On June 16, feminist activists gathered in Tel Aviv (as well as another six locations in Israel) to oppose a recent spike in violence against women. Although the organizers had asked participants not to come representing parties or organizations, a small group of women from the Women’s International Zionist Organization (WIZO) arrived bearing their flag, and their chairperson, Gila Oshrat, asked to address the crowd. Within minutes, her speech was heckled and she eventually had to leave the stage after facing loud cries of “Open Up the Archives.”
The reason? WIZO’s archives may hold clues to the organization’s role in the Yemenite, Mizrachi and Balkan Children Affair. Several thousand children are estimated to have disappeared in Israel, primarily during the 1950s and 1960s. About two-thirds of them were Yemenite, the remainder were mostly from other Mizrachi groups, and a few more were Ashkenazim. In the early 1950s, an estimated one of every eight Yemenite children were taken from their parents.
Many of the families tell similar stories: they were encouraged to place their children in hospitals, but a few days later they were abruptly told the children had died. They were shown no body and received no death certificate. In a few cases nurses directly snatched the children from their parents’ arms.
Some parents managed to reconnect with the allegedly deceased children after pressuring the medical staff. Several of the children have surfaced, now adults, with fake birth certificates or with adoption documents not signed by their biological parents as the law requires. A former official in the Ministry of Welfare admitted in 1986 that many parents were lied to, and that their children were given to adoptive parents, including tourists from the U.S. and Europe.
Recently revealed documents show that some babies were also used for medical experiments, and that some may have died as a result. Despite testimonies from parents, children, and bureaucrats, the state has not yet abandoned the official version, according to which the children mostly died of natural causes. Most importantly, while important documents have been released this year, crucial information which could enable the aging parents to locate their children is still withheld.
WIZO is also deeply implicated in the affair. Parents whose children had been in WIZO institutions were told to leave, since their children were dead and they could still bear more children. Again, no bodies were shown. Some of the adopted children who later resurfaced in “adoptive” families had passed through WIZO where their connection to the original family was severed, and their names were changed. Others were told that their parents had been permitted to choose children after donating money to WIZO.
In the late 1990s, the Safed WIZO branch tried to hide their archives from a state investigative committee. And today, WIZO still refuses to provide relevant documents to adoptees searching for their families.
WIZO provides crucial welfare services in Israel, but there can be no excuse for preventing adoptees from re-connecting with their biological families. Since the organization has chapters all over the world, including in the U.S., pressure may yet succeed in opening up their archives.
(twelve chapters of the web series: Neviim – Operation Amram on the affair are now available with English subtitles).