Opinion |

Israel's Health Ministry Is Going Out of Its Way to Avoid Dealing With Its Racist Past

Daniel DeMalach
A protest in favor of recognizing the kidnapping of Yemenite children in 2018.
A protest in favor of recognizing the kidnapping of Yemenite children in 2018.Credit: Emil Salman
Daniel DeMalach

After a delay of a year, the Health Ministry said last week it could not accept the findings of its own draft report on the disappearance of Yemenite children in the 1950s, part of a broad effort to confront ethnic bias and discrimination in the health care system.

The report includes an acknowledgement of improper conduct by ministry employees during the mass wave of immigration after the state’s founding in 1948 and their treatment of parents whose children disappeared. The ministry’s announcement was based on an opinion by Prof. Shifra Shvarts stating: “The accumulation of failures in the report does not allow it to be adopted as a basis for drawing historical conclusions or formulating policy on the subject.”

An examination of Shvarts’ opinion shows that she is not at all professional, yet she is very political, without acknowledging it. First of all, although the report was written as a policy document, a basis for discussion with the families, Shvarts judges it as if it were a purely scientific study: “Such a report, if it were sent to me as an article or a scientific evaluation for publication, would be rejected.”

This is a surprising claim, on the basis of which most, if not all, reports by various government ministries could be rejected. Public reports are not intended for publication in scientific journals, and it doesn’t matter whether or not they would be accepted for publication in them.

Second, Shvarts’ opinion contains patently baseless allegations that are a sign not only of negligence but also of her motivation and her extreme views on the affair. For example, she begins by attacking the report’s title, which includes the expression “disappearance of children.” In her view, according to the findings of three commissions of inquiry to date, “this is not a case of child disappearances.” Really? The state commission of inquiry published its report under the title “Commission of Inquiry on the Disappearance of Children of Yemenite Descent.” The term “disappearance” appears without quotation marks in many headings in the report, including “Disappearance of Children from Baby Houses” and “Disappearance of Babies from Hospitals.”

In her opinion Shvarts also wrote: “The conclusion that emerged, at least from the official investigations, is that all the children in question had died.” But the three public commissions that examined the affair found dozens of unresolved cases, and in the end, marked the cases of these children as “unknown,” referring to their fates. Moreover, the state commission’s report said: “The fact of the existence of occasional transfer for adoption … was not – and cannot be – disputed.”

Third, and most important: Because the report was written as part of a comprehensive program to promote equality and eliminate racism in the health care system, the integration committee that headed the project recommended: “The research should be carried out together with the Prime Minister’s Office and with representatives of the families to formulate means to recognize and to heal mistrust in the system.”

Shvarts' opinion, however, comes out against this cooperation: “The report was collected from the database of testimonies created by the Amram Association, a body with a clear agenda on the affair, whose publications in the past were found to be based on testimonies that do not meet the test of criticism and present a narrative that contradicts what is known on the subject.” Does Shvarts think that because she is a historian, it is her role to determine “scientifically” who the representatives of the families would be? Does she see herself as a monitor, in the name of science, lest organizations representing them have an agenda? Or does Shvarts categorically oppose involvement of representatives of the families in the entire project?

Those who have followed public discussion of the affair over the years are not surprised by the opinion Shvarts submitted. As far back as 2012, she stated on a Channel 2 program on the subject that there “had not been a different attitude specifically to the children of immigrants from Yemen as opposed to children of immigrants from other places,” and Shvarts said she found not even a hint in her research that could be interpreted in the direction of the disappearance of the children. Her current opinion continues that line, and goes much further in negating the claims of the families than did the conclusions of the various investigative committees, over which, as we know, there are disputes. That is the reason that approaching Shvarts for her opinion sparked public opposition from the first moment.

And so, the important question is not why Shvarts’ opinion looks the way it does, but why the Health Ministry turned to her. Why was it decided to send the report for another examination, specifically by a historian, when the document mainly deals with medical ethics? Why, from all the historians, was one chosen who is not familiar with the affair, and nevertheless holds such an extreme opinion negating the testimony of the families? The approach to Shvarts can only be understood as a political move – a retreat by the Health Ministry from the effort to bridge and heal the rifts between the state and the families in the Yemenite children affair. This retreat, which unfortunately recalls other efforts by the state in the past, is nothing less than infuriating.

Daniel DeMalach has a doctorate in sociology from Tel Aviv University. He teaches public policy at Sapir Academic College and has been researching the Yemenite children affair for two years.

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