Let’s Learn From Israel's Yemenites

The accumulation of stories about Yemenite children abducted in Israel sketches a pattern of thought and action in a racist and ignorant society.

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

The violence and eccentricity of Uzi Meshulam, the diligence of political activists who collected testimonies, the legwork involved in journalistic investigations like the 1995-6 series by Igal Mashiach, and now the activity of Amram, an NGO of Mizrahi activists. All of them paved the way to keeping the chapter of the abduction of the children from Yemen, the East and the Balkans alive and kicking, refusing to be buried. We all owe them a debt for removing several more layers from a dark and disturbing past of Israel at its beginning.

And still we hear the skeptics, the mockers, the cynics who seize on the most far-out complainants, those who can be dismissed as weird or moonstruck. That makes it easier to reject the facts: hospitals, doctors, nurses and ambulance drivers, the administration of the ma’abarot (transit camps) and the various charitable organizations involved in disappearance/concealment of infants, mainly the children of newly arrived immigrants from Yemen, in the early years of the state.

Deep layers of racism, ignorance and imperviousness enabled the abduction, which was based on an arrogant internal conviction that the feelings of the various “dark-skinned people” were different, inferior; that the loss of a child couldn’t be as painful to them as it is to us, that one child more or less makes no difference to them.

How familiar: People so different from us tell strange stories, which repeat themselves, almost as though they had copied from one another. Without proof, without written documents or photos, without statistics that reflect modernity, without a doctoral degree or the rank of lieutenant colonel. How do they expect us to believe them? It all sounds imaginary, tainted by unfamiliarity, disorientation, hysteria. Logic was also recruited: Is it possible that a Jewish doctor would conceal babies from their Jewish parents only because they spoke Hebrew with a guttural accent? Is it possible that a compassionate official in a Zionist women’s organization would lie and tell the mothers that their daughters had died?

The personal stories that repeat themselves, about an inconceivable injustice, are mistakenly interpreted as the stories of the victim. But they, in their nonacademic way and in their non-legalistic language, tell the story of the hegemon’s pattern of thought and behavior. They subject it to a sociological, anthropological and criminological analysis, which is far removed from its self-attributed morality.

The hegemon – the social class that makes decisions and is identified with the norm and with proper conduct in all areas of life, and does everything in its power to preserve its centrality – doesn’t like to be analyzed. It has become accustomed to seeing itself as the analyzer, the observer with the scientific tools, the entity that creates information and insights, the subject that analyzes the other. That’s how it remains the hegemon.

Women also have told and are telling stories. That’s how the women’s liberation movements came into being: They knew that the personal is not random, but general. The accumulation of similar personal stories sketched a pattern of thought and behavior of men as individuals and as the upper class, who kept the women as private and public property: with violence, soft oppression, rape and sexual exploitation, by denying economic rights, by denying education, in the holy books and in science, by exploiting their strength for work without pay at home and in the field, and then by paying them a pittance in the factory and the office.

Here too the prevailing attitude towards the stories was one of dismissal and contempt. They’re hysterical, they don’t understand what’s good for them, they aren’t aware of their limits. And then came the studies that confirmed the stories. In our developed societies, a minority of 50 percent is still subject to economic and political inferiority, and women are still displayed as marketable sexual and decorative objects, but the cracks that have appeared in masculine domination are widening.

The Palestinians also have told and are telling stories. Massacres in 1948, mass expulsion followed by “small” expulsions, work camps for prisoners of war, the infiltration of Shin Bet security services agents into society, massacres in 1956, torture, erasing entire families with bombs and missiles in 2009, 2012, 2014, the theft of land and water. And the list keeps growing.

The accumulation of stories sketches a pattern of thought and action of a colonialist-settler society working at full steam, from 1948 on. All parts of society are involved: women, men, Mizrahim, Ashkenazim, settlers and Tel Avivians, the Orthodox ultra-national-religious community and the formerly religious.

Hegemonic or not, shoulder to shoulder, when confronting the Palestinians we are one mass with shared interests, and we hide the meaning of the facts from ourselves. At best the stories (here a young man with Down’s syndrome killed by soldiers, there anonymous soldiers who sprayed with bullets a car filled with children inside, and in the midst of all that a 50-percent cutback in the supply of water by the Mekorot national water company) are explained as isolated incidents. Never a part of a method and a pattern.

In a worse scenario, only when Israeli army commanders or leaked evidence and statistics from the Defense Ministry provide confirmation, are the stories defined as correct, and turn into an investigative piece of journalism, which also disappears quickly.

In the worst and most common case, Palestinian testimony and reports make no impression on the Israeli collective understanding, and are not included in any rational examination of the situation. And that’s how the hegemon can wail: Look at me, I’m a victim.