In 1994, a few dozen armed Yemenite Jews barricaded themselves in a home in the central Israel city of Yehud. They would not leave, they warned, until an official investigation was launched into allegations that Yemenite children had been systematically abducted and handed over to Ashkenazi families – sometimes in exchange for money – in the early years of the state. Their leader was a radical rabbi named Uzi Meshulam, who threatened bloodshed. The standoff lasted seven weeks, and Meshulam ended up serving nearly six years in prison.
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But by drawing public attention to their cause, he and his followers were able to force the government’s hand. A year after the standoff, a commission of inquiry was established to determine the fate of hundreds of Yemenite babies and toddlers who had gone missing in the 1950s, not long after they and their families arrived in the recently established state. Did they die of illness, as two previous investigations had found, or had they been abducted and handed over to childless couples in Israel and the United States in exchange for money, as Meshulam and his followers insisted?
A new documentary recently aired on Israel’s Channel 2 TV suggests Meshulam may not have been as crazy as many in Israel believed. Relying on fresh testimonies, rare footage of the commission hearings and recently declassified documents, “Lost Children” presents considerable evidence to support his claims.
“I was also one of those people who thought these were wacko claims and that Uzi Meshulam and his followers were all wackos,” says Prof. Meira Weiss, an Israeli anthropologist interviewed in the hour-long documentary.
Years later, intrigued by new evidence that had emerged to support the abduction theory, Weiss proceeded on her own quest to discover the truth. On a trip to New Jersey, where she had heard that several of the missing Yemenite children ended up, she says her suspicions were confirmed.
“What I was told is that these families had heard through the Jewish community that they could adopt orphans in Israel in exchange for money that would be used to help the new Jewish state get on its feet and purchase weapons,” she says in the film. “So they came and took these children they believed were orphans. As they saw it, they were doing a mitzvah and were very proud of that. When they heard later on that there might be parents who were still alive and that the money they gave didn’t all go to buy weapons, they were genuinely shocked.”
Weiss says her investigation led her to believe that the stories she had heard about children being handed over for adoption without their parents’ consent were not isolated cases. “It was a phenomenon,” she says.
Last December, the Israel State Archives released more than 200,000 previously classified documents pertaining to this decades-long affair that has come to symbolize the grievances of Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern or North African origin) against the establishment. They include testimonies of parents who searched in vain for their missing children and their graves for decades; of hospital nurses who witnessed children being given away without permission; and of children sent off for adoption who later tried to reconnect with their biological parents. However, the documents provided no outright proof of an organized and institutionalized abduction campaign.
The newly declassified papers also include minutes from the hearings of the commission of inquiry established in 1995. Like the two previous commissions that investigated the affair (the most recent being by Justice Moshe Shalgi in 1988), this one also found that most of the Yemenite children who disappeared had died of illness. While the fate of several dozen children is still unknown, the most recent commission of inquiry determined that none of the children had been kidnapped.
The new documentary challenges these findings. A key testimony is provided by Ami Hovav, who worked as an investigator on two of the three commissions of inquiry. In an interview with Rina Matzliach, the Channel 2 correspondent who made the film, Hovav addresses the role of machers, or middlemen, in the disappearance of several children. As part of his duties on the commissions, Hovav had been asked to investigate reports, published as early as 1967, that Yemenite children had been abducted and sold to wealthy Jews abroad for $5,000 a head.
Interviewed in the film, Hovav relays that many of the Yemenite babies and toddlers were put in child-care centers run by the Women’s International Zionist Organization (WIZO), one of the largest Jewish women’s organizations in the world.
“There was a rule at the time that if the parents didn’t show up within three months to reclaim their children, the kids would be sent off for adoption,” he states. “So there were these machers who would come and get $5,000 for each child that was adopted.”
But it would be wrong, he says, to describe such transactions as sales: “This was a commission they took, just like real estate agents. This was their job.”
The film provides never-before-seen footage, shot by Meshulam’s followers, of the 1995 commission of inquiry hearings. At one point, Sonia Milstein, the head nurse at the Kibbutz Ein Shemer absorption center, recounts how Yemenite children were systematically separated from their parents and put in childcare centers. When asked to explain why no records of their whereabouts were ever kept, she responds: “That was the reality then. It was what it was.”
In more rare footage, a former doctor at a WIZO center in Safed tells her interrogators at the commission hearings she has no recollection of what happened to the Yemenite children housed at her facility. Commenting in the documentary, Drora Nachmani – the lawyer who interrogated the doctor and other witnesses – notes that this sudden loss of memory among WIZO staff members was not uncommon.
“Some of the WIZO witnesses didn’t want to come to the hearings, and we would have to chase after them,” she tells Matzliach. “Often, they would insist we come to them rather than they come to us, as if they were afraid of something. And sometimes they said one thing to one investigator and something else to another.”
According to Nachmani, the WIZO day-care centers “were often the last stop or the second-last stop in the whole chronology of events” surrounding the disappearance of the Yemenite children.
“They were a central junction in this whole story,” she states.
The documents recently declassified by the Israel State Archives were meant to stay under wraps for another 15 years. But in response to public pressure, the government decided to release them sooner.
Mizrahi activists had been urging the government to open the state archives for several years, arguing that the various commissions of inquiry whitewashed the affair. A driving force behind the campaign has been an organization called Amram.
Interviewed in the film, founding member Shlomi Hatuka notes that out of more than 5,800 Yemenite babies and toddlers known to have been alive during the first years of the state, 700 disappeared. “That is one out of eight children,” he tells Matzliach. “And if you take into account those parents who didn’t report their missing children, it’s probably closer to one out of seven, or one out of six.”
The irony, he notes, is that families were told their children were being moved from absorption centers to child-care centers for reasons of health and sanitation, but many became ill there, ending up in hospitals from which they never returned.
To illustrate the atmosphere of mayhem in those early days of the state, Hovav recounts a story he heard from Milstein, the head nurse, about what would happen when sick babies were taken to the hospital. “An ambulance driver would pick them up and the babies would be put in cardboard boxes that had been used to transport fruit, bananas or apples,” he relays. “And there would be five or six of these boxes in the back.”
Each carton, according to his account, had a little note attached to it bearing the child’s name, address and destination. “When it would get very hot,” he recounts, “the ambulance driver would open the window and a huge blast of wind would come in. What would happen then is that all those little notes would start flying in the air. They would stop the ambulance on the side of the road, but they had no idea after that which note belonged where.”
Asked to comment on the allegations raised against WIZO in the film, a spokeswoman issued the following statement: “The process by which children were admitted or left our facilities was handled exclusively by the certified state authorities, while WIZO’s role was restricted to caring for their health and welfare. The allegation that the organization played a central role in transferring the children to adoptive families is erroneous and is merely someone’s personal interpretation of events. The same is true about allegations raised by some of the interviewees in Rina Matzliach’s film.”
WIZO’s spokeswoman said her organization knew of no pressure put to bear on former staffers to refrain from cooperating with the commission of inquiry. “The reverse is true. WIZO handed over all the information it had, and the commission of inquiry not only found nothing wrong with the way it behaved, but recently the government even decided to publish this information on the internet.
“As a social organization,” she added, “WIZO supports all efforts to shed light on this affair, which has caused such great pain to many in Israeli society.”