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It’s Time Israel Believed the Victims in the Yemenite Babies Affair

Between 1948 and 1954, hundreds of children of immigrant families, about two thirds of them Yemenis and the rest of other Mizrahi background, disappeared from hospitals and transit camps in Israel. Parents were told that their children had died, though no bodies or death certificates were presented. Seventeen years later, many of the children received induction notices from the army. Upon inquiry, their parents found that their presumably deceased children appeared, in the records, to be alive.

Now comes news that the report from the Kedmi Committee, the Israeli body that investigated the kidnapping affair, has finally been made available online via the National Library’s website. Of course, any information on the subject becoming widely accessible is good news. But frankly, this is hardly news per se; the 322-page report has been available since 2001, just not online. Besides, the real news many are waiting for is the release of the committee’s “confidential” sealed protocols, which have been placed under gag order until the year 2071 for reasons of “privacy.” It’s unclear whose privacy this decree is meant to protect.

Growing up Yemeni in Israel, I’ve known many people who had a missing child in their families. In my own family, my uncle’s wife had gone missing as a baby, declared dead by the hospital staff but then found in a different hospital after her father refused to accept the verdict.

A few years back I began researching what became known as “the Yemeni Babies Affair” for a potential project. The tragic stories I heard during my research were unnervingly similar. Often, the child was taken to the hospital for a minor complaint, and the parents were persuaded to leave him there for observation. When the parents returned the next day, they were told — sometimes in a rude and callous manner — that their child had passed. “No child. Dead. Go home.” When I visited the Zionist archives in Jerusalem in search of archival materials, I found that some of the files I requested were “closed to the public” for no apparent reason. Other pertinent archives, I’d been told, were burnt down while others were “erroneously destroyed” during the 1995 Inquiry Committee headed by judge Jacob Kedmi.

Reading early Israeli media did provide me with context for the social climate that could allow for such crimes to happen. Yemenis were often depicted as exotic and inferior; primitive people who had more children than they could handle, unfit to parent and in need of guidance. “They weren’t interested in their children,” said head nurse Sonia Milstein in her testimonial to the committee. And head nurse Ahuva Goldfarb said in an interview with Shoshana Madmoni-Gerber, author of “Israeli Media and the Framing of Internal Conflict: The Yemenite Babies Affair,” “Maybe we did them a favor.”

The six-year (!) Kedmi Committee has left many of the families disappointed and disheartened and with even less trust in the establishment than they had before: The work of the committee progressed in a slow, disorganized and sloppy fashion. The first head of the committee, retired Judge Yehuda Cohen, known for his glib, insensitive comments toward the families, was replaced after four years. But probably the committee’s biggest flaw, as Prof. Boaz Sanjero wrote in his critique of it, was the lack of suspicion: “From the first page, the report drafters are lobbying to convince the readers of the committee’s thesis, according to which there was no institutionalized kidnapping.”

The committee rejected the families’ claims and declared the allegation of a systematic and institutionalized abduction of children unfounded, despite the testimonials of several nurses and witnesses that supported the families’ stories, despite other documented tales like that of my aunt and children who miraculously reappeared after their parents caused a commotion, despite the uncovering of a stack of pre-signed blank death and birth certificates, despite the suspicious timing of the destroyed archives. The commission concluded that only (only!) 56 of the 800 cases they had investigated were unaccounted for and were possibly sent to adoption through legal channels (though this couldn’t be verified), and that the rest of the children passed away, though they admitted that in many cases the committee “lacks any information that could point to a cause of death, date of death or place of burial.”

Following a recent public outcry, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed that the committee’s “confidential” sealed files should be open, and designated Minister Tzachi Hangebi to read the documents and make his recommendation as to whether and when they should become available, making many in Israel cautiously hopeful.

Although making the protocols public would be a long-overdue gesture of good will and transparency toward the grieving families, it’s important to remember that even without the revealed protocols, we already know what happened. The dozens of heartbreaking testimonials collected by the Amram Association — a new body led by young, passionate activists such as Shlomi Hatuka and Naama Katiee — form a collective narrative that has been silenced and ignored for too long. It’s time the Israeli government believed the victims and recognized and commemorated this crime, so that the families, whose grief has been exacerbated by feeling invisible, unacknowledged, mocked and belittled for so long, can finally find some peace amidst their tragedy.

Ayelet Tsabari is the author of the story collection “The Best Place on Earth,” winner of the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. Follow her on Twitter @AyeletTsabari


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