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June 30, 2016 4:30 am

We Must Know the Truth About What Happened to Israel’s Yemenite Children

avatar by Seth Frantzman

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In 1949, a Yemenite Jewish family walks through the desert to a refugee camp set up by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in the city of Aden. Photo: Kluger Zoltan - Israeli National Photo Archive.

In 1949, a Yemenite Jewish family walks through the desert to a refugee camp set up by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in the city of Aden. Photo: Kluger Zoltan – Israeli National Photo Archive.

Steven Plaut recently wrote a piece in The Algemeiner claiming that “Yemenite children were never kidnapped in Israel.” His article was a response to news that the Israel State Archives and the Israeli government want to release more than one million documents relating to investigations into Jewish children who went missing in the 1950s. Prime Minister Netanyahu has supported the release of the files. “It’s time to know the truth and achieve justice,” he said.

Plaut argues that stories of Yemenite children disappearing from hospitals and being illegally given up for adoption are “conspiracy tales.” His answer as to what happened to the children is that in the early years of the state, Israeli hospitals were chaotic and there was little record-keeping and bad care. “Infants died, corpses were misplaced, parents were not kept fully informed, parents imagined being persecuted,” he said.

In our world, Jewish children do not get “misplaced,” and they do not simply die. Parents have a right to know where their infant is at all times. If it was 800 or 1,000 children of American Jewish parents and their children were “misplaced,” can anyone imagine what American Jews would do? But because the parents were Jews from Yemen, some want to dismiss them. But it doesn’t matter where the parents came from. Maimonides didn’t say “if a Jewish child is from Yemen, then we ignore him.” No. If the Jewish sages knew that, we today can know that.

In normal circumstances, the disappearance of one Jewish child would be a serious matter, and everyone would rightfully demand answers. There are more than 1,000 cases of Jewish children whose parents say they disappeared between 1948 and 1954. Yet politics poisons everything, and in Israel the issue has been clouded by the fact that the left-wing Labor Zionist government was in charge in the 1950s. And admitting that an injustice was done in the 1950s feels like an indictment of the state of Israel to some.

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The purpose of the state of Israel was to be a homeland for the Jewish people. That means we must care for all Jews, including the weakest and poorest. What could be more important than providing answers to the parents or siblings of missing children?

The million pages of documents relating to the inquiry contain a great deal of information and more than 3,500 names related to different cases. In the past, nurses have testified about dismissive atittudes towards Yemenite Jews prevalent in 1950s Israel. Shoshana Madmoni-Gerber, who studied the history of the issue, quotes one nurse as saying that these Jews “were not interested in their children.” From the standpoint of today, we know better.

All parents are interested in their children, but cultural divides can make it seem that others parent differently. When I spoke to Avigayil Ravitz, widow of former Knesset member Avraham Ravitz, she still spoke with pride about how, in the 1950s, her late husband would sneak under the fences where Yemenite Jews were kept in camps upon arriving in Israel to tell them to keep their payot, and to observe the Torah despite the secular education that was foisted upon them. Incredible hardship was forced upon Jews from Yemen in the 1950s, and the loss of children was just one of these.  We owe it to them and ourselves not to dismiss that suffering, but to identify with it and ease their burden.

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  • hank jaffee

    Seriously? A half wit nurse says nonsense and that proves your “conspiracy” theory about kidnapping?

  • ps, and no one – certainly not seth – has suspected that i am some sort of apologist for 1950s mapai

  • What my friend Seth Frantzman ignores is the conditions in 1950. Most of the population in tents, no phones, people cannot communicate, food shortages. Seen the SALAH movie? He seems to think you can just text messages from hospitals using WATSAPP.
    He nowhere mentions my main arguments, that infant mortality rates in Yemen were among the highest on earth – well over 60% – and did not disappear overnight for the olim from Yemen. Particularly troubling is that the entire “kidnap” theory makes no sense. In 1950, no one needed to kidnap any Yemenite children. The orphanages in Israel and in countries where Jews lived in the West were bursting with Jewish orphans waiting to be adopted. It was 5 years after the Shoah. And no ethnic snootery would have been a problem.

  • Jay Lavine

    I think we should say that she spoke with “satisfaction” or with “admiration,” not with “pride.”

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