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Yemenite Children Affair: All That’s Needed Is to Listen Humbly to the Truth

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Protesters demonstrating for the recognition of Yemenite children who disappeared in the early days of Israel as kidnapped, in Jerusalem in 2018.
Protesters demonstrating for the recognition of Yemenite children who disappeared in the early days of Israel as kidnapped, in Jerusalem in 2018.Credit: Emil Salman

Yehudit Karveh spoke at the President’s Residence on the day marking awareness of the so-called Yemenite, Mizrahi and Balkan Children Affair. She said that hospital staffers took her 20-month-old son a few minutes after she had been walking with him on Mahaneh Yehuda Street in Jerusalem, where the boy enjoyed a piece of cake.

Yehudit and her husband returned to the hospital every morning thereafter to inquire about their son. But time after time, they were turned away with no explanation amid threats to call the police. One moment a boy is with his mother eating cake, and the next moment the boy disappears – and his parents are sent away disparagingly as if the hospital had nothing to do with the matter.

While Yehudit was talking, I wondered about the worldview that permitted medical personnel to treat people this way; to marginalize them on such an essential matter in their lives and to refuse to recognize their connection to the children. This dehumanization is at the foundation of the affair and connects many and varied cases. Yehudit also spoke, as did many other parents, about the fear of the authorities and of representatives of the establishment. One could feel the guilt she has carried with her for her entire life. We were afraid, she said. What could we do?

Awareness Day for the Yemenite, Mizrahi and Balkan Children Affair, was marked this year for the first time at the President’s Residence. Families and a number of associations and individuals have observed it since 2014 – a year after the death of Rabbi Uzi Meshulam, a leading activist in the cause.

That same year, it was decided to wait no longer for permission from the establishment to create a shared space for what these families and individuals have borne in loneliness for decades: the uncertainty, the pain that has nothing to grasp onto and the sense of humiliation, debasement, silencing.

Less than a decade after that, President Isaac Herzog and his wife, Michal, marked the day at the President’s Residence. There is humility in this decision. After all, underneath all the questions about historical truth – about the fate of the girls and boys who were separated from their parents – is a basic dispute over the regime of truth and the nature of expertise. And that is how facts are determined, and by whom.

Last month, Naama Riba published an opinion piece that mentioned the work of an organization called the Yemenite Children’s Information Center. This group has been working stubbornly to preserve a regime of hierarchical truth. In the meantime, the regime once again marginalizes the parents and the families as unreliable and inferior, and not as partners to the historical story, as Prof. Liat Kozma recently showed.

It’s difficult not to wonder: Isn’t this hierarchical regime connected to the worldview that first made it possible to detach parents from their children? And yet, despite the fears of many of us, the event at the President’s Residence might have been the first time the families’ voices have been heard in the halls of the establishment rather than as a “version” to be investigated suspiciously, at the conclusion of which “authorities” would decide how true it is. The truth and the pain were simply expressed.

President Herzog, left, meeting with families on Awareness Day for the Kidnapped Children from Yemen, the Middle East and the Balkans, at the President's Residence in Jerusalem in June.Credit: Coby Gideon/GPO

And the fact that this truth was stated with pride and heard in humility at the President’s Residence – the home of a president who said there were systems that failed, deliberately or through neglect – opened a small but significant crack in the establishment’s version. And no less importantly, it seems that the establishment’s regime of truth cracked; truth that until now only knew how to marginalize the mothers in their own life stories – only hearing the truth they have to tell from a few of them, in the twilight of their years.

There is much to say about the demand for recognition from the establishment and the duality it represents. And Israel is far from recognizing the bloody, living injustices of racism, and the pain and destruction they have sowed and still cultivate. And together with this, perhaps a new window has been opened in the struggle for recognition.

Simply put, the demand is a request to listen humbly and say to the families: You are telling the truth. Your words of pain are real and important. I won’t accuse others; we are to blame. We took advantage of you and your fragility, and if there is no forgiveness for our sins, we apologize. These are a few of the foundations on which we can, hopefully, begin a conversation about institutional racism and the long road to repair.

Gil Rothschild Elyassi is incoming lecturer at the Universtiy of Haifa’s Faculty of Law and Criminology and an activist in Amram.

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