Israel Formally 'Expresses Sorrow' for Disappearance of Yemenite Children 70 Years On, to Pay Reparations to Families

The historic decision grants 162 million shekels for the families of 1,000 children who went missing in the state’s early years, but activists say a more comprehensive plan is needed

A 2018 protest in Jerusalem demanding justice for the families
A 2018 protest in Jerusalem demanding justice for the Yemenite familiesCredit: Emil Salman

The cabinet has voted Monday to formally "recognize the families’ suffering" and pay landmark reparations for the mass disappearance of children from Yemenite immigrant families in Israel's early days.

Israel, according to the text of the cabinet's decision, “expresses sorrow” over the disappearance of over 1,000 children during the first decade of the state's establishment, and has earmarked 162 million shekels (nearly $50 million) for reparations in the historic resolution, based on a plan first reported on Sunday by Channel 12 News.

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The budget will be divided into two categories: Families who were not informed of their children’s deaths, the related circumstances, and the location of burial will receive 150,000 shekels ($45,900), whereas families whose children’s fate remains unknown will receive higher compensation – 200,000 shekels. The sums will be divided among the deceased child’s parents and siblings.

“No financial plan is capable of providing relief from the suffering caused to the families. Nevertheless, the State of Israel hopes that it will assist in the rehabilitation and healing process of the social wound that this case caused in Israeli society,” the explanatory notes to the cabinet resolution states.

The payment of the compensation will be conditioned on a waiver of all financial claims, and only cases investigated by the government will be entitled to compensation.

A girl carries her brother as she walks through the mud at the Beit Lid transit camp, 1950. Credit: Zoltan Kluger, GPO

The cabinet decision comes against the backdrop of damages filed against the state by the affected families. The lawsuits prompted the government, as described in the resolution, “to consider arranging comprehensive out-of-court financial payment, beyond the letter of the law, in recognition of the painful affair.”

Nonprofit groups and other organizations that have been active on the issue consider the abductions an established fact and have demanded an apology from the government, recognition of the abductions and financial compensation.

One of the main groups campaigning on the issue, Amram, was critical of the government plan. They alleged that the resolution made an arbitrary distinction between families who had contacted the official investigative panels and now qualify to file for compensation and families that had not done so.

Instead, it is calling on the government to propose a more comprehensive plan and claims that “many of the families had not contacted the committees due to a lack of trust in the establishment.”

Yemenite immigrants in Rosh Ha'ayin, in 1949.Credit: Teddy Brauner/GPO

In the years immediately following Israel’s establishment, primarily from 1948 to 1954, more than 1,000 babies born to Yemenite immigrant families disappeared. According to a large number of accounts, the children disappeared either immediately after birth or after being hospitalized due to illness. Some of the families were told that their children had died but they were not shown a body, did not receive a death certificate, or information on a burial.

Eighteen years later, the families received draft notices for the children – prompting claims that the children had been abducted in a secret, organized, institutionalized plan to give them or to sell them to childless Holocaust survivors. The affair was investigated by three official committees – in the 1960s, 1980s and 1990s, the latter being a state commission of inquiry that finished its work in 2001.

All three panels came to similar conclusions: that most of the children died of illness and that there was no evidence of their institutionalized abduction. The state commission of inquiry found that 1,053 children, most of them babies, had disappeared; that the vast majority of them clearly had died of illnesses; that it was probable that 48 of them had died; and that the fate of 69 children was unknown.

Documents on the Yemenite children affair. Credit: Israel State Archives

In 2017, the State Archives made hundreds of thousands of relevant documents accessible to the public. Although they contained damning accounts of official conduct, they did not find evidence of an institutionalized plan to abduct children. Following the disclosure of the documents, the Knesset convened a special committee to investigate the affair.

The committee found widespread negligence, racist and remiss conduct on the part of officials, and carelessness in recording the details of hospitalized children, which in some cases led to their adoption without the knowledge or consent of the biological parents. However, they also found no proof of a state-led plan to abduct children.

In recent years, Yemenite families filed lawsuits demanding that graves be reopened to determine whether their children were buried there. Some families managed to find the plots where it was claimed that their children were buried, despite incomplete details provided by the government over the years in connection to the date of death, the name of the cemetery and the plot number. But the families encountered bureaucratic hurdles and other obstacles on the part of the government, which objected to the reopening of the graves for various reasons. Three years ago, the government approved a plan permitting the graves to be opened.

In addition to the children of Yemenite families, children of immigrant families from other regions, including the Balkans, and the children of Ashkenazi families also disappeared, as was reported by Haaretz in 2016. The cabinet resolution makes reference to the children of “Yemen, the East and the Balkans,” but doesn’t note the children of Ashkenazi families who disappeared under similar circumstances.

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