A Nightmare Question Highlights the Importance of Oral History

Alleged disappearance of Jewish toddlers and illegal incarceration of Palestinians in pre-state Israel show how those in power always try to hide policies, and what is behind them.

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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Holocaust survivors protesting in front of the Knesset.
Holocaust survivors protesting in front of the Knesset.Credit: Archive
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

A nightmare question looms over the accounts being published on the website of Haokets and the Journal of Palestine Studies. This is the question about the alleged involvement of survivors of the Nazi murder industry in regime crimes and in war crimes.

Haokets is publishing a chilling list of family memories of babies who were torn from their parents supposedly, or not, for the sake of their health and welfare, and then supposedly died. On the anniversary of the death of Rabbi Uzi Meshulam, the non-profit organizations Amram, which researches the disappearance and trafficking by the Israeli government of Jewish children from Yemen, the Balkans and Arab countries, and the Achoti feminist organization held two “awareness days of the affair of the children from Yemen, the East and the Balkans.” Young people came and told their painful family secrets.

These stories have a similar pattern. A hospital nurse, physician or community apparatchik makes a comment how there are so many children in a particular family that the disappearance of one of them should not be painful; the body they were not allowed to see; the enlistment notice that arrives in the mail 18 years later.

The estimated number of vanished children ranges between 1,500 and 5,000; 1,033 official complaints were made to the investigative committees about the disappearance of children aged between infancy and four years. Most of the complaints – about 700 – came from Yemenite families.

These awareness days prove that members of the second and third generations of Jewish immigrants from Arab and Muslim lands do not believe the results of the official investigation. Even if no policy was imposed from above, even if most of the infants died and were not kidnapped for the purpose of adoption by Ashkenazi families, mainly, even if it was only the condescension of members of the white culture toward the “shvartzes,” they do not believe that the establishment wants to uncover the truth.

As the leading law professor Boaz Sangero wrote 12 years ago in the journal Theory & Criticism (“Where There Is No Suspicion There Is No Real Investigation: The Report of the Committee of Inquiry into the Disappearance of the Children of Jewish Yemenite Immigrants to Israel”), an analysis of the report by the investigative committee (from 2001) shows that the way the committee handled the acts and serious failures partially detailed in the report was tolerant in the extreme. Sangero cites as one example the destruction of the archives under the committee’s very nose even as it was doing its work – an act that raised no suspicion among its members or even merited the mention of such a suspicion.

The Journal of Palestine Studies has devoted its latest edition to “Israel: A Carceral State.” Since Israel’s founding, the state has incarcerated Palestinians in various ways: in jails, in sealed enclaves or by severe restrictions on movement. Methods of imprisonment developed in 1948 and during the 1950s were “exported” to the territory that was occupied in 1967 and are being used to this day.

The leading article in the journal, entitled “The ICRC and Israel’s POW\Labor Camps,” deals with the detention and forced-labor camps that the young State of Israel established for Palestinians – a chilling episode that is relatively unknown and underresearched. Researchers Salman Abu Sitta and Terry Rempel base their work on Red Cross reports from the time and interviews with former prisoners. There were five known detention camps and at least 17 others that were unofficial (where Red Cross personnel were not allowed to visit). The detainees were not combatants, and as one Red Cross report read in part, the Jewish authorities “treated all the Arabs between the ages of 16 and 55 as combatants and locked them up as prisoners of war.”

The detainees were taken from one detention facility to another. There are reports of abuse, the inflicting of hunger and thirst, interrogation under torture, soldiers and guards who murdered detainees, and differing treatment of prisoners from rural backgrounds as compared with those from the upper-middle class, who knew the rights and responsibilities of their captors.

At least 5,000 Palestinian civilians are known to have been held in the recognized detention facilities. They were sent to perform various kinds of forced labor for the newly-established state, from housekeeping duties to paving roads to moving heavy rocks. They were released afterward – often thanks to Red Cross mediation – but release from prison meant expulsion from their homeland.

Marwan Iqab al-Yehiya wrote in his statement, which Abu Sitta and Rempel cite in their article, that the prisoners (among whom he was one) were “lined up and ordered to strip naked as a punishment for the escape of two prisoners at night. [Jewish] adults and children came from the nearby kibbutz to watch us line up naked and laugh. To us this was most degrading.”

Another former prisoner, Abd al Qadir Abu Sayf, recalled: “In the early morning we were taken to work. They hit us on our heads to move. If one fell, they kicked him with their boots .... The torture sometimes continued at night.”

Now we reach the nightmare question: In the accounts of Jewish family members about their relatives’ disappearance, sometimes “Holocaust survivors” are mentioned as having received the children for “adoption.” Whether they were survivors or not, this was a manifestation of cruelty on the part of those who saw “the blacks” as inferior.

In an article about the Palestinian study published on the Lebanese website Al Akhbar, Abu Sitta said that German Jews were among the guards at the detention camps (a detail that does not appear in his article in the Journal of Palestine Studies). Whether they were German Jews or not, forcing prisoners to line up naked and using boots on those who fall are part of the family histories of many of us, but from the other side.

There is not enough space here for all the questions. They will be dealt with in another column. As an introduction, I will say that the nightmare question has to do with two issues that are actually one: power, because it is power, always evades revealing information about its policy and disclosing the identities of those who carry it out; and therefore oral history and testimonies of the subjugated are important tools to document the ruling power and expose its policy.

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