Opinion

Israel's Missing Yemenite Kids Were Abducted, Families Believe. The Archives Tell a Different Story

The State Archives houses thousands of files relating to the so-called missing Yemenite children, including lists of names of immigrants, of hospitalizations – and also of deaths. What's not there? Evidence of institutional kidnapping

Documents on the Yemenite children affair.
Israel State Archives

Thousands of Israelis, many of them of Yemenite or Sephardi descent, are convinced that members of their families were kidnapped in the 1950s and placed for adoption with Ashkenazi families in Israel, or perhaps abroad. I have listened to many of them in recent years and have no reason to doubt their sincerity. Most of the parents have died and taken their pain with them, but their children – the brothers and sisters of those who disappeared – are still hurting and are offended by the way their parents were treated. The members of the third generation, for their part, have inherited agonizing stories of loss. By what right shall a stranger question stories that are handed down from generation to generation?

Early in 2016, a group of activists demanded that the state unseal the documents in its possession. The demand was directed at me, at the time the state archivist, and at the staff of the State Archives. In December 2016, following a process that involved government discussions, legal decisions, complex and intensive archival work and technological preparation – we unsealed hundreds of thousands of pages of documents and put them online at the archive’s website.

Even after all that, discussions continued in the Knesset, in the Special Committee on the Disappearance of Children from Yemen, the East and the Balkans, chaired by MK Nurit Koren (Likud). I attended many of the sessions, even though by then my principal goal was to listen to the families’ stories and to the suspicions that something was still being concealed – and to the pain and frustration that grew when it turned out that the unsealed documents were of no avail.

Until 2016 I hadn’t given the topic much thought. As a civil servant, I refrained from taking a position. A recently published book of articles in Hebrew, “Children of the Heart: New Aspects in the Study of the Yemenite Children Affair,” edited by Tova Gamliel and Nathan Shifris, suggests that the state stole thousands of children, and that members of the establishment were prejudiced and derisive of new immigrants from the Muslim world. The volume stirred a furor among scholars, with some of them angry at the treatment of the new immigrants, and others claiming that the charges are themselves a libel. Because I am no longer an employee of the state, I have decided to comment on the significance of the documents we found – and on those we did not find.

The state carried out three investigations into the affair of the missing Yemenite children, the first of them as early as 1967. The last of these was a state commission of inquiry headed, first by Supreme Court Justice Yehuda Cohen, and, after his retirement, by Justice Jacob Kedmi. Kedmi was an expert in the laws of evidence. The Cohen-Kedmi Commission, which published its conclusions in 2001, consolidated materials collected by the previous committees and added further testimonies and materials of its own. The output of its work constitutes the bulk of the collection the State Archives unsealed for public scrutiny.

We did not unseal a number of files that contained reports of the work hours and terms of employment of the staffs of the inquiry commissions; in addition, we were prohibited, under the Adoption Law, from unsealing files dealing with three individual cases of adoption that the Kedmi Commission dealt with. A small number of files slipped through the cracks in the course of the project, and sharp-eyed activists asked why. We immediately opened them as well. Other than that, we unsealed everything. I myself asked leading activists to search for additional files in the catalog of the State Archives, above and beyond the commission’s materials. We unsealed those as well.

The Cohen-Kedmi commission published three volumes of conclusions: one concerning the entire affair in general; two relating to some 1,000 cases in which children disappeared. Anyone who wants to learn about the affair should at least read the first volume. Its conclusions are thorough and methodical. As for the more specific cases, in the vast majority the commission found documentation proving that the missing children had died. Yes, there were a few dozen cases in which no documents were found, presumably because the original files were lost, either before or after being transferred to the archives or in the archives. In archives containing millions of files, a few hundred were lost every year until, in recent years, we switched to scanned files; it’s enough for a file to be returned to the wrong box for it to become permanently lost.

There were three cases of children whose connection with their families was irrevocably lost and they were put up for adoption, and those cases are described in the commission’s conclusions. However, not one case was found in all the files of a child being kidnapped in order to be placed for adoption. Furthermore, there is not so much as a single file that I or the staff of the State Archives know of that remains sealed and whose unsealing would alter the historical picture in any way.

Protesters outside the Prime Minister's Residence demand recognition of the kidnapping of Yemenite children, 2018.
Emil Salman

Hospitalization documents

There have been allegations that the commissions were sloppy, intentionally or otherwise. The unsealed materials include many files created during the course of the commissions’ internal work. The public is invited to see for itself. I found them to be meticulous, and to reflect a determination to get to every relevant document and to all possible information.

There are a great many lists on file, usually handwritten. These include lists of new immigrants, among them the Suleiman family, who arrived in Israel from Yemen on December 2, 1949: Aharon, Lola and their five children. They named the daughter who was born during the journey “Ziona” (which means “on the way to Zion”). There are lists of inhabitants of transit camps, including immigrants in the Rosh Ha’ayin camp on September 18, 1949, among them Aharon Aharon Kapah, who arrived with a family of six. Menachem Hasman Melihi and his family, also of six souls, left the Rosh Ha’ayin camp for Beit Lid on November 1, 1948. The census of children born in Transit Camp A and Transit Camp B in Pardes Hannah included Oflalo Zion (1950) and his brother Meir (1951).

There are files containing hospitalization orders with diagnoses, such as that of Yehiel Ben Avraham Salem Kapah, 8 months old, who was sent from Rosh Ha’ayin to a hospital in Bnei Brak on November 29, 1948. There are lists of deaths, including that of Yisrael Yaish Avraham Hasan, who died at the age of 2 months on November 19, 1950. His name appears on a list of deceased, most of them stillbirths or infants.

There are heartbreaking files of burial permits, a page for each deceased with details that add up to a life story. A case in point: Avner Velni Bar Shalom, a month-and-a-half old, born in Jerusalem to a Yemenite family, died in Hadassah Hospital on September 7, 1950. His father works the land and lives in Eshtaol, a moshav west of the city. Buried the day after his death. The Welfare Ministry promised to cover the costs. Buried in Sanhedria, in Jerusalem; section C, row 21-22, between the graves of Hanna Mizrahi and Esther Spernshuk. Someone added a note at the bottom of the page: “Also in the grave was a skull found by the police from the eastern station.”

There are thousands of pages of lists, written by hundreds of people, who were very different from one another. The clerks of the Jewish Agency’s immigrant absorption unit were different from the medical teams at the hospitals, and neither group resembled the staff of the burial societies. There was no common political or socioeconomic denominator shared by all of them. Anyone who insists that the state kidnapped children systematically has to explain how it created these detailed lists – or believe that the creators of the lists were part of the conspiracy. Otherwise, how can one explain the existence of papers documenting hospitalization, death and burial of nearly all the children who disappeared, and their appearance in lists whose other names are not in question? Alternatively, if the lists are exactly what they purport to be – the product of the everyday work of immigrant-absorption clerks and medical clerks and burial clerks – how and where was the kidnapping policy implemented concurrently with reality as it was documented in all the records?

Immigrant registration documents from a Rosh Haayin transit camp.
Israel State Archives

Where were the planners?

The archivist can say even more. Not only are there lists that refute the kidnapping and conspiracy allegations – but other incriminatory documentation that would have had to exist, doesn’t. In order to kidnap masses of infants and send them out for adoption – and there are some who claim that there were a few thousand such cases – an apparatus of hundreds of people had to have existed. Someone had to go through the children’s hospital wards and decide who would be taken. Those who took them would have had to do it secretly, and then pass the children on. Someone had to supply milk, blankets and beds to feed and house the infants from the moment they were kidnapped until they were handed over to families. Someone had to feed, diaper and calm them and lull them to sleep. Someone had to transport infants and their escorts from hospitals to points of exchange, and from there to the families.

Someone had to identify families who wanted to receive stolen children and never mistakenly reveal the secret to families who were not willing to receive stolen children. Someone decided which child would be transferred, on which date, with which escort, by which route and to which family. Someone promised the recipient families that it would be possible to invent a story of birth or legal adoption, without which the child would not legally exist; someone then had to create the false documents for thousands of cases.

Here, too, diverse people had to be involved: the wicked-hearted who snatched infants from their cribs at night; the good-hearted souls who diapered and fed and calmed them and lulled them to sleep; the logistics officials and inventors of cover stories; the drivers and accountants – and many others without whose ongoing contribution the project of massive kidnapping and adoption would not have been possible. Those planning the policy would have had to identify in advance, before taking action, the thousands of people who would participate, keep the whole endeavor secret, and never again speak of their actions until their deaths, decades later, nor confess or express regret. Ever.

No note or document revealing any such extensive activity was ever found in the archives, but there are thousands of documents attesting to the deaths and burial of 1,000 infants. There are no lists of children designated for kidnapping or of families designated to adopt them, or of the assignment of caregivers or drivers. No document about who it was that organized all this. And a total absence of documents about planning, ongoing supervision, budgeting, etc. Nothing.

The whole thrust of the demand for investigation and for justice rests on the proposition that the state engaged in kidnapping children and lying about it. Had it been merely isolated cases of rogue actors, there would be no case for the state to answer and the Knesset to discuss. It’s hard to see how governmental activity of this scale could have been kept secret in real time, with none of the participants talking about his or her role until they died. It’s inconceivable that no traces were left in the archives.

And if you want to say that the absence of hundreds of dark-skinned elderly Israelis with Ashkenazi names proves that the children were sent abroad, you have only added additional layers of planning, budgeting, logistical complexity and ongoing documentation, including that from the target countries, over which Israeli authorities have no control.

Were the deaths of a thousand children accompanied by impatience and intolerance on the part of clerks and medical teams vis-a-vis refugee parents who appeared to them foreign and strange? Quite possibly. Was there alienation, condescension or behavior that could be taken as derision and racism? Probably. But an archive is not a good place to look for the record of such behavior.

My position is that of the archivist: What is found in the State Archives is not consistent with the allegations of institutional kidnapping and adoption, and what is not found in the archives also refutes those allegations.

Dr. Yaacov Lozowick was Israel’s state archivist from 2011 to 2018.