What happened to the lost Yemenite children of Israel?
Naomi Giat may be 92 but she speaks of her flight from Yemen nearly seven decades ago with the wide-eyed urgency of a young woman recounting events that happened the other day. A seamstress, Naomi married her husband Yehiel, a jeweller, aged 13. In 1949, as life in Yemen became increasingly untenable for its ancient Jewish community, the young couple trekked from Sana’a to a transit camp near Aden to take part in Operation Magic Carpet, a massive airlift of Jews to the new state of Israel.
“Heaven,” she says, when asked how she imagined life in the new land would be. Because Naomi was breastfeeding her infant son Yosef, aged one, the couple spent just one night at the camp before being fast-tracked on to a flight. But the trip, Naomi’s first on a plane, was nerve-wracking; she did not understand Hebrew, and there was nothing to eat. The Jews had to put their jewellery in a box before boarding: it might weigh the plane down, an official told her. She never saw her silver necklace or bracelets again.
When the plane landed in Lod in central Israel, it was dark, cold and hailing. As Naomi reached the tarmac at the bottom of the stairs, a waiting nurse told her she needed to take Yosef. Naomi protested but the nurse insisted, saying the baby was ill and needed tests. It was the last she saw of her son. Later the nurse came to their tent and told them that Yosef had been taken to another transit camp; two months later, Naomi and Yehiel were told he had died. There was no death certificate or grave.
Naomi pined for Yosef, keeping and washing his nightgown for years. She still lights a candle on Friday evenings in his memory. “I just want to know what happened to him,” she says in lilting, Arabic-accented Hebrew. She is not alone. Many families, mostly Yemenites or other Mizrachi (“eastern”) Jews from the Middle East, reported babies missing from hospital after sudden or suspicious deaths in the tumultuous years following Israel’s creation in 1948. Most parents believe — and in a handful of cases it has been proven, through DNA tests or paper trails — that their children were taken from hospitals or refugee camps and given to childless Ashkenazi Jewish Israelis of east European descent, including Holocaust survivors.
Israel is now promising a full accounting of this alleged scandal, dubbed the Yemenite Children Affair because so many stories come from that community. Families from north Africa, Iraq and other countries have also reported children missing, as did some Ashkenazim from Balkan or other European nations. Suspicions first stirred on a widespread scale in the 1960s, when many parents began to receive military draft notices for their deceased children in the post. These suggested that the state was unaware the children were dead — or, the parents say, actively knew that they were alive.
The Yemenite Children Affair has been the subject of three Israeli official inquiries already, resurfacing every decade or two like a recurrent fever dream. The most recent state probe, in 2001, examined more than 1,000 cases and concluded that most of the children in question had died natural deaths. While it said that some of the remaining ones were probably adopted — and did not reach conclusions in a number of cases — it found no evidence of kidnapping or an organised conspiracy. However, the committee ordered the files in the inquiry sealed until 2071, prompting families who lost children — and the activists advocating for them — to accuse the state of a cover-up.
Then, in June, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, facing public pressure, promised to look into the question again. “The issue of the Yemenite children is an open wound that continues to bleed among the families who do not know what happened to babies, to children,” he said in a video posted on his Facebook page. “They are searching for the truth and want to know what happened, and I think the time has come to know and to make justice and order here.” Netanyahu appointed Tzachi Hanegbi, a minister without portfolio who is half-Yemenite, to reopen the files and recommend whether they should be made public.
Shortly after his appointment, Hanegbi told a TV interviewer that “hundreds” of children had indeed been deliberately kidnapped in Israel’s early years — contradicting the previous committee’s finding. “In recent weeks and months, the Israeli public is beginning to understand that it wasn’t a hallucination,” Hanegbi told Channel 2’s Meet the Press. But he qualified his remarks by saying it was unclear whether the establishment knew about it or not.
“Because I am part of this tribe, I heard these stories from day one as a very young kid, so I know that it’s not a conspiracy theory or some kind of paranoia — these things definitely happened,” Hanegbi told the FT recently. “Kids were taken, were probably given to families that didn’t have kids, and the parents were lied to.” Hanegbi is now reading through the archive — more than a million pages of adoption files, testimony and other materials — and says he will make his recommendation soon, though not before the end of October.
Some Israelis, including historians of the period who blame high infant-mortality rates and slipshod bureaucracy for the alleged disappearances, have in the past voiced doubts about the notion of a conspiracy, or dismissed the allegations entirely. Even today, Dov Levitan, a history lecturer at Bar-Ilan University who specialises in the immigration of Yemenite Jews to Israel and worked with the last two commissions of inquiry, remains sceptical. “The majority of the children — I am speaking about 90 per cent — passed away,” he says. “I have not seen one single case where I can say, ‘This is rotten, this has a bad smell, a criminal act was committed.’”
Yet while Israeli officials too have historically dismissed claims of the widespread theft of Mizrachi babies, they are now acknowledging that something appears to have happened, and possibly with some institutional support. Like many Yemenites, Nurit Koren, an Israeli Yemenite MP with Netanyahu’s Likud party, has stories of children allegedly taken in her own family: her mother-in-law lost a sister and a niece. Koren has now founded a Knesset lobby to find the truth about the missing children. “It’s clear that it was organised,” she says.
About 50,000 Yemenites came to Israel during Operation Magic Carpet in 1949-1950. Lured by the promise of a new life in a reborn nation and fearful of a worsening climate for Jews at home, they trekked through the desert to the camp near Aden. A massive airlift, co-ordinated by the Jewish Agency, the Zionist organisation that handles immigration, was a necessity because Egypt had closed the Suez Canal to Israeli ships. Historical pictures from the period show dazed-looking Yemenites in traditional garb, lined up on bus-like bench seats.
Rachel Tsadok, who arrived in 1949, was housed with her family in metal shacks near the city of Netanya. She says that Yemenites working for the Jewish Agency persuaded them to put her brother Saadia, less than two years old, in a children’s home. Her mother visited the boy to breastfeed, arriving one day to the news that her son had died. “You will never find him,” she was told. For months afterwards, Rachel used to dream Saadia was coming to the family’s house and knocking on her door.
Years later, as stories of missing children began to circulate, Rachel’s husband wrote to the Israeli interior ministry to try to find him. Rachel says he was told the boy had left the country. “How could he leave the country if he died?” she asks.
Israel is not alone in facing 20th-century scandals involving the coerced transfer of children. In Australia and Canada, indigenous children were taken and placed with white families in a form of social engineering. In Switzerland, children were trafficked for farmwork; in Argentina, children of leftists killed by the junta in the 1970s or 1980s were placed with families close to the rightist regime.
The claim that children were plucked from their families would fit with the deeply paternalistic, socialist ethos of 1950s Israel, when the state and Zionist institutions thought they knew what was best for their citizens, and acted accordingly. It was common to separate children from their parents at the early kibbutzim (collective farms). The same thing was done in refugee transit camps in order to protect them from cold or unsanitary conditions.
But the Yemenite Children Affair is especially painful because it touches on the Ashkenazi-Mizrachi divide, an uneasy subtext to politics, class, religion and other aspects of life in Israel.
A gap still prevails between the generally lighter-skinned, more secular and more left-leaning Ashkenazim — who dominate culture, politics and business — and the darker-complexioned, on average more right-leaning and more religious Mizrachim. According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, in 2015 Ashkenazim accounted for 31 per cent and Mizrachim for 25 per cent of Jewish Israelis (the remainder — people whose families arrived earlier — are defined statistically as “Israeli”, even though third- and fourth-generation Israelis continue to define themselves as Ashkenazi or Mizrachi).
This divide has historic roots. David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s Polish-born founding prime minister, expressed dismissive, even bigoted views on the capabilities of eastern Jews, who he feared might “lower the nation” unless they were “elevated”. On their arrival, a state that saw itself as European took steps to “de-arabise” the Mizrachim. Some early eastern immigrants changed their names, shunning the music and other trappings of their homelands in a bid to blend in. Today social mobility and intermarriage are increasingly blurring the divide, but condescending attitudes or open racism still crop up regularly in political discourse, popular culture and advertising. The Holocaust divides the two communities as well: the Ashkenazim experienced it and the Mizrachim, with some exceptions, did not.
And the politics of the Yemenite Children Affair are unmistakable: the leftist social-democratic camp, dominated by secular Ashkenazim, were firmly in power at the time of the alleged scandal, and their heirs (today, Isaac Herzog’s Zionist Union) will face a historical reckoning if an official conspiracy is ever proved. Indeed, some Israelis suspect Netanyahu of seeking to curry the favour of Mizrachi voters by giving the issue a new airing.
However, the alleged theft of babies also touches on something deeper. Israel came to life as a safe haven for Jews fleeing persecution, whether in Europe or the Arab countries. If babies were indeed taken — possibly for money, and with the aid of religious or medical officials — this would be a betrayal of those principles on a grand scale. “All the Holocaust narrative of Israel is now shaking,” says Naama Katiee, a young half-Yemenite Israeli who works for Amram, an NGO that has documented hundreds of cases of missing children on its website. “If Israel admits this is a crime based on racism, it will lose its moral legitimacy.”
Amram was started three years ago to advocate on Mizrachi issues but its work has quickly been engulfed in the Yemenite Children Affair, and it is gathering testimonies and offering affected people information on DNA testing that might match them up with missing relatives. Shlomi Hatuka, who co-founded the group, estimates that as many as 5,000 Israeli children were taken from their parents, based on the roughly 2,500 cases uncovered by the state committee or individuals, and his own supposition that many families have not yet come forward. About 70 per cent of the testimonies that the group has collected have come from Yemenites, and the rest from other communities. “It’s a very problematic story that’s considered a crime against humanity, which the UN calls genocide: taking children from one family and giving them to another,” says Hatuka, who works as a maths teacher alongside his activism. “It’s something that can’t be separated from the Zionist project.”
So far, no “smoking gun” that proves Israeli state complicity in the Yemenite Children Affair has been found. However, many stories in which parents suspect medical or religious officials of involvement in their child’s disappearance continue to circulate. Through Amram I met Chaim and Rivka Malul, a Jerusalem couple in their eighties who met after arriving in Israel in the late 1940s from Morocco and Tunisia. They are convinced that their second daughter, Ilana, was stolen; Chaim keeps a photograph of the girl on his mobile phone. When Ilana was 11 months old, she was hospitalised with a chest infection. Chaim rushed home from his military service to see her, and was relieved she was well enough to cry out “Abba, Abba” (Father, Father). But the next day, when the young couple returned to hospital, they were told she had died. The distraught parents were given no death certificate and the hospital rabbi denied them the chance to see Ilana’s grave or to sit shiva. “You are young, you will have more children,” Rivka recalls him saying. “We are believers,” says Chaim, who wears the skullcap of an Orthodox Jew. “We believed the rabbi.”
Years later, when stories began to circulate of stolen children, the Maluls went in search of a paper trail. When Chaim went to the Orthodox Jewish company that handles funerals and graves, he was told that its archives had burnt in a fire in 1955. Rivka looked at the rabbi, who has since died, who, she says, told her: “Don’t look, don’t look.”
About five years after Ilana’s death, Rivka took another daughter to hospital where, she alleges, she was approached by a female doctor who asked Rivka to give her the girl. Rivka took her daughter and ran. “It’s disgusting what they did — to kidnap kids,” she says. “These were people coming to a place where they were supposed to be taken care of. We trusted them, and they betrayed us.”
Among Israeli Yemenites, it is hard to find a family that does not have a story of a missing relative. These stories feed into a broader narrative of grievance against Israel’s elites of the time. What is harder to know is whether these grievances in turn colour the stories. It is worth noting that not a single person involved in the alleged theft or trafficking of babies has stepped forward to confess. Yet there are hundreds of stories of parents who were told that their babies died suddenly but were never given a death certificate or shown a body. What has not been proven — though the answers could still lie in the sealed testimonies Hanegbi is poring over, or in adoption files, which are closely protected under Israeli law — is an organised conspiracy to traffic these missing children.
Tom Segev, the respected Israeli historian, notes that there is “very little historical record” to support the allegations, and what is available is not enough to prove a large-scale kidnapping. Child mortality, he notes, was high at a time when hundreds of thousands of people were converging on Israel. “I’m not saying that it’s impossible that this ever happened, but it’s not an organised conspiracy,” he says. He thinks that one reason why so many babies’ bodies were withheld may be that Israeli law at the time allowed for the autopsies of children without their parents’ consent. “I think it’s an awful tragedy,” he says. “But I think I also once said that for people who lost their children — and these are very religious people — it was easier to blame the government than to blame God.”
Sceptics say the stories of kidnappings arose from the real trauma and disarray that accompanied the Yemenites’ exodus from the desert of their native country. Disease and death were rampant. Upon arrival in Israel, the Yemenites’ treatment by Ashkenazi officials and medical personnel was often high-handed, sloppy or incomprehensible to the newcomers. Misunderstandings were common, says Levitan, the Bar-Ilan lecturer, because the Yemenite women did not know Hebrew and men only knew the biblical language of the Torah. European clerks at Israeli hospitals did not understand the Mizrachi children’s names, and sometimes recorded them wrong; name tags went missing. Sometimes, he says, the children’s return to the transit camps was announced by loudspeaker, and they were brought to the wrong families; sometimes parents did not recognise the emaciated children once they were restored to health.
The advent of DNA testing and the internet has begun to link up some missing children with parents who were told they were dead, or in some cases has exposed telling mismatches. In 1996, as part of the last state probe, investigators exhumed a pilot sample of 10 graves of children whose parents were told they had died in hospital; in eight out of 10 of the cases, no DNA match was found. In other cases, DNA has confirmed relationships: Tzila Levine, a woman who was taken from her biological mother, Margalit Umassi, managed to trace and find her in 1997.
Some Israelis, with the help of lawyers or through their own persistence, have tracked down missing relatives themselves. Gil Grunbaum has a picture of himself as a beaming toddler riding in a cartoon car, which his mother and father used to advertise their textile business near Tel Aviv. The picture proved to be a key clue when, as an adult, Grunbaum’s world came apart.
With his olive complexion, Grunbaum always looked different to his fair-skinned Polish parents. Growing up with Holocaust survivors was “no picnic”, he says, and his parents rarely spoke about the past. Then one day, when Grunbaum was 38, a colleague said to his wife: “What do you think you have at home? Gil is not Polish; he’s not Pola and Mordechai’s son — he’s adopted.”
Grunbaum’s wife urged him to find out more and he wrote to the Service for the Child, a Jerusalem-based agency that handles adoptions, with his ID number. Soon afterwards, a letter arrived that confirmed he was not his parents’ biological son.
“It’s like getting a five-pound hammer on your head,” Grunbaum, now 60, says. “It felt like in one second I lost all my family.” He went to Tel Aviv to view his adoption file, and saw his own picture — the same one his adoptive parents had used in their company advert. (He thinks they may have provided the agency with the image to prove he was healthy.) There was also a receipt for 91 lira — the Israeli currency at the time — ostensibly for medical services, as he was born prematurely.
Grunbaum discovered that his birth name was Yoram Maimon and, having done his military service in the army’s investigations unit, he began pressing officials for information. During what was to become a three-year quest, he quit his job at the US embassy in Tel Aviv, unable to concentrate. He remembered that his family had moved twice when he was a boy, which he now assumes was to cover their tracks with neighbours who might remember he was adopted.
A year later, he managed to locate his birth mother, Fortuna Maimon. (While Grunbaum has spoken publicly about his case, Maimon, who is now estranged from him, is refusing interviews.) The two were reunited at an emotional meeting in Haifa in which Maimon told him that when she gave birth prematurely as a 19-year-old Tunisian immigrant, the hospital told her her son had died. There was no burial. When Maimon stood up, Grunbaum noticed she was limping from a chronic hip infection — an affliction from which he too suffers.
Maimon had five other children, two of whose sons resembled his own. Grunbaum began leading what he calls a “parallel life” with his new family. He never told his adoptive parents, who were in their seventies and in failing health. “Suddenly I had a big family,” he says. “Mizrachi families are big and happy; it’s a different approach.”
Speculating about why this all happened, he says: “It was a young country, not organised, not documented — good ground to do all sorts of monkey business. Some people said at the time, ‘It’s no big deal if we take one child and give it to Holocaust survivors; it’s a mitzvah [good deed].’ It’s racist, but that’s how it was at the time in Israel.”
Activists are sceptical of the notion that Hanegbi’s new inquiry will get to the whole truth. “I think he will do something to quiet this down,” Naama Katiee says. “I think the interest of the Israeli government is to say, ‘Babies were taken, but it wasn’t official.’” Some victims and their advocates have raised the prospect of civil lawsuits being brought against hospitals or other state institutions if it is shown they were involved in alleged fraud.
Hanegbi himself says that he has gone through more than half of the material in the sealed files. While declining to comment on what he has read thus far, he says he has found no explanation for the decision to keep details from the public for nearly 70 years. Israel’s responsibility is to “try to heal this scar”, he says. “The statute of limitations has passed; the people who did it are in their nineties if they are alive at all. It’s not about punishment; it’s about giving the families some kind of honest and fair capability to see material gathered over the years, and whether they can find some peace in these documents.”
John Reed is the FT’s Jerusalem bureau chief
Photographs: Tomer Ifrah; Israeli Government Press Office