Several hundred protesters gathered in Tel Aviv on Monday to call for government recognition of the alleged mass kidnappings in the so-called missing Yemenite children affair nearly 70 years ago, in a demonstration attended by several Knesset members.
Demonstrators blocked traffic on Kaplan Street in the city, brandishing signs with photos and names of missing children and their parents, while chanting: “Recognition, healing, justice!”
Others demanded the government unseal adoption documents in its archives that remain classified, while several other signs called for the posthumous exoneration of Rabbi Uzi Meshulam, who died in prison in 2013, after leading a movement protesting the alleged kidnappings that ended with a violent standoff with police in 1994 that resulted in the death of one of his followers.
The half-hour-long traffic disruptions were tolerated by police, who redirected cars around the demonstration.
Since the 1950s, more than 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.
Disputed by scholars and seemingly refuted by three state commissions that examined the affair and concluded most of the children had died, the case has kept resurfacing, not least because most of the families were not given their children’s bodies or informed of their burial places. Furthermore, death certificates were riddled with errors, and most of the missing children were sent army draft notices 18 years after their alleged deaths. There have also been cases where adopted children were able to confirm, through DNA tests, that they were from Yemenite families who were told they had died.
The state archives declassified 400,000 documents on the affair in December 2016, but the long-simmering controversy is far from being resolved, as the families have rejected the findings of successive Knesset official commissions of inquiry, and advocacy groups representing the families continue to step up pressure for further probes. Information on adoptions remain under wraps in accordance with Israel’s iron-clad adoption laws.
Likud MK Nurit Koren, who has led most of the government efforts to declassify the documents and has relatives who disappeared, was heckled by protesters when she addressed the crowd on Monday, assuring them that the government did recognize the kidnappings.
She pointed to the state’s willingness to declassify the documents, a special Knesset committee she oversees on the affair — which does not have the official standing of a parliamentary inquiry commission — and a bill she lodged calling on the state to reopen graves where the children were allegedly buried to perform DNA testing, which passed a preliminary reading.
Koren’s remarks were punctuated by repeated jeering from the crowd.
Also at the protest were opposition leader Isaac Herzog, Zionist Union MK Yossi Yonah, Joint (Arab) List MK Dov Khenin, with the new Labor leader Avi Gabbay expressing his support in a statement earlier in the day.
Sitting on the sidelines, dressed in a colored headscarf, a white sweater, and a black skirt, and leaning on a cane was 88-year-old Shoshanna Nachshon (formerly Hashen). She was the mother of a toddler and pregnant when she arrived in Israel in 1949. Both children were separately taken away, with officials telling her they had died. She never saw the bodies.
“I shouted, ‘Where is the child? Where is the child?” the wizened woman reenacted vigorously, on the sidelines of the demonstration seven decades later, recalling her eldest son being taken to a hospital upon their landing in Israel. “He was a healthy child. He was not sick!” She grabbed her own wrist in describing how doctors forced her to sign papers in Hebrew which she could not read. And she softened on recalling giving birth to her oldest, at night: “He was a beautiful child.”
“People say there are sealed files. I want them to open them up,” said Nachshon.
Her daughter Rachel later told The Times of Israel that a friend who worked in the Interior Ministry found documents linking one of the children to an adoption to a New Jersey family. But they have no way of confirming this, she added.
Some of the pervasive — and entirely unconfirmed — theories that continue to float around the affair decades later surfaced at the protest as well. “The next protest, we hold outside WIZO!” shouted one man, blaming the welfare organization that ran orphanages in the Jewish state at the time the children went missing. It was the Haredi community that did it, a woman told a skeptical bearded ultra-Orthodox man on a bicycle, referring to unsubstantiated claims that ultra-Orthodox organizations put the children up for adoption abroad to safeguard them from secular influence in Israel.
Several first- and second-generation Yemenite Jews told their stories to the crowd, including a woman who recalled how her husband opened up a grave where her sibling was allegedly buried, only to find Torah scrolls.
A man hands out a pamphlet calling for financial support for research on the missing children, while some protesters channeled the High Holidays season with signs about “atonement” and singing traditional Yom Kippur liturgy.
And some of the placards featured a personal take: “64 years and I believe and am waiting!” it read.