Looking at Israel’s Flaws — and Virtues
One of the darkest episodes in the history of Israel is the ghastly story of the missing children of poor immigrants from Arab lands, airlifted to Israel in the early years of the country.
Suddenly Israel had to cope with a massive influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees from very poor and often isolated communities. It was not equipped on any level to deal with the sudden, massive problem of this mass forced exodus from the Arab world, given its post-war footing and lack of financial and human resources.
The conditions that most of these families had to endure initially were tent camps (Ma’abarot), both primitive and remote. With poor hygiene and sanitary conditions, children often caught infectious diseases and had to be quarantined in hospitals. Many babies did die. But because of poor, bureaucratic communication, it would often take weeks for the parents to be notified, and the hospitals did not have the resources to keep the bodies for long. Other children died after being given experimental protein injections. A lack of respect for Jewish traditions meant that post-mortem examination were carried out without parental consent on children who were then buried in mass graves.
There were also wild accusations that infants were given up for adoption or sold to childless Holocaust survivors. This helped create a climate of suspicion and cover-up that continued for many years. Conclusions reached by three separate official commissions set up to investigate the issue claimed that the majority of the children were buried having died from diseases. No one was satisfied with the conclusions. The most they conceded was, as one investigator said, “There was no crime, but there was a sin.”
In 1994, a Yemenite rabbi, Uzi Meshulam, and his supporters barricaded themselves in his home and resisted Israeli law enforcement demanding that the government establish an honest State Commission of Inquiry. Meshulam’s efforts led to the creation of the Kedmi Commission, which once again underplayed the extent of the problem. Finally, in June 2016, Prime Minister Netanyahu appointed Tzachi Hanegbi to “right an historic wrong.”
The government opened up nearly all of the archives of the inquiries, putting them online, and re-examined the evidence of the previous inquiries. It emerged that medical experiments had indeed been conducted on Yemenite children, and many had died through medical negligence. Further investigation found that some poor Ashkenazi children had also vanished in a similar way to the Yemenite children. Finally, in February 2021, after over 70 years, the government endorsed a decision to compensate and to “express sorrow … and recognize the suffering of the families” over the affair.
This sad episode reveals a much larger problem that has continued to hound Israel’s conscience to this very day. The modern Zionist movement was founded and was dominated often by secular and European Jews, some who saw the country as a socialist experiment, with the kibbutz as its ideal. Jews coming from very traditional oriental backgrounds were looked down on as primitive and regressive. They were treated as second-class Jewish citizens. Sadly, even in many religious institutions, such prejudice was rampant too.
Over time these prejudices have receded, and although prejudice still exists — as it does in every society — it is far less of a feature than it once was.
I recall when I first arrived in Israel in 1957, I was often told it was unnecessary to hold on to religious traditions. I recently came across a poster I had filed dating back to 1965: “Citizens of Jerusalem, bring your cars and trucks to join a caravan of protest in favor of freedom of choice and against religious coercion. On Shabbat 27.11.1965 at 10 a.m.” I often witnessed such Shabbat protests, and they usually ended in violence.
It is true that it has always been a feature of Israeli life that each new wave of immigrants has suffered at the hands of those who arrived before them. In more recent times, both Russians and Ethiopians can attest to this. But it is amazing to what extent so many different groups of migrants from different cultural, religious, and linguistic backgrounds have been absorbed into Israeli society — a higher proportion than any previous migrant influx anywhere.
All of this contributes to the paralysis in Israeli politics today. To me, however, the most important lesson is that despite all the mistakes and wrongs, there is an almost universal determination to rectify the crimes of the past and go forward to create a positive dynamic. The country can appear dysfunctional. Many Israelis give up and leave. But most stay, and strive to make Israel a better place. The spirit of Israel is to be positive, forget recrimination, and work to make one’s country and the world a better, more tolerant, and more egalitarian place. Still, we have a long way to go yet.
The author is a rabbi and writer currently living in New York.