Will Soon-to-be-released Israeli Archive on Missing Yemenite Children Reveal Anything?

Following public pressure, 1.5 million pages on the Yemenite affair are set to be published by the end of the year in an attempt to solve a 70-year-old mystery.

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Yemenite Jewish children at a transit camp in Aden await transferred to Israel, December 1949.
Yemenite Jewish children at a transit camp in Aden await transferred to Israel, December 1949.Credit: David Eldan/GPO
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

The storage rooms of the Israel State Archives in Jerusalem houses 3,500 files comprising 1.5 million pages about the affair of the missing Yemenite children, who disappeared in the early years of the state. This ticking bomb was meant to lie there undisturbed, far from the public eye, for several more decades, until the expiration date of the immunity imposed on the documents.

However, in the wake of renewed public protest, spearheaded by various organizations working to reveal information about the fate of the children, the archive has already begun preparations to dust off these pages. Barring unexpected delays, the material will be published by the end of the year in an attempt to solve the mystery that has persisted on the public agenda for almost 70 years.

Many Yemenite families all over the country are waiting for word of the archive, in hopes of finding among its documents answers to the questions that have been plaguing them for years: How many children disappeared and under what circumstances? Did they really die due to illness, as the state commission of inquiry found 15 years ago, or were they systematically kidnapped and given up for adoption, as some of the families believe? And above all: Who is responsible for their disappearance and why has nobody answered for that to this day?

Chief State Archivist Dr. Yaakov Lazovik declared this month in the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee that if the government approves, he won’t block the opening the documents. “We’ll be very happy to open anything. Hiding things doesn’t make us happy,” he said. The files will be opened to the public not long after the decision is taken to reveal them — “a few weeks," Lazovik said, depending on the budget that will be allocated for scanning the material and preparing it for publication.

The man who holds the key to opening the documents is Tzachi Hanegbi (Likud), the Minister Without Portfolio who was appointed by the prime minister this month to examine the concealed documents and to recommend the best way for the government to proceed. Next week he will meet with employees of the State Archives in order to estimate the amount of material that he will have to examine.

“I’ll approach the task with an open mind, while understanding the urgency of the matter," Hanegbi told Haaretz this week. "At the same time, there is a large number of cartons which have not been uploaded to a computer but exist on paper only — so first of all I’ll have to study the material.”

Awaiting Hanegbi’s examination are materials collected by three state commissions of inquiry on the affair, in 1967, 1988 and 1995. Some of the files were shelved because they record discussions held behind closed doors; others, due to privacy laws. In addition, State Archives workers believe that there may be other relevant material scattered among different collections in the archive, which until now was not classified as relevant to the subject. If it is decided to reveal the material, the archive will also prepare to find those documents.

The three commissions of inquiry reached similar conclusions: Hundreds of Yemenite children who disappeared in the early years of the state died from illnesses. The fate of several dozen others is unknown, but no evidence of institutionalized and organized abduction has been found.

Jewish Agency representatives great Yemenite immigrants upon arrival in Israel.Credit: Teddy Brauner / GPO

However, a growing suspicion among the families of the Yemenite children persists regarding the findings, whether due to methodical shortcomings in the work of the commissions, the many questions left unanswered, or the exposure to negligence and racism that characterized the establishment during those years. Many of them don’t believe a word of the reports, and are demanding a reexamination of the material.

But can the documents of the State Archives help them? Will they provide the “smoking gun” in the guise of minutes containing an institutional decision on an organized abduction operation? A historian who has scrutinized these documents in the past told Haaretz this week that the material is “rich and interesting,” but “does not include documents that the government tried to conceal from the public.” In other words, from the looks of it, the material itself cannot disprove the conclusion of the commissions of inquiry.

Dr. Dov Levitan of Bar Ilan University, an expert on the immigration and absorption of Yemenite Jews who for years researched the story of the disappeared children, came to a similar conclusion. “Anyone nurturing a hope ahead of the publication of the State Archives documents will be disappointed. The disappointment will be as great as the anticipation,” he told Haaretz. “In the media and on the social networks they are telling people that the government has been hiding material from them for the past 70 years. But I’m familiar with the material, and I will say unequivocally: There are no such documents.” So what is hiding in the archive? Certificates of death and burial, medical files from hospitals and a lot of “dry and professional material,” according to Levitan.

Some of the Yemenite immigrant organizations have declared Levitan their enemy, describing him on the Internet as “a denier of the abduction of Yemenite children.” Levitan is undeterred. In a long conversation this week he explained the findings of his study on the subject.

“I worked on it for years and I had access to almost every possible document. I interviewed families and had access to materials that nobody had seen. I found a large number of failures and mistakes by the state and the establishment, but I can’t put even one finger on a case in which I can say that there was an act of abduction or a criminal act. There was no criminal act. They didn’t kidnap children, but there was something irregular here,” he said.

Levitan expanded: “There were instances where children were adopted and the parents didn’t know about it. The adoption papers were signed far too easily. But was there a deliberate policy of abduction here? Absolutely not.”

How were children given up for adoption without their parents’ knowledge? An examination of the commission of inquiry reports and investigative articles published in Haaretz and in various media outlets in the past decades points to negligence in the handling of sick children, who were taken away from their parents and sent to hospitals with no record of their personal information. Those who died were buried without any attempts to locate their families. Some of those who recovered were given up for adoption instead of investing efforts in looking for their parents.

“The state made mistakes, out of arrogance or thoughtlessness, and failed to issue death certificates as required. But the vast majority [of the children] did in fact die. Others lost their identity and some were adopted. But there aren’t so many cases of adoption If there had been dozens or hundreds of adopted children, wouldn’t that have been discovered? In a country like Israel it’s impossible to conceal secrets,” said Levitan.

Attorney Rami Tzuberi, one of the leaders of the legal battle to expose the truth about the missing Yemenite children, rejects the assertion that the children died. As long as the examination is incomplete, he said, the story is still open “because people haven’t received a solution. First the grandfather, then the son, and today it’s already the grandson” who doesn't know what happened. He told Haaretz that the affair won’t end until answers are found. “After all, no parent killed his child. Someone took them and didn’t bring them back — neither alive nor dead.”

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