Is Abduction of Yemenite Children in Israel's Early Days Akin to Nazi Crimes?

The Yemenite children affair is a central theme of Iris Eliya Cohen’s third novel, but the way it’s handled gives pause for thought about the stuff of which best sellers are made in Israel.

Alit Karp
Alit Karp
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Immigrants from Yemen at a transit camp in central Israel, 1950.
Immigrants from Yemen at a transit camp in central Israel, 1950.Credit: Seymour Katcoff, GPO
Alit Karp
Alit Karp

“Galbi,” by Iris Eliya Cohen, Yedioth Books (Hebrew), 325 pages, 78 shekels

Zohara, a lawyer of Yemenite descent in her early thirties, was born and raised in Haifa. She’s a divorcée with one child. The novel opens at the beginning of the 1980s, when Zohara visits a family living near Jerusalem in an attempt to trace her twin sister, Batya, who disappeared 30 years earlier. Batya was taken away by a doctor and a nurse; they promised to bring her back but did not do so. The mother, a young woman who at the time didn’t know Hebrew, had tried to track down the girl ever since, but in vain.

“Galbi,” which means “my heart” in Yemeni Arabic, is based on the assumption that a more or less organized kidnapping of Yemenite children was perpetrated in Israel under Ashkenazi rule in the state's formative years, out of a desire to give the children a better life than they could have with their biological parents. The protagonist puts it like this: “I have nothing against Ashkenazim in general. But in a very specific way, some of them are responsible for the greatest, most serious crime committed here since the state was established.” That comment sums up the book's spirit rather well. The novel is a grave indictment, replete with stereotypes and prejudices, of the Ashkenazim and the crimes they allegedly committed against the Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern or North African origin).

In an interview published in the daily Yedioth Ahronoth in February, the Iris Eliya Cohen, the book’s author, drew a comparison between the Nazis’ murder of European Jewry and the kidnapping of Yemenite children, by invoking the phrase “the banality of evil,” drawn from Hannah Arendt’s famous account of the 1961 Eichmann trial. In the words of the author, a writer and artist, “It is what is known as the banality of evil. Everything in this story, about the kidnappings of Yemenite children, was supposedly done in good faith. They just didn’t understand that it was bad. They thought they were doing good.”

Asked if the horrors of the Holocaust can be likened to the Yemenite children affair, the author replied, “I think the comparison is valid. To compare two things is not necessarily to say that they are the same. When I started to write the book, I did actually pit the Mizrahi narrative – at the base of which are the kidnappings of Yemenite children – against the Ashkenazi narrative, at the base of which is the Holocaust. After immersing myself in the shocking testimonies from the Eichmann trial, my conclusion is that there is a vast difference. What happened in the Holocaust is beyond comparison. But nevertheless, you [can] say that a huge tragedy occurred here, too. Children were taken here, living souls. As the mother of four children, I try to run that thing through my head. What greater tragedy is there in the universe than someone taking your child, heaven forbid? There is none. Nothing can compare to it. It is incomprehensible that it was done, and systematically, too.”

In the novel, Zohara’s best friend, Adiva, is Ashkenazi. But apart from her, almost all the Ashkenazi characters are totally wicked. There’s the doctor who tells Zohara she doesn’t know how to behave because she is Yemenite; a school nurse who humiliates the young Zohara in front of the class when she’s found to have lice in her hair; and, worst of all, her prospective father-in-law – a professor, kibbutz member and Ashkenazi – who asks his son, on the eve of his hasty marriage to Zohara, what he actually sees in her. Zohara carries these insults with her everywhere. In addition, she also bears the pain of Batya’s unexplained disappearance.

Residents of a transit camp near Tel Aviv light up outside a clinic in 1949.Credit: Zoltan Kluger, GPO

But now things have come to a head. Zohara’s mother is on her deathbed, and this is the spring of the tension: Will Zohara succeed in finding her twin sister before their mother dies? Zohara enlists the aid of a private investigator, Yigal, a tall, corpulent, silent type who runs through his notes time and again, and it’s not completely clear whether he knows where he’s going.

The story plays out on two time levels. One is the book’s present, the early 1980s, in which the protagonist searches for her long-lost sister. The other is the period of Zohara’s childhood, in 1950s’ Haifa, with her sailor father who is far from home; her mother, who has a hard time raising the children on her own; the atmosphere of mourning that hangs over the family because of Batya’s disappearance; and the humiliations the family undergoes at the hands of the Ashkenazi establishment.

The author, apparently realizing the categorical nature of the text, tries to soften the tone occasionally – or at least to justify those who supposedly kidnapped children and put them up for adoption, while telling the original parents that their children had died. The primary justification for these deeds, according to the author, was to provide children to people who lost their own children in the Holocaust. The Yemenites did not perpetrate the Shoah, but the authorities gave their children to Holocaust survivors, argues Cohen, so that they, too, would finally have someone or something in this world.

Manifestly, this presentation of events is outrageous and untenable. The third and final state commission of inquiry that was established to investigate the subject, chaired by Yehuda Cohen and Yaacov Kedmi, published its findings in 2001. The commission was severely critical of the establishment’s attitude toward the immigrants, but after examining more than 800 cases, found that uncertainty existed regarding the fate of some 100 children, who were possibly handed over for adoption, without their parents being informed. With regard to 733 children, the commission concluded definitively that they died shortly after being taken from the parents. I certainly do not make light of the kidnapping of some 100 children, but I don’t think it is appropriate to describe this as “the greatest, most serious crime committed here since the state was established.”

Writing on Megafon, a news website for independent journalists, Tal Goldstein termed Cohen’s book important. Neta Halperin, from the freebie newspaper Israel Hayom, praised the author for her honest, authentic writing, which made it easy to believe her. But like me, however, Halperin had reservations: “At a quite early stage, it becomes clear that the place from which the novel’s power derives is the same place from which its weaknesses derive. ‘Galbi’ is a novel of grand gestures. Nothing is left implicit. Restraint is not a marker of quality, of course but in the case of ‘Galbi,’ which gushes with emotions, impressions and emphases to bursting point, the reader is frequently left with no room to feel, to sense and to form an impression.”

She goes on to address the offensive characters of the establishment: “If they possessed a degree of depth, the reader would also be able to object and be angry at the infuriating injustice. Here, the emotional overload often leaves the reader with no other course than to observe the events as a bystander.”

Obviously, juxtaposing a highly charged affair such as that of the Yemenite children with the Holocaust and its horrors are certain to generate much interest. In our polarized society, this theme – the Holocaust as justification for everything (both domestically and externally) on the one side, and the discriminatory behavior of the Ashkenazi establishment on the other – is a surefire recipe for a hot best seller, simply because this theme seems to be fed by an eternal flame.

Is this literature? There’s undoubtedly an attempt here to create literature. The characters are well crafted, the tangle is presented and the plot tries to unravel it, and there is also symbolism: Adiva, Zohara’s Ashkenazi friend, not only suffers from a mole on her back that torments her, she is also obsessed with cleanliness; in short, she is not without blemish. But hovering above all this is an agenda, not to say ideology – both of which are bitter enemies of literature, which is first and foremost meant to tell a story.

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