Wounds over missing Yemenite children open, MKs renew push for truth

Families demand government declassify documents sealed until 2071 on dark affair involving alleged kidnappings; Netanyahu baffled on why they were sealed in first place

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

A conference on the Yemenite Children Affair in the Knesset on June 21, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
A conference on the Yemenite Children Affair in the Knesset on June 21, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The year is 2001. Saada Awawi, a Yemenite Jewish immigrant in her mid-sixties, is contacted by the state committee tasked with probing the disappearance of over 1,000 children in the 1950s in the so-called “Yemenite Children affair.”

We can now confirm that your daughter died in January 1952, on the day she was born, Awawi is assured by officials, following a six-year state-commissioned investigation.

There’s just one problem: Awawi gave birth to a baby boy. According to her account, as told to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in 2001, she nursed her son in the hospital for five days before she was informed by a nurse he had died of unspecified developmental issues. The midwife confirmed to the paper that she had delivered a baby boy on the floor of a grocery store near Haifa. And the name of the mother listed on the death certificate is not Awawi’s, though it was close enough to be deemed a mix-up by the investigative team.

“They’re bastards, you know that?” Awawi told The Times of Israel vehemently. “They told me I gave birth to a baby girl who died on the same day. It’s an utter lie, an utter lie. I gave birth to a son. I even named him Ezra.”

On Tuesday, the annual remembrance day for the missing Yemenite children, the case was resurrected in the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee and in a conference at Israel’s parliament, this time focused solely on the matter of classified documents sealed in the wake of the 2001 probe in the state archives — until 2071.

The nursery at the Rosh Ha'ayin refugee camp housing Yemenite Jewish immigrants (Brauner Teddy/GPO)
The nursery at the Rosh Ha’ayin refugee camp housing Yemenite Jewish immigrants (Brauner Teddy/GPO)

In a rare moment of consensus on the matter, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, as well as the prime minister and justice minister, expressed willingness to declassify the documents and grapple with this low point in Israeli history, an affair in which it is alleged that Israeli officials kidnapped and sent abroad children born to immigrants from Arab countries.

“I think the time has come to find out what happened, and do justice,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a video posted to his Facebook page on Tuesday. The prime minister reiterated that he has appointed Likud minister Tzachi Hanegbi to draft a government recommendation on the matter of the classified documents, noting “that, as of this moment, I don’t know why it [the directive to seal the documents] exists.”

The Yemenite children affair

According to some Yemenite Jewish traditional sources, when the biblical Ezra the Scribe appealed to the ancient Jewish community to move to Israel and help rebuild the Second Temple, the Yemenite community spurned him, arguing the Messiah had not yet come. Incensed by their obstinacy, Ezra cursed them to forever live in poverty and suffering; the community retorted with the wish Ezra be buried outside the land of Israel. According to the legend, though scholars dispute some of its sources, both curses have come true.

A Yemenite mother and child. 1950. (Fritz Cohen/GPO)
A Yemenite mother and child. 1950. (Fritz Cohen/GPO)

The year is 1952. Much of the Yemenite Jewish community has moved to Israel, seemingly closing the chapter on thousands of years of anti-Semitic persecution and impoverishment. An end has come to a tenacious curse. Awawi gives birth to a baby boy. Her husband names him Ezra.

“My husband said, ‘I left my parents in Yemen, but God will not abandon me. Now this child, we will call him Ezra.’ It was even on the paper that is tied on the baby’s hand. It said Ezra,” Awawi said.

Five days later, Awawi, who was just 13, was told by a nurse her baby had died. When her husband demanded to see their son’s body, the hospital refused. He was purportedly buried by the hospital. Site of grave — unknown.

Yemenite immigrants in a camp near Ein Shemer in 1950 (Pinn Hans/GPO)
Yemenite immigrants in a camp near Ein Shemer in 1950 (Pinn Hans/GPO)

Since the 1950s, over 1,000 families – mostly Yemenite, 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, in the largest cover-up in the history of the State of Israel. 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.

Since 1967, three separate investigative committees have concluded that the majority of the missing children had died and, due to insensitive or racist hospital policies, been buried without their parents’ knowledge.

Child mortality rates at the time were staggering. US Jewish journalist Ruth Gruber, who accompanied Yemenite Jews to Israel, wrote that in Yemen, “of every one thousand children born, eight hundred died.” Other figures, based on the Human Mortality Database and UN Child Mortality Estimates, places the number in 1952 at 481 for each 1,000 births.

Along with Awawi, 733 families were told by the state committee in 2001 their children had died. Fifty-six cases remain unresolved. Citing both privacy concerns and archival procedures, the state subsequently sealed many of the transcripts from the investigation.

An Israeli doctor examines an undernourished immigrant baby in 1949 (Teddy Brauner/GPO)
An Israeli doctor examines an undernourished immigrant baby in 1949 (Teddy Brauner/GPO)

And while the affair in the past has been downplayed, if not discarded outright as a myth, lawmakers on Tuesday were inclined to treat the matter as an indisputable historical wrong rather than a conspiracy – in part since what was described repeatedly as a “bleeding wound” hit quite close to home for some.

Truth, not blame?

At the committee meeting, four of the some ten lawmakers present detailed their personal ties to the missing children– Likud MK Nava Boker’s spoke of her sister and brother, the latter of whom has two graves marked with his name; Shas MK Yoav Ben-Tzur said his uncle and baby cousin had disappeared on the same day; Zionist Union MK Yossi Yonah described how his aunt ran around the hospital looking for her daughter after the doctors told her she had died, but refused to produce her remains. And Likud MK Nurit Koren – who has been spearheading the issue in the Knesset – spoke about her missing cousin, born to her aunt after years of infertility.

The head of the Knesset committee, Jewish Home MK Nissan Slomiansky, said he would urge the government to unseal the files, and if that failed, submit a bill to declassify the documents. But, he said, ‘the goal should not be to reveal who was responsible then,” since if that is the focus “it’s possible they won’t reveal the protocols.”

MK Nurit Koren leads an event on the "Yemenite Children Affair", in the Israeli parliament on June 21, 2016. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
MK Nurit Koren leads an event on the Yemenite children affair in the Knesset on June 21, 2016. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Meretz leader Zahava Gal-on disagreed. It’s important to find out “if there was a method here,” she said.

Later speaking at the conference marking the founding of the Knesset Lobby on Yemenite Children, Koren declared: “We aren’t looking for those responsible, but rather for the truth.”

‘I, as a Jew, as an Israel, as a Zionist, want to know… why the hell it happened in my country’

“Our parents’ generation is dying, in pain and tortured, and we owe them answers,” she added. Echoing her, Ben-Tzur maintained he was not seeking “anyone’s head,” but simply “daylight” to heal the “bleeding wound.”

But taking the stage at the conference later, Zionist Union MK Hilik Bar demanded answers, apologies, and efforts to reunite families where possible.

“I know a lot of people stood up here from the community and said: We aren’t looking for those guilty, we don’t want to hold anyone accountable, we simply want to know what happened to the children. That’s your right. But I, as a Jew, as an Israeli, as a Zionist, want to know what happened, why it happened, who gave these instructions — why the hell it happened in my country,” Bar said.

1.5 million pages of transcripts

Earlier this month, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Culture Minister Miri Regev both indicated support for declassifying the documents.

A Yemenite man looks after his grandchild in 1949 (Eldan David/GPO)
A Yemenite man looks after his grandchild in 1949 (Eldan David/GPO)

But the problem with declassifying the files is twofold, the state archivist told the Knesset committee on Tuesday. The first is a law governing official probes, which places the transcripts under lock and key for 30 years, unless the government intervenes. The second is a privacy law that maintains that all sensitive information on personal citizens must remain confidential until their deaths. With no way to track whether the citizens in questions died, the state opted to seal it for 70 years, ensuring they would no longer be living when the documents are released. The cabinet alone can override the first, but overcoming the privacy law would likely require Knesset support, he said. Since 2002, the government has allowed families to view their own files, he added.

There are 3,500 cases, and over 1.5 million documents on the affair, state archivist Yaakov Lozowick told the committee, which would take approximately 1,000 work days to scan and sort through. Given a directive, “we would be happy to open anything,” he said.

Former justice minister Meir Sheetrit and Jacob Kedmi, the former Supreme Court justice who oversaw the 2001 commission, were not immediately available for comment.

‘An opportunity, not a problem’

There is no talk of financial compensation at the Knesset lobby’s conference, attended primarily by Jewish Yemenite Israelis, just calls for answers. Rabbi Uzi Meshulam, the social activist who formed a militia of Yemenite Jews to pressure the government on the subject and who died in prison on this day in 2013, is applauded heartily. Between speeches, there are musical acts by Yemenite Israeli artists. The host stresses that despite the painful issue, he hopes people leave uplifted.

This is “an opportunity, not a problem,” said Dr. Rafi Shubeli, a social activist. “Truth is an essential condition for social reconciliation.”

A conference on the "Yemenite Children Affair", in the Israeli parliament on June 21, 2016. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
A conference on the Yemenite children affair in the Knesset on June 21, 2016. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

The year is 1969. Awawi, now the mother of several other children, is hanging laundry on a clothesline outside her home. An Israeli soldier, wearing what she describes as a “nice hat,” approaches her. In his hand — a draft notice. “Is Ezra Awawi home?”

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