Israel Releases Trove of Classified Files on Disappearance of Yemenite Children

Heartbreaking tales of lost children, but no 'smoking gun' as Israel makes over 200,000 documents on mysterious disappearance of Yemenite children available for first time in Israel's history.

Yemenite immigrants at the Rosh Ha'ayin absorption camp in the 1950s.
From the album of Hadassah International, Israel Comes Into View (Yad Ben Zvi), Rosh Ha'ayin Documentation Center

The Israel State Archives released Wednesday over 200,000 previously classified documents related to the disappearance of Yemenite children in the early years of Israel's statehood. The documents, which were supposed to be disclosed only in 2031, will now be accessible on the state archives website.

However, the newly released material does not contain information that could shed light on the fate of the children, or answer the painful and disturbing questions of their families, according to an initial perusal of the material and conversations with sources who are very familiar with it. There is no “smoking gun” among the papers that points to an organized and institutionalized kidnapping of the children who disappeared, as Yemenite families and organizations supporting them have claimed for years.

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Missing Israeli Yemenite children documents: Testimony of a man who was put up for adoption and claims Yemenite heritage
Israel State Archive

One of the most important pieces of evidence now being revealed for the first time is that of then-chief of the Shin Bet security services, Amos Manor, who told the commission of inquiry that the Shin Bet had no information about the kidnapping of children and that he believed that it was impossible for such institutionalized kidnapping to have taken place during David Ben Gurion’s tenure as prime minister.

Other evidence, some of which makes for difficult reading, tells of parents who searched in vain for decades for their disappeared children or their graves; adopted children of Yemenite origin who tried to find their biological parents when they grew up; hospital nurses who claimed that they saw children being given up for adoption without their parents’ knowledge; and nurses who claimed that they tried in vain to find parents when their children were released from the hospital.

“Reading the evidence from the families is heartbreaking,” says state archivist Dr. Yaakov Lazovik, in a briefing to reporters in advance of publication of the documents. “Following the work of the commission of inquiry demonstrates the very thorough manner in which it worked.”

Prime Minister David Ben Gurion visiting the cheder at Farradiya transit camp, Nov. 22, 1950.
Eldan David/GPO

The papers now being revealed to the public include the raw materials of the state commission of inquiry that investigated the affair, the Cohen-Kedmi Commission, which worked from 1995 to 2001. The commission determined that most of the children who disappeared had died, and that the fate of several dozen others is unknown, but it found no evidence that they were kidnapped.

The committee’s basic report has already been published, but in a partial and censored version. Only recently was it posted in full on the internet, at the initiative of the National Library of Israel.

The papers being revealed now provide a view of the “behind the scenes” of the report: the minutes of the discussions of the commission that authored it; its internal correspondence; the raw materials the commission used; and letters sent to it. Among the papers are investigative files opened for every missing child about whom a complaint was submitted; hundreds of testimonies given to the commission; and files of public institutions it examined, such as medical centers, cemeteries and the police.

Yemenite Jewish children with their mother, ca. 1949-1950.
David Eldan, GPO

“The huge amounts of material being published reveal the interior world of the commission, with maximum transparency,” said Rivka Dvash, director of the Freedom of Information Unit in the Justice Ministry, in a briefing to journalists last week.

Dvash accompanied the state archives in the process of making decisions about how to publicize the material. “There’s a hemorrhaging affair here, which hasn’t ended, and which includes parents who don’t know where their children disappeared to, and children who don’t know their identity. Disclosing the papers is the first step, but not necessarily the last in the affair,” she said. “It’s clear to us that this is not the end of the story. On the contrary. Publication is likely to bring new things to the fore. We have no doubt that additional questions will arise after we reveal the information we have.”

The commissions of inquiry examined the complaints of families who immigrated to Israel from Yemen after the founding of the state. They said that their children were taken from them after birth and under the guise of medical care they disappeared, never to return. The commissions found no evidence of the families’ claims of organized kidnapping.

Jewish Agency representatives greet Yemenite immigrants upon arrival in Israel.
Teddy Brauner / GPO

The papers are now being revealed in the wake of a government decision made last summer, in response to renewed public pressure. At the end of June, Minister Tzahi Hanegbi was appointed to examine whether the raw materials examined by the state commission of inquiry, which ended its work in 2001, can be disclosed to the public. By law these documents are supposed to be classified for 30 years from the date that the state commission’s report is published.

At Hanegbi’s request, the state archives employees perused over 3,500 files, which contain about 200,000 documents related to the affair. In consultation with the Justice Ministry, they recently presented a plan for publishing the material that was approved last month by the government, paving the way for releasing the materials to the public.

All the material is being disclosed, with the exception of a few cases where privacy is warranted. “We concealed very little,” said Lazovik. The parts that are still classified include information about adoption, medical care, and social welfare issues.

The state archives will enable the families of the disappeared Yemenite children to read the files related to their family members in full, including the parts that were erased, if any. “When family members come and want to see the complete file of their relatives they will be able to do so. There are no classified materials,” said Lazovik.

Yemenite families arriving at the Rosh Ha'ayin immigrant transit camp in the 1950s.
From the album of Hadassah International, Israel Comes Into View (Yad Ben Zvi), Rosh Ha'ayin Documentation Center