While not backtracking on his claim over the weekend that Yemenite children were abducted in the early years of the state, Minister Without Portfolio Tzachi Hanegbi told Haaretz on Sunday that the then-ruling Mapai party and Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion weren’t necessarily responsible.
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His claim that there were “hundreds” of abductions, which he first made on Channel 2’s “Meet the Press” program Saturday evening, contradicts the conclusion of a state panel that investigated the issue. But Hanegbi told Haaretz he had no complaints about the work of the 2001 investigative committee, known as the Kedmi Committee.
“I expressed my personal position, which is a product of my belief, and isn’t based on an investigation that contradicts the findings of the committee,” he said. He stressed, however, that “a large number of children disappeared,” not because of “negligence or sporadic mistakes,” but “deliberately.”
“It’s clear that whoever did this did it deliberately, when he decided that a certain child could be taken from his hospital bed and go to another family, while his parents were deliberately given shocking details about his death, without there being a death certificate,” he said.
Hanegbi was assigned by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to review the archival material on the decades-old affair, which returned to the headlines a few months ago. Between 1948 and 1954, between 1,500 and 5,000 children, many of them Yemenite toddlers, were reported missing, and the parents were told their children had died, although no bodies or other evidence was produced. This led some to believe their children had been given to childless Ashkenazi couples to raise.
Hanegbi insisted that anyone blaming Mapai or Ben-Gurion is being influenced by “conspiracy theories” that have become deeply rooted over the years; what he has read in the archives so far has not shown any evidence of this. “In the material I’m reading there is no ‘smoking gun,’” he said. “If there was, the investigating committee would have uncovered it.”
But he could not say who might have been responsible for the children’s disappearance if the orders had not come from on high. “I don’t think it will ever be possible to know,” Hanegbi said. “The relevant people are 95 years old, if they’re even still alive, and the fact is that no one has come forward to say ‘I was involved in something like this,’ which is a human thing that happens as people age, to express remorse.”
Hanegbi added that the affair has been inaccurately labeled “the Yemenite children affair,” because “there were children of all ethnicities, including the Balkan countries and the east. This is from evidence that I’m getting from all kinds of people.”
Hanegbi’s statement that “hundreds of children were deliberately stolen” has sparked great hope among various parties involved in the affair. “This is a dramatic change, a historic statement that gives a glimmer of hope,” said Yigal Yosef, a former Rosh Ha’ayin mayor, whose little sister disappeared in 1953.
“Hanegbi’s declaration is very important. It’s the first time an Israeli government minister has taken such an unequivocal position, expressing what we have said, argued and shouted all these years,” Yosef added. “Until now they looked at us like we were crazy.”
Prof. Boaz Sangero, of the College of Law and Business in Ramat Gan, who has studied the conduct of the Kedmi Committee, told Haaretz that Hanegbi’s statements are part of an array “of important developments en route to exposing the truth.”
Attorney Rami Tzuberi, one of the leaders of the struggle to get to the bottom of the affair, said, “Hanegbi’s remarks are directly compatible with many testimonies of many families to the state investigative committee. The committee heard many testimonies from families that claimed that children were snatched from their hands and they never saw them again. That’s why it was impossible to accept the investigating committee’s results.”
At Amram, an NGO taking testimonies from the families of children who disappeared, people are putting great hope in Hanegbi’s work, although its response was more subdued. “Until we see results in the field, there’s no reason to celebrate too much,” said Naama Katiee, one of the NGO’s activists. “Of course it’s significant that an Israeli government minister made such statements publicly, but one must remember that we cannot rely on the establishment to investigate itself, by itself.”
Katiee added, “The families have no trust [in state authorities]. One can understand them. After 60 years the establishment will have to do a lot more than make declarations to regain their trust.”
Yael Tzadok, a journalist and member of the Ahim Vekayamim organization, which links families of the missing children, described her feelings as “restrained hope.”
“We want to see action,” she said. “After the state lied for so many years, it’s about time it told the families where their children are. The government must now choose if it’s on the side of truth or falsehood. If it’s finally on the side of truth, then it must launch a comprehensive process of setting up a state body that will search for the truth outside the archives as well – in hospital records, cemeteries and DNA testing.”
Hanegbi was assigned in mid-June to begin reviewing heretofore classified documents in the State Archives relating to the affair. Some 1.5 million pages of documents were collected by the three investigative committees that have probed the affair since the 1960s. Some will remain sealed for several more decades.