognition from the state and the Israeli government and also compensation.”

While acknowledging that compensation “will not atone for the terrible suffering the families have endured and are enduring,” Netanyahu said he hopes the decision will bring “a modicum of comfort, which they deserve.”

He also called on the Education Ministry to include the affair in Israeli history textbooks.

Under the terms of the plan, families will receive NIS 150,000 ($46,000) for each child whose death was made known to them at the time. A sum of NIS 200,000 ($61,000) will be paid for each child whose fate is unknown.

In total, the government will allocate NIS 162 million ($46,600,000) for the compensation plan.

Only families whose cases were already reviewed by one of the three state committees set up over the years to investigate the issue will be eligible to apply for compensation. Requests must be filed between June 1, 2021, and November 30, 2021.

A committee will be established to oversee the distribution of the compensation money.

A Yemenite Jewish family travels to a refugee camp set up by the Joint Distribution Committee near Aden. (GPO/Public domain)

There are 1,050 families that qualify for compensation, according to the Ynet website. Receiving compensation will be dependent on a written commitment to not file any further lawsuits on the matter as well as to close and waive any existing legal action.

The proposal included a declaration that “the government of Israel regrets the events that happened in the early days of the state and recognizes the suffering of families whose children were part of this painful issue.”

“It is not in the power of a financial plan to provide a remedy to the suffering caused to families,” the declaration noted. “However, the State of Israel hopes that it will be able to assist in the process of rehabilitation and healing of the social wound that this affair has created in Israeli society.”

The compensation plan came against the background of several lawsuits by families regarding the matter.

Earlier this year the state declared the cases invalid under the statute of limitations, though Supreme Court has yet to rule on the matter.

Arriving from Arabic-speaking countries in the Middle East and North Africa after Israel’s establishment in 1948, many Mizrahi, or Middle Eastern, immigrants were sent to shantytown transit camps and largely sidelined by the European, or Ashkenazi, leaders of the founding Labor party. This painful experience contributed to widespread Mizrahi support for the Likud party, now led by Netanyahu.

In this July 11, 2016 file photo, Yemen born Israeli Yona Josef holds a photograph dated back to the 1940s of her and her father back in Yemen in her home in Raanana. Josef said she was asked to take her 4-year-old sister Saada to a health clinic and leave her there. When she returned several hours later, she was told her sister was dead and the family was given no further details or a body to bury. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit, File)

Among the immigrants were more than 50,000 Yemenite Jews, often poor and with large families. In the chaos that accompanied their influx, some children died while others were separated from their parents.

But many say the reality was far more sinister — that the establishment kidnapped these children to turn them over for adoption by Ashkenazi families in the belief that they could give them a better life. In later years, families reported being mailed military induction notices and other documents for their supposedly “dead” children, raising more suspicions. There have also been sporadic cases of adopted children who were able to confirm, through DNA tests, that they were from Yemenite families who were told they had died.

Three high-profile commissions dismissed the claims and found that most children died of disease in immigration camps. The final one, in 2001, said it was possible that some children were handed over for adoption by individual social workers, but not as part of a national conspiracy. However, citing privacy laws, it ordered the testimonies it collected be sealed for 70 years.

The nonprofit Amram Association, one of the leading organizations helping the families, said in a statement Monday that the government plan “is a sought-for step toward the families; however, it is only partial and does not provide a proper and comprehensive response to the case.”

The decision “is missing the most significant component in the process of taking responsibility — an official apology from the state,” Amram said.

“It should be noted that the current decision was made without dialogue with the families and associations active on the issue, and without this component, a process of correction and healing is not possible.”

The group also criticized what it said were “substantial failures such as arbitrary and exclusionary separation between families who have applied to committees and are entitled to apply for compensation, and families who have not done so.”

It called on the government to find a more comprehensive solution, saying “many of the families did not approach the committees out of distrust of the establishment,” or for other reasons.

Illustrative: Children being airlifted from Yemen in Operation Magic Carpet, in front of an Alaskan Airlines plane. (Courtesy AJM)

The families’ claims have also been tied into the neglect and marginalization with which many Muslim-world Jewish immigrants were greeted when they arrived in an Israel controlled at the time by an Ashkenazi Jewish elite.

AP contributed to this report.

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