Panel on Yemenite Children Rejects Conspiracy Theory

Yair Sheleg
Ha'aretz Correspondent
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Yair Sheleg
Ha'aretz Correspondent

The Cohen-Kedmi National Commission of Inquiry into the disappearance of the Yemenite children has unequivocally rejected claims of "an all-inclusive establishment plot" to take children away from Yemenite immigrants and hand them over to childless families for adoption.

The commission report, published Sunday after almost seven years of work, determined that documentation exists for 972 of the 1,033 missing children whose cases were investigated by three commissions (the current commission and two previous ones). Five additional missing babies were found to be alive. The commission was unable to discover what happened in another 56 cases.

With regard to these cases, the commission deemed it possible that the children were handed over for adoption following decisions made by "individual" local social workers - but not as part of an official Israeli establishment policy.

There are also 20 cases of babies who disappeared from the Hashed transition camp in Aden, Yemen, before their families immigrated to Israel. In seven of these cases, there is documentation showing that they died, while 13 cases are unclear. The commission believes that these children were lost to their families in the camp, and brought to Israel on their own, where they were treated as foundlings.

The commission was established by the government of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, after years of public criticism, including attacks on the work of two previous commissions (the Minkovski-Bahlul Commission in the late 1960s and the Shalgi Commission, which submitted its findings in 1994). Criticism peaked with the violent activities of the "Mishkan Ohalim" movement headed by Rabbi Uzi Meshulam, who spent time in jail as a result.

The committee was first headed by retired Judge Yehuda Cohen, who was forced to step down for health reasons and was replaced in March 1999 by Supreme Court Justice (now also retired) Yaacov Kedmi, giving it the name the Cohen-Kedmi commission. The other members of the commission were retired Judge Dalia Kobel and Major General David Maimon, a member of the Yemenite community.

The commission heard testimony from some 900 family members of missing children, plus another 150 witnesses, professionals or public figures that believe in the abduction conspiracy theory. It had two investigating teams, one headed by attorney Yossi Yossifov, and the other by a Jerusalem investigative firm. The commission received authorization to examine relevant adoption files from those years. It sought to provide individual answers in each of the 800 cases it examined. The commission's 300-page report also has a 1,500-page appendix, containing the letters sent to each of the families detailing the commission's conclusions on the fate of each child.

The report deals with the disappearance of children from immigrant and transition camps from 1948 to 1954. It divided that time into two periods: 1948-1951, when the immigrants lived in camps and had all their needs met by Jewish Agency officials, and the children were placed in baby houses; and 1941-1954, when the immigrants moved to transition camps and cared for their own needs and when the children lived with the parents (unless hospitalized for illness). Most of the disappearances occurred during the first period.

In order to reject claims of a conspiracy against the Yemenite community, the commission underscores the fact that almost one-third of the cases they examined (231) were from other communities, although most were from Arab countries and North Africa. The commission explains the large number of disappearances among the Yemenite community with the fact that they were forced to place their children in baby houses and were often unable to maintain contact with them.

The basic explanation for many of the disappearances, even when documents prove that the baby died, is the lack of organized procedures to maintain contact between the families and the authorities. If families were delayed in visiting their children (because of other problems such as other young children in the family or an internal crisis related to their immigration) the authorities assumed that the children had been abandoned. In such cases, however, the authorities did not make any special effort to locate the parents and if the children died, they were buried without the parents' knowledge, and thus "disappeared."

The commission explains the large number of deaths was due to the high infant mortality rate at the time among the Yemenite immigrants.

The commission blames the Jewish Agency for a lack of proper contact between the authorities and the families. The Agency was responsible for the absorption of the new immigrants in Israel, and did not fulfill its responsibility in this area, says the commission, even after it became clear that the lack of proper contacts led to parents losing children.

The commission devotes a large part of the report to rejecting the various "proofs" provided by those who support a conspiracy theory in the disappearance of the children. It also notes that many of those who publicly voiced accusations concerning the abduction of the children, such as Rabbi Uzi Meshulam, refused to cooperate with the commission and did not provide any proof for their claims. In addition, claims the commission, not a single case of a child reported to have died was proved untrue.

As for the claim that many graves were not found in the cemeteries where they were supposed to be, the report states that the families, which did not know about the burials, did not pay for tombstones. The burial societies made do with signs to mark the graves. The signs eventually disappeared, making it impossible to find the graves.

The commission examined two cases in recent years in which graves of "Yemenite children" were opened. Four graves were opened in Kiryat Shaul. In one grave, the bones of a child were discovered. Erosion was blamed for the fact that bones were missing from the other graves; in addition, these graves were not examined by experts. Another exhumation in the Segula cemetery conducted by experts proved that all the graves in question contained the bones of young children.



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