Official Order or No, the Children Are Still Gone

It’s disingenuous to say that no wrongdoing occurred simply because no official order was ever found. The racism of the time, and the government’s quiet acquiescence, were enough.

Na’ama Katiee
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Rabbi Uzi Meshulam, who during the 1990s fought to expose the disappearance of Yemenite children in Israel in the 1950s, died last week, reviving the issue of racism within Israeli society once more. “The committee found no evidence of kidnapping sanctioned by the establishment” was the only reply the investigative committees established in the wake of Meshulam’s struggle, gave to the accusations of silencing, repression and general scandalous behavior.

Maybe the time has come to ask ourselves what constitutes kidnapping sanctioned by the establishment. What kind of order were the committees looking for, and from whom? Was the mere fact that they never found the directive they sought enough to quiet the conscience of Israelis over this appalling episode?

As legal expert Dr. Boaz Sanjero wrote in an essay that appeared in the journal Theory and Criticism 11 years ago, one of the government investigative committees' many failures in the case of the Yemenite children was that the purpose of their probes was to clear the state of the charge of “establishment-sanctioned kidnapping” — in other words, to state that no crime had been willfully committed on clear orders from any of the state’s institutions.

The investigative committee ignored the possibility that the attitude of the professionals — physicians, nurses and social workers — was racist to begin with, so there was no need for any direct order from, let’s say, a Welfare Ministry official. All that was required was a group of professionals who had grown up with a racist ideology and an establishment that closed its eyes — and we had plenty of those.

The report by Shraga Elam, which was broadcasted on Israel Radio’s news station Reshet Bet’s foreign-affairs program Yoman Hutz last April 30, stated that kidnapping babies and putting them up for adoption without their families’ consent was common in the West at the time. The practice of taking children from their families and giving them to “more qualified and appropriate families” was common in Switzerland, Germany, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Spain.

The criteria used to determine which families were fit to raise children changed according to time and place. Sometimes, it was determined ideologically, such as in cases where parents were opponents of the regime. At other times, the reason was the parents’ “lack of culture” or simply their poverty. Grief-stricken parents were sent form letters stating that their children had died or gone missing. Neither official documentation nor proof was ever provided. After all, inferior races have no need of such things.

The disappearance of the children during the 1950s in the nascent State of Israel did not happen in a vacuum. Racist attitudes on the part of physicians, social workers, nurses and teachers informed the belief that Mizrahi families were less fit to raise their children. Teacher training colleges taught that Moroccan and Yemenite mothers were not raising their children properly. This was similar to the racist attitudes that were accepted in the Western world as a whole.

The claim that this injustice, this crime, can be recognized only if the official rubber stamp from the state confirming the order is found is a scandalous attempt to lift responsibility for the racially-motivated injustices that were committed here and are still taking place from Israeli society as a whole.

When rape culture in Israeli society — which encourages sexual harassment and sexual violence against women — is encouraged, nobody looks for the official order that makes it possible. Yet we do not deny the existence of such a culture or the injustices perpetrated under its influence.

The left calls for the condemnation of the crimes committed under the influence of racist attitudes, even if no official orders for them were ever found — such as in the case of the Palestinian Nakba or in the treatment of refugees. But that same left wing suddenly goes silent when it comes to the criminal treatment of the children of Mizrahi families in general and Yemenite families in particular. Maybe it’s time to ask why.

The writer is studying for her master’s degree at the Cohn Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Ideas at Tel Aviv University.