Israeli Minister Recommends Declassifying Files on Yemenite Children's Disappearances in 1950s

Tzachi Hanegbi, tasked by Netanyahu to reexamine case of hundreds of Yemenite children gone missing during state's early years, says no reason to prevent public from viewing sealed documents.

Yemenite Jewish children at a transit camp in Aden await transferred to Israel, December 1949.
David Eldan/GPO

The minister charged with looking into the case of the hundreds of Yemenite children that went missing in Israel in the 1950s recommended Saturday that the files be opened to the public.

Minister Tzachi Hanegbi told Israeli media that he will recommend to the government to unseal the archive of documents relating to the case, currently being held in Israel's state archives.

"My recommendation is revealing the materials that were put before three committees that investigated the affair for years," Hanegbi told Channel 2's Meet the Press. "There is no reason, justification or logical cause to prevent the public from viewing these materials."

The 65-year-old affair returned to the headlines a few months ago. Between 1948 and 1954, between 1,500 and 5,000 children, mainly Yemenite toddlers, were reported missing, with many parents being told their children had died, sparking claims they were taken and given to Ashkenazi couples.

Daniel Bar-On

After renewed interest in the affair at the beginning of the summer, Netanyahu tasked Hanegbi with reexamining the sealed materials. After looking through some of the documents, Hanegbi said that he believes hundreds of children were abducted, but stressed that then Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and his Mapai party weren’t necessarily responsible. “In the material I’m reading there is no ‘smoking gun,’” he told Haaretz at the time. “If there was, the investigating committee would have uncovered it.”

Now, after three months of sifting through documents, Hanegbi says he reviewed 3,900 cases containing thousands of pages. Though most of the materials are already known, he says, they contain heart-wrenching stories. 

"It hurts, there are some very difficult materials there. We know the stories, but when you read them again it's blinding," he said, citing reports by nurses who said they saw families from Israel and abroad arrive at maternity wards to examine babies. "Afterwards, the babies just disappeared," he said.

The files which Hanegbi examined are a record of the work of three governmental investigative committees tasked over the years with looking into the disappearances and alleged kidnappings of children of Yemenite immigrants to Israel. All three committees, formed at 1967, 1988 and 1995, reached a similar conclusion: Hundreds of Yemenite children that had gone missing during Israel's first years had died of illness. The fate of a few dozens of them remains unknown, but no evidence was found supporting claims they were kidnapped by state institutions or in any organized manner.

Nonetheless, systemic mistakes by the committees, many unanswered questions and claims of racism and negligence by state organs during the time created fertile ground for continued suspicions by families whose children had gone missing and sparked a renewed interest in the affair last summer.

Some of the documents were sealed because they contained records of official discussions held behind closed doors; others were classified out of concerns for the privacy of the individuals involved. If the government will accept Hanegbi's recommendation, the state archive will scan the documents and upload them to its website, where the general public will be able to view them.

Last summer, Haaretz revealed that during the same years in which the Yemenite children disappeared hundreds of children to Ashkenazi families have gone missing under similar circumstances.