'Belittling the Abduction of Yemenite Kids Is Like Holocaust Denial'

Actor Yehuda Nehari tells Haaretz about his family's own kidnapping stories, racism, the sexual assault he experienced as a child and that he does not regret going public with his allegations against major reality TV host Assi Azar

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Actor Yehuda Nahari. 'My mother, when I asked her, said that they had been very naïve about the things that happened.'
Actor Yehuda Nahari. 'My mother, when I asked her, said that they had been very naïve about the things that happened.'Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv
Itay Stern
Itay Stern
Itay Stern
Itay Stern

As he does every year, Yehuda Nahari approached Memorial Day with a painful memory from his military service. He was a platoon sergeant in the Haruv Battalion during the second intifada, when one of his soldiers was killed in a traffic accident during an operation.

“I was the commander of the post and I had a soldier who had just come back from home leave. He really begged me to let him go on the mission, and he was run over and killed by our own forces. By mistake,” he recalls now, 16 years after the incident.

'Meshulam was a pioneer and a hero. He acted the way he had to act because this country only understands force'

Yehuda Nahari

“I was the one who received the news. His friends were afraid to look under the Humvee and realize that he was no longer with us. There were chilling moments then. I held back the tears because knew I had to function, and there were soldiers who needed me.”

It took Nahari many years to understand that what had happened to him as a commander was traumatic. “The army provided help and treatment to those who were present at the scene of the accident itself, but they didn’t think about asking me how I, the sergeant who had to pass on the message and who had sent him on the mission, was doing.”

Yehuda Nehari: 'You come here as a Jew, and you can’t imagine that a Jew would do something like that to another Jew.'

It took until his discharge from the military for his rage to truly manifest. “After the incident, my eyes were opened and I suddenly realized it wasn’t a game, but rather human lives there on the table. Today I am very much against the military system, I don’t do reserve duty and I am not prepared to hold a weapon of war for another minute ever again. I believe in peace and not in war.”

How can you process trauma like that by yourself?

“That’s a good question, and I don’t know how to answer it. It was only in acting school that I was able to come to an understanding of just how repressed the trauma was, of just how much I needed therapy.”

This week, the first episode of “Chidat Meshulam” (The Meshulam Mystery), a docudrama that reenacts another trauma, was screened on Kan Channel 11. It centers on Rabbi Uzi Meshulam, whose name, more than any other, is linked with the effort to expose the alleged kidnapping of Yemenite Jewish children for adoption. Meshulam, who demanded that the government establish a state commission of inquiry to investigate the kidnappings, employed militant means and violent threats towards the police, who surrounded his home in the town of Yehud in which he had barricaded himself in with dozens of his followers.

How will things change if we keep quiet all the time? If the Yemenites had continued to keep quiet, the kidnappings would have been like a tree falling in the forest

Yehuda Nahari

In the series, Nahari plays Meshulam’s lawyer, Rami Zuberi, who unsuccessfully defended him in court. Meshulam was convicted of disrupting legal proceedings and ordering the throwing of a Molotov cocktail at police. He was sentenced to eight years in prison, and was granted a pardon after serving five of them by then-president Ezer Weizman, due to Meshulam's poor health.

As he began to delve into the story, Nahari discovered that there had been two cases of kidnapping in his own family. “One story was about a cousin of my mother’s, who was kidnapped as many other children were, in the area of Kibbutz Ein Shemer. They told her mother that she was very sick, and afterwards they told her that she had died. They never found her, to this day. In another case, in my father’s family, they tried to kidnap one of the children. They also said that he was sick. The father came back from work, and they told him what had happened and that they had taken the boy to a hospital. He rushed there because he didn’t believe that story. At the last minute, he found his son and took him from the kidnappers. That’s how he saved him.”

A scene from 'Chidat Meshulam' (The Meshulam Mystery). In the series, Nahari plays Meshulam’s lawyer, Rami Zuberi, who unsuccessfully defended him in court. Credit: Kan11 / Chidat Meshulam

No one in your family had told you about those incidents until you asked. How do you explain that?

“My mother, when I asked her, said that they had been very naïve about the things that happened. They didn’t really know the language when they came to Israel from Yemen, and they mainly didn’t believe that such a thing could happen in the Holy Land. You come here as a Jew, and you can’t imagine that a Jew would do something like that to another Jew. No one could have conceived that they might have kidnapped their child. Like, what? Was I so blind and such an idiot that they could manipulate me like that? There’s a terrible dimension of guilt – ‘How did I let something like that happen?’”

Not of this world

Nahari, 36, was born in Herzliya. As a child, he says, he already felt different from other children. “For years, I had this feeling that I didn’t belong here. In the world, not just in Israel. I felt that I saw things and thought differently, a kind of nature boy, climbing trees,” he says.

After the army, he studied acting at Haderech acting studio in Givatayim for three years, and followed that with screen acting studies with Ruthie Dytches. His career gained momentum with roles at the Haifa Theater and the Givatayim Theater, and he later performed in teen programs. He entered the big leagues with roles in successful television series like “Temporarily Dead” and “Zaguri Imperia.” He is best known, though, for playing Yigal Amir, Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin, in the feature film “Incitement.”

Yehuda Nehari as Yigal Amir, Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin, in the feature film 'Incitement.'Credit: Courtesy of yes

Now, having entered the chaotic world of Uzi Meshulam, he has been rediscovering the racism that he had experienced himself. “Israel wants to be depicted as a humane state that cares for its citizens, but I’ve always felt the racism beneath the surface. Sometimes it was right in your face. In all kinds of schools and programs, they would pick on me. The principal of Rishonim High School in Herzliya was a racist and spoke in a very ugly way to my mother. I remember that he made me feel like she had given me a barbaric education. Something very hurtful. So I had to flip a desk on him. I grew up with an awareness of discrimination. I was aware of racism, even as a young boy.”

It is quite subversive of "Chidat Meshulam” to depict the titular figure as a hero and a fighter for human rights. According to the series, he becomes a victim of the racist police, media and establishment, which labeled him as a lunatic without taking his claims about the horrific, historic injustice seriously. The creators of the series, Yoav Gross, Rani Sa’ar (who also directed) and Ami Glam, initially called it “50 Days of Siege” – implying that it wasn’t Meshulam who had barricaded himself in his home, but rather it was the police who surrounded the house and caused the violence.

Nahari, too, considers Meshulam to be an important ideological warrior. “Meshulam was a pioneer and a hero,” he says. “If I used to watch my words, I don’t anymore. He acted the way he had to act because this country only understands force. If you want to be heard, you have to talk loudly. Perhaps if he hadn’t used weapons, he might have gone further, because at the end of the day, ‘For by wise guidance thou shalt make thy war.’ You're fighting fire with fire, and you don’t have enough power to fight the police or the army. In the end, it was easier for the establishment to defeat him, because he came at them with weapons. But his vision is admirable. To my great regret, they finished him.”

Meshulam used a lot of Holocaust terminology, and compared the deniers of the kidnappings and those who committed them to Nazis, including Dr. Mengele. Maybe that didn't help, either.

“People who belittle Uzi Meshulam and the missing Yemenite children affair are like Holocaust deniers. If I deny the Holocaust and come along and laugh at someone’s trauma, it’s exactly the same thing… Ultimately, we just want recognition of our pain. We aren’t hurting any less than you are, than the people from Europe. When you carry around trauma with you, coping with it makes you project. If you experienced trauma as a child, you are liable to become a victimizer. If they took away your power, your entire goal is to take your power back. If they erased your identity, you may erase someone else’s identity."

Yehuda Nehari at his parent's home in Herzliya, central Israel.

Jews in Europe were told that they were an inferior race, Nahari says, "so they came with this trauma to Israel and decided that it was others who were an inferior race. This has snowballed, and we're still living in that situation.”

Would you want the series to keep viewers up at night?

“If the reality that the episodes reflect upset people, so be it. That's what art is for. I think that it's necessary in Israel to shake up the foundations, because the foundations are problematic. When a state is established and kidnaps children and puts the money from selling them into public coffers, it means that the foundations are rotten. It doesn't need to be renovated, it needs to be rebuilt.”

In December 2021, Tamar Kaplansky published in Haaretz a draft of the detailed Health Ministry report on the involvement of medical staff in separating children from their parents and delivering them for illegal adoption. That was the first time a government ministry referred to its own role in the affair, but at this stage, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz is refusing to release the report. In Nahari’s opinion, this is further evidence that discussing the kidnapping of Yemenite children remains taboo in Israel, even in 2022.

“It's still like this. The state has decided that it wants to give 182 million shekels in compensation to families of the abducted children. If you divide that sum by several thousand families, it comes out a measly amount of money. The most outrageous part is that the government isn’t taking responsibility for the crime. It says there that they are expressing sadness about the loved ones who died and disappeared. That is the most outrageous. Are you throwing money at us to shut our mouths? This is a systematic program of belligerence. Society here takes pains to silence unpleasant things, with the belief that it is possible to silence injustices with money.”

Polygraph vs. polygraph

Nahari’s criticism of the mechanisms of power working to silence the issues that disturb them is not limited to the Yemenite children's affair. About six months ago, he revealed what he said happened to him during a meeting with Israeli television star Assi Azar about a decade ago in an interview with the Walla website. Azar was the host of successful reality shows such as the Israeli versions of "Big Brother," and "American Ninja Warrior," and co-hosted the 2019 Eurovision song festival, which was held in Tel Aviv.

At the time, Nahari was a promising young actor with a role in a popular teen drama, and Azar was already a busy TV host who was working on a drama series he created called “Beauty and the Baker.” Nahari claimed that Azar invited him to his home for an audition where, against his will, Azar exposed himself. Even after Nahari made it clear that he wasn't interested in a sexual encounter and even told him of a sexual assault from his childhood, Azar repeated the act.

“Suddenly, he pulled out his penis and said, ‘Look. This doesn’t do it for you? It doesn’t turn you on? Don’t you want it?’," Nahari told the Walla News site. "I told him, ‘No, get away.’ He came over and sat down, and I moved to the other side of the couch. He kept trying. He pulled out his penis again.”

'Suddenly, he pulled out his penis and said, ‘Look. It doesn’t turn you on? Don’t you want it?’," Nahari told the Walla News site

Israeli television star Assi Azar hosting the local version of 'Big Brother.'Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

After the interview was published, Azar denied Nahari's claims and said that Nahari had come to him for a romantic evening that had ended with a kiss. Nahari's story on Walla was confirmed by a polygraph. Keshet Channel 12, Azar’s major employer, presented a polygraph test of its own, which found that Azar was also telling the truth.

Despite the fallout from the scandal and the criticism hurled at him, Azar quickly returned to the screen. He continues to host “Ninja Warrior Israel” and he is expected to lead the coming season of the “Rising Star” audition show. Keshet management has backed him fully and its public relations department has seen to an on-air interview with his frequent co-star Rotem Sela, who defended her good friend. The week after the affair became public, Guy Pines’ celebrity gossip show included a report about “Yehuda Nahari’s new role” (in the series on Meshulam), which implied that Nahari was reaping the fruits of the publicity from his alleged assault. Nahari and Pines have exchanged threats to sue one another. At this stage, Nahari refuses to talk about Pines.

He is, however, prepared to talk about the sexual assault he suffered as a child, which only rose to the surface while studying acting. “When you learn acting, all you do is draw material from yourself." He explains that when he came to class one day during his second year, and he had panic attack before the lesson so severe that he was sent to the hospital and examined.

This anxiety attack led Nahari to perform some deep soul-searching, “And then things started to surface. For the first time, I recalled something that had happened to me when I was eight years old. At a certain point I told my therapist: ‘Could it be that I'm making this whole story up?’ And she told me no. That it’s a defense mechanism, repression, which is working on me, because I remembered concrete details.”

What, for example?

“The person who assaulted me was a neighbor of ours. We were religious and he said we would put money in the charity box at the synagogue and wouldn’t tell anyone. That's what I remembered. It all began to surface, and then it got complex. The moment you clear a blockage, you discover everything that has been pent up in the unconscious. More and more stories started surfacing and this destabilized me and my sexuality. I tried to understand what I was attracted to. I started to blame myself, but with time I understood the complexity of it, and why it’s hard for me to maintain a relationship. You get into the mindset of a victim who can’t trust other people.”

Yehuda Nahari in Tel Aviv. 'The statistics say that in childhood there is an equal number of sexual assaults of boys and on girls – one out of every five.'Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

Unlike other sexual assault investigations, your case is exceptional because it included just one testimony: Your word against his. That made it possible for Azar and Keshet to claim that you're lying. Are you at peace with the decision to publicize the incident, in light of the fact that no other testimonies about him have come to light?

“We live in a very macho and conservative society. It’s hard for men to come out with a story like this. After it happened, I even tried to frame it to myself as something that wasn't so terrible. I tried to minimize it so I could feel okay with myself. It hurts your masculinity. For all those reasons, I believe not everyone has come out.”

A memory can sometimes be deceptive. Azar has totally denied what you said. Have you thought that perhaps, in his mind, the things indeed didn’t happen, and from his perspective he is telling the truth?

“Recently, I performed in the play ‘A Thousand thorns,” which Natan Datner directed at the Gesher Theater, as a cult leader. There I learned what malignant narcissism is. It often comes from sexual assaults in childhood. People who have been through it want to take energy from others while being admired at the same time. I believe that those cult leaders don’t think they are doing anything wrong. They believe they are doing good for the person they are controlling. The manipulation you do to yourself is so intense that you convince yourself entirely. From Assi’s perspective, in his mind, apparently nothing was inappropriate. And still, I don’t regret my choice to expose what happened to me, even for a minute... I know that more stories are going to come out of men who experienced sexual assault by other men. And that is what is important for me to promote.”

When asked if it was difficult to choose to speak out publicly against the top talent in the strongest media company in the country, Nahari says he has no interest in working with Keshet (even though he appeared on the channel's 'Ninja Warrior Israel VIP' program, which he says is is because of his love for climbing).

"When I went to my agent, Zohar Yakobson, and told her I wanted to go public with the incident, she told me to take on a media consultant immediately. I reminded her that her daughter, of blessed memory, was an activist who world on behalf of a lot of powerless people and she never kept quiet… That's when Zohar understood.

"How will things change if we keep quiet all the time? If the Yemenites had continued to keep quiet, this story about the kidnappings would have been like a tree falling in the forest. People let themselves do terrible things and we must expose it. Men need to take responsibility for their traumas. The statistics say that in childhood there is an equal number of sexual assaults of boys and on girls – one out of every five – and they don’t talk about it. This thing is unrestrained. There is no education on boundaries here... There is a lot of work to do here, in short.”

And to those who accuse him of chasing publicity, he says, "I really can’t understand who would want publicity of this sort."

These days, Nahari is in the United States. This is a personal and professional visit, during which he will try to start a career abroad. He is represented by a talent agency in Hollywood and is hoping to spread his wings and fly away from Israel soon. “I'm thinking about an Oscar," he says, adding that he is going to study at a major Los Angeles acting studio. "I think the industry [in Israel] is too small. I'm looking from afar a bit and wondering what's going on. There's something embarrassing about how they don’t pay [in Israel]. It’s exhausting. People here are living in this dream that there are red carpets [there], as if they are making millions.”

Assi Azar and Keshet 12 have chosen not to respond to the claims in this article.

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