Israel's Health Ministry Rejects Own Report on Staff Involvement in Yemenite Children Affair

Health Ministry rejects report by outgoing director-general detailing how officials separated children from parents who came to Israel from Yemen; Knesset Health Committee demands it be made public

Tamar Kaplansky
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Nurses tend to Yemenite children at a transit camp in central Israel in 1949.
Nurses tend to Yemenite children at a transit camp in central Israel in 1949.Credit: Teddy Brauner/GPO
Tamar Kaplansky

Israel's Health Ministry director-general refused to accept the findings of an internal ministry report detailing the involvement of officials within the health establishment in separating the children of immigrants from Yemen, Arab countries and the eastern Balkans from their parents and illegally putting them up for adoption, otherwise known as the Yemenite children's affair.

Meir Bruder, of the Health Ministry’s legal counsel, told the Knesset Health committee on Monday that there were "flaws in the methodology" of the research. Therefore, he said, "the director-general could not accept the report's conclusions."

The Knesset Health Committee demanded that the report be made public in its entirety.

The report was composed by Prof. Itamar Grotto, outgoing deputy director-general of the Health Ministry, Dr. Shlomit Avni, the former head of racism and discrimination prevention at the ministry, and her intern, Yuval Sarel.

In the report's conclusion, the authors recommend that the ministry “advance an apology on behalf of the healthcare community for the involvement of healthcare professionals in the affair.” They also urged other ministries to investigate their role in the affair.

Yemenite children at a transit camp in central Israel in 1949.Credit: Teddy Brauner/GPO

Bruder said that after reading the report, the director-general had questions about the "nature, quality, and professionalism of the document," and asked for a second opinion from a professional in the field. Prof. Em. Shifra Shvarts, a scholar of the Israeli healthcare system and medical history, reviewed the document and supported the director-general's decision not to accept the report's conclusion, Bruder said.

Committee Chair MK Idit Silman asked Bruder to specify what the director-general's reservations were and what methodological flaws were found, but he failed to reply.

Bruder did say that the after being made aware of the "flaws" in the report, "the Health Ministry has determined that it does not put its trust in Grotto’s draft."

On his part, Prof. Grotto said at the hearing that the report "was a draft that served as a basis for discussion," and asserted that the report should not have been sent to a second review: "suddenly I’m receiving changes to the report or critique of its historical aspect."

Silman, asserting that the report conveyed known historical facts, asked Bruder whether the rejection of the report means the ministry is denying the involvement of medical professionals in the children's disappearance. Bruder said that since the decision to reject the report was made only recently, the ministry "understands that some sort of process is needed" but that he could not say what that process might entail.

In addition to demanding that the report be made public, the committee ordered that Shvarts’s opinion be shelved. In a 2012 interview, Shvarts claimed that she found no evidence of children disappearing – a statement that contradicts even the state's recognition of the affair, and a 2021 government resolution to recognize the suffering caused to the families involved. The committee also asked the Health Ministry to specify how and why Shvarts was selected to provide the opinion.

Tom Mehager, Director of the Amram NGO that collects testimonies regarding the affair, attended the hearing, and urged the ministry to instead base its work on the recommendations made by its own committee for the eradication of racism in the healthcare system.

“The Health Ministry is ignoring the most fundamental recommendation of the committee and of the Grotto report itself: An open dialogue with the families and their representatives,” he said. Mehager also accused Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, who did not attend the hearing, of evading the issue.

Two Yemenite children celebrate Independence Day in a transit camp in Israel May 1951.Credit: David Eldan/GPO

The draft report, obtained by Haaretz, reveals the involvement of doctors, nurses and caregivers in taking the children and acting as middlemen in their adoptions. In some cases they were paid. The report chronicles racist perceptions at the time of “backward immigrants” from Middle Eastern and North African countries, using the pretext of the “children's best interest” to justify taking them away from their biological parents.

The report was submitted to the ministry’s director general last March, although work on it was completed over a year ago. The ministry is refusing to publish the report.

Grotto has said in interviews that it was decided to submit the report to the Justice Ministry for review, since “it may raise questions related to compensation” and these could “affect the state.”

The report describes the involvement of medical personnel – including the removal of babies from transit camps, delivering news to families regarding the death of their children without showing them the bodies or providing a death certificate, and without any explanation regarding the cause of death or place of burial.

Medical teams took decisions regarding babies without parental consent or knowledge, including conducting postmortems for research purposes, the report stated.

As for allegations that experiments were undertaken on live babies, the draft report said there may have been medical malpractice, with the authors noting that even in the absence of legislation or a code of ethics at the time regarding autopsies and research, the issue raised “ethical and social questions regarding the conduct of medical personnel.”

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