Blood samples drawn from Yemenites in the 1950s were tested to determine whether they had “Negro blood.” Photographs of children showed their organs marked. And 60 hearts were harvested from the bodies of new immigrants from Yemen post-mortem for purposes of medical research, in a project purportedly funded by the US.
The dramatic allegations about such practices were presented on Wednesday to the Knesset Special Committee on the Disappearance of Children from Yemen, the East and the Balkans, based on 20-year-old testimonies by Israeli medical professionals.
The harrowing claims, which in some cases appear to be true, seemed to be indicative of lax medical oversight and permissive legislation and not systematic, malicious and criminal experimentation that some media reports tried to suggest. The Knesset committee reevaluated the evidence, expressing dismay, but made no calls for further action.
The documents alleging medical experimentation on the new immigrants from Yemen were gathered in 1996-1997 by a Knesset-appointed investigative commission tasked with probing the disappearance of over 1,000 children in the so-called abducted Yemenite children affair.
Reexamined by Israeli lawmakers, they were catapulted into the headlines on Thursday when the Israel Hayom daily published the claims on its front page. The story was featured alongside what the newspaper said were newly released photos of Yemenite children, one of which has the word “spleen” written in marker over the child’s organs. It wasn’t immediately clear where the jarring images were from and what became of the children pictured.
The claims that doctors used Yemenite Jewish blood cells to test for sickle cell anemia and African ancestry appeared to be corroborated by a November 1952 article published in The Lancet medical journal. At the time, Israeli law did not appear to require consent for such a procedure.
The allegations that hearts were removed from the bodies of Yemenite Jews for research purposes were backed up by a pathologist in 1997, but the medical professional did not work at the hospital where the operations allegedly took place and the original report sourced was described as “entirely unconfirmed.”
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.
Disputed by scholars and seemingly refuted by probes, 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 paternity 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 investigations, and advocacy groups representing the families continue to step up pressure for further probes.
Wednesday’s Knesset meeting was based on the 1995 testimony of Dr. George Mendel of the Hadassah Hospital in Rosh Haayin, who described how Professor Fritz Dreyfuss, a doctor of internal medicine, conducted a study with a team of international doctors on the Yemenite children for traces of sickle cell anemia, common among African Americans.
“One day there was a visit in Rosh Ha’ayin with a group of doctors from abroad. There was a well-known man named Professor Damascus… He looked at the Yemenites and thought they must have Negro blood and that perhaps they have the blood disease called sickle-cell anemia,” Mendel told the investigation panel 22 years ago. “He said: Why not check it. He drafted students and sent them to Rosh Ha’ayin and they would evaluate the blood samples that we took for malaria tests. They took another sample simultaneously and checked it.”
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Mendel stressed that the blood samples were not taken solely for research purposes, saying they were drawn “only from those who came for a check-up,” children and adults alike.
The team discovered some sickle cell traces in a few children, he said. “Professor Dreyfuss was excited and he wrote a paper in one of the medical journals,” he added.
However, the theory was entirely refuted by British expert Hermann Lehmann who had more advanced hemoglobin testing methods, Mendel said, prompting Dreyfuss to retract his earlier article.
“And they already told the Yemenites they had negro blood!” he added.
An article co-authored by Dreyfuss and Lehmann, as well as two other London researchers, was published in The Lancet in the winter of 1952, under the title “An investigation of blood groups and a search for sickle cell trait in Yemenite Jews.”
Mendel repeated the same story in his testimony to the Kedmi-Cohen commission a year later. It was not clear from his testimony whether the patients knew their blood was being tested.
A second document, from 1997, saw commission investigator Yosef Yosefov query Rambam Hospital pathologist Dr. Baruch Gali on whether hearts were removed from the bodies of Yemenite patients for a study funded by the United States.
“When I approached Prof. Gali, I had information that was entirely unconfirmed, on the existence of a fund… by the [US] National Institute of Health (NIH) which in 1955 or before gave a pathology center in an Israeli hospital, the name of which I do not know, a sum of 160,000 liras (a huge amount at the time) to fund research on the heart function of Yemenites to determine if and why in Yemen, there was no heart disease, and for this purpose to study the structure of the coronary arteries,” Yosefov wrote in a report. “In practice, I was told that for this purpose 60 hearts were gathered and dissected (post-mortem) from the age of 42 weeks to 42 years old and that certain conclusions were drawn.”
“Professor Gali confirmed to me that ‘there was something like this’ — research on atherosclerosis and that he thinks that it was in the Tel Hashomer hospital,” he wrote.
“Professor Gali also told me about similar studies on Yemenites on the scarcity of diabetes etc. but he didn’t know if this was also studied in the Tel Hashomer pathology department,” he added.
In his 1995 testimony, Mendel said autopsies were only performed when the cause of death was unclear, mostly in cases of pneumonia. The procedure did not require the consent of the families, but rather the signature of three doctors was sufficient.
During the Knesset committee meeting on Wednesday, researcher Eli Lipstein disputed that claim, saying “nearly all” underwent post-mortem examinations under “horrific” conditions, including “over a sink near a bathroom.”
“Until a few weeks old, they [the Yemenite children] were treated as biological waste,” he said.
Meir Broder, an attorney from the Health Ministry’s legal department, said that while the practice was contemptible, the law in Israel at the time favored autopsies for all.
The law passed in 1953 and since changed considerably was “radical in its permissiveness,” Broder said. “The goal was to allow autopsies in order to allow for medical research, and as part of opening the Jerusalem medical school.”
At the time, he said if a body was not claimed within 24 hours it was automatically transferred to the medical school and did not require the hospitals to locate the families.
Many of the autopsies took place even before the 1953 law was passed, he added.
In most cases, the Yemenite families were informed their children had died but were not permitted by hospital staff to see the bodies or arrange a funeral, and were not even informed of the burial place, significantly fueling the sense the children had not really died but were rather abducted.
Following Wednesday’s Knesset meeting, and the high-profile news coverage of the testimonies, the Israeli office of Physicians for Human Rights issued a statement calling for a public apology.
“Now, when we learn from the doctors working at the time that on top of the kidnapping crimes there were experiments carried out in a criminal manner, in violation of ethical rules — and to remind you the Nuremberg Code was already written and clear — will the medical community in all of its institutions admit to its crimes, apologize sincerely and work toward recognition and awareness of the dangers inherent in its activities?” it said in a statement. “The medical community must not only apologize for what its medical staff did, but for the cover-ups, denials, and the degrading treatment toward the families’ claims.”