Why do you insist on calling it the ‘Yemenite, Mizrahi and Balkan Children Affair’?
This inclusive name was first used by the late Rabbi Uzi Meshulam, reflecting the ethnic diversity of the victims and their families. The vast majority of families that appealed to the three inquiry commissions were of Yemenite origin (some 70%), 26% were from other Mizrahi communities (mainly North Africa, Iran, and Iraq), and a minority of appeals, slightly above 4%, were submitted by families of European origin — mostly from Romania, hence the addition of ‘Balkan’ to the name.
So is it, indeed, a Mizrahi issue? European children were also abducted.
While Ashkenazi families were also victims of the affair, they make up for less than 5% of the cases, most of them, as mentioned, from the Balkan countries. Since the abductions clearly did not target all ethnic groups equally, one can identify the racist perceptions of cultural superiority towards Mizrahi Jews as the rationale behind this crime.
This same frame of mind led to other crimes as well, such as the dispossession of bibles, manuscripts and jewelry, the shearing of payot (traditional Jewish sideburns), and the Ringworm affair — the widespread treatment of mostly Mizrahi children with ionizing radiation for alleged cases of tinea capitis.
Justice, recognition, and healing for the victims of the Yemenite, Mizrahi and Balkan Children affair are crucial first steps towards an open, deep and honest discussion as to social and institutional racism in Israel, and the different ways it operates — with the hope of forming a society free of racism and discrimination.
How many children were actually abducted?
The inquiry commissions dealt with 1053 cases, including 20 children from a transitional camp in Hashed, Yemen. It is crucial to note that not all families submitted appeals to the inquiry commissions for various reasons: from shame and desperation to a complete lack of trust in the establishment. Our archive features almost a thousand testimonies but only a fifth of these families contacted or were contacted by the commissions.
The latest research by Dr. Nathan Shifriss (Hebrew) cites over 2,000 names of missing children.
As long as the state of Israel refuses to officially recognize this crime one can safely assume that many families continue to pass the story orally from generation to generation, while refraining from telling it publically. Roughly speaking, one can estimate that thousands of children disappeared as part of this affair.
Could many of them have died of diseases or malnutrition?
According to Dr. Shifriss’ latest research, the number of children who emigrated from Yemen was significantly lower than the number of children from Europe — some 5,800 children from Yemen as opposed to 82,000 children from Europe. Yemenite families did not have considerably more children than European families, and, in fact, children of all communities suffered from severe health issues — as many of the European families arrived after the horrors of the Holocaust. It stands to reason that the mortality rate would be roughly similar, but the alleged mortality rate of Yemenite infants according to the inquiry commissions, was 50 times(!) higher than the mortality rate among European children. Incidentally, it was the exact same mortality rate as in Yemen at the time, where there were no accessible health services.
Maybe Yemenite mothers weren’t aware of the correct way to care for their children?
That is a racist and unfounded claim. The high mortality rate in Yemen was a result of lack of access to medical care, not inadequate motherly care. Today we know that some of the treatment methods administered at nurseries in Israel at the time were actually harmful, and at times even dangerous. Yemenite mothers were denied the right to breastfeed at all times, infants were denied the continuous contact they need in their formative first months, and were lodged in small, crowded spaces, exposing them to greater risk of contracting infectious diseases.
Distancing infants from their mothers — even the healthy ones — was clearly detrimental to their wellbeing and health. The traditional care methods of Mizrahi mothers — breastfeeding according to the wishes of the infant, constant and prolonged physical contact, one-on-one treatment for the first months — are presently recognized and recommended by major health organizations throughout the world.
More about the racist perception of the Mizrahi mothers: Dr. Dafna Hirsch - “Neglecting” Mothers: How the Israeli Medical Establishment Constructed the Parenting of Mizrahi Mothers (Hebrew).
Why didn’t the parents insist on finding and taking their children home?
When parents came to visit their children, they were told they had died. The parents were forcefully removed from the premises, often by police officers, and were forbidden to stay by their children in the hospitals and nurseries. Separating infants from Mizrahi families, especially Yemenite families, was an official, well-documented policy in the immigration camps.
Having said that, keeping the children in nurseries, away from their parents, was a unique policy, imposed exclusively in Yemenite immigration camps.
From the moment the children were taken away and put in nurseries, the parents lost control over their children’s fate: they were not informed of their medical condition and children were transferred between institutions without the knowledge or consent of their parents, leading the parents to lose track of their children’s whereabouts.
Even the Kedmi National Commission of Inquiry acknowledged that especially during their time in the immigration camps, Yemenite parents had no control over events, and could not keep in touch with children that were taken away.
The Kedmi Commission’s final report determined that the separation of children from their parents was the responsibility of the authorities operating in the camps: “Those responsible for the lack of procedures and regulations to ensure continued contact between parents and their children and means for locating and reporting if necessary, are responsible for the creation and growth of the phenomenon of disappearing children” (Kedmi Commission report, page 321).
Could the children have disappeared simply as a result of the confusion and chaos at the time of the young state?
Children were not taken from their parents simply because there was “chaos” in the camps. All the children disappeared after coming in contact with a state-affiliated agency: they were abducted from state controlled nurseries and welfare agencies and from hospitals operated by the Ministry of Health and the state immigrant healthcare service agency. The records in the immigration camps were orderly: each family received an immigration card with a unique serial number. The agencies responsible for care of the babies (The Jewish Agency, and organizations such as WIZO and Hadassah) were established agencies with proper record-keeping procedures.
If one was to accept the “chaos” claim one would expect the phenomenon to prevail among all other groups and see a distribution of abduction cases corresponding to the ethnic distribution of the population, mostly between the years 1948 and 1950. At the time, hundreds of thousands of European families immigrated to Israel without their children disappearing due to ‘chaos’ or improper registration procedures.
Indeed, if it had been a technical issue or a problem with the registration procedure it should and would have been discovered and corrected after the first cases of children separated from their parents. It could not have continued for years and caused pain to hundreds and thousands of families.
The Kedmi Commission itself determined that the registration procedures were reliable and orderly. Still, it used this logic to determine with “certainty” that some of the missing children had died.
Why haven’t we encountered numerous brown kids in white families?
Firstly, not all the abductees were Yemenite, and not all Yemenites are brown-skinned.
Secondly, the visibility of “brown children in white families” is the result of public awareness. Consider the testimony of Azar Shahar, who was abducted at infancy and grew up in a white family. The school groundskeeper, of Yemenite origin, noticed that a “white” mom picked up a “brown” pupil. The opposite example was an interview with a Holocaust survivor, in 2014. The interviewee talked about Leah’le, a Yemenite baby girl who had been sent to her by God. Not even one member of the production team bothered to inquire how the brown baby girl found its way to a white family; Lacking awareness of the issue, people unconsciously assume that brown children in white families were adopted legally.
Isn’t it strange that no official has ever admitted to these crimes?
As in any other crime, it is unlikely that those involved will willingly come forward and confess. Still, throughout the years, several individuals testified that they witnessed wrongful and suspicious behaviors including a nurse, Rosa Kuzinski from Ein-Shemer Immigration Camp who spoke to the Kedmi Commission. In recent years, Shulamit Malik from the Kadima Camp, and Shoshana Shaham from Rosh HaAyin granted insightful interviews to the press. Other nurses testified to the Commission as to suspicious acts and silencing from their superiors. Some of these testimonies can be read here.
Furthermore, various officials have indeed testified: these include, Avigdor Pe’er, former Deputy Director of the Department for Immigrant Welfare in the Ministry of Welfare, who revealed that children were distributed according to a political key, and offered examples of falsehoods told to parents. The long-serving Knesset Member, Menachem Porush claimed there were abductions and that women’s organizations were involved. The three commissions ignored these testimonies and downplayed them using a variety of explanations. Several witnesses recanted on the witness stand.
There were three inquiry commissions that looked into the affair…
True, but only the last — the Kedmi National Commission of Inquiry — had the authority and staff of an official government commission. The first two commissions had very limited authority to investigate such a complex affair. That said, the Kedmi Commission, active between 1995- 2001, was the prisoner of what Prof. Boaz Sangero termed a “lack of suspicion;” the Commission took for granted that all records found should be accepted and deemed credible.
When archives with critical information about the affair were mysteriously destroyed, the Commission did not bother to investigate why they were destroyed or who was responsible.
When cases surfaced of biological parents who found their adopted children years later — although they were told at the time that their children had died — the Commission wrote off the issue as an “unfortunate disconnection from the parents” and framed the adoption as valid and legal.
Testimonies of failed attempts at abduction were explained away by the Commission as “misunderstandings between the care staff and the parents”.
The Commission ignored the recommendations of experts who called to expand the inquiry abroad and investigate cases of children who were adopted under the procedure of “retroactive registration.”
Many witnesses refused to testify to the Commission, and even when they did, the Commission rarely engaged in a vigorous cross-examination.
The families have spoken out about how they were treated impatiently and in a humiliating manner by the Commission, as opposed to the understanding treatment the care staff received.
The Commission stated with “certainty” that children passed away based on records, although only a third of the families were directed to a specific grave.
Ten graves were exhumed after the families filed a petition and only one grave contained genetic material that matched (although inconclusively) to the family.
The investigation reports show that at least in one case of adoption the child’s identity was changed with no explanation (there was no petition regarding this case so it is not possible to know whether it is part of the affair), and one other case of adoption with no documentation. Nonetheless, the Commission asserted documentation was proof of a child’s death.
More about the failings of the Commission in Prof. Boaz Sangero’s paper If There Is No Suspicion There Is No True Investigation and his talk On the negligence and cover-up of the official investigatory commission (Hebrew).
When you say “abduction” what do you mean?
Any disconnection of a child from their parents without the knowledge and consent of the parents is an abduction. This includes giving a child for adoption or sending an infant to an institution without the knowledge of the child’s parents or with no means of maintaining contact. It is abduction even if the child eventually died.
So what really happened to all these children?
That is exactly the question the State of Israel should answer. These children’s parents were told they died without being shown a body or a grave. We estimate, based on our own investigation and the findings of the Kedmi Commission, that some children were adopted, others were raised in various state institutions, and some indeed passed away. The State of Israel owes each of the families a concrete and coherent answer regarding each child. If a child indeed died — the state should reveal all information regarding the death of the child and point to a grave so the family can verify through DNA testing that it was indeed their child.
In the case of children who were adopted or moved to institutions — the state must track these children and reveal all the information regarding their disappearance — where were they sent, who decided to send them there, and why, and if they were adopted, who their adopting parents were.
There were cases with valid adoption documents; why do you insist on referring to these as abductions?
There were indeed cases, not limited to Yemenite or Mizrahi families, of children that were legally adopted, with the consent of the parents. That said, when a mother testifies that her baby was taken from her through coercion or deceit, it cannot be viewed as anything but abduction, even if it is a case of pregnancy out of wedlock and even if the documents state otherwise.
When we hear a mother’s testimony — especially when it is supported by her close circles — we believe the family.
The mother of Tsvi Amiri claimed that she was tricked into signing adoption papers, and her friends and family support her version of events. In the case of Ariella Reiter, although official adoption papers were found, Ariella’s mother told her sisters and friends that care staff informed her that Ariella died in childbirth. Moshe Bachar’s mother also said that she was forced to sign documents she did not understand, only to find out later that she signed adoption papers.
What did the Commission rule on the cases that were brought before it?
The Kedmi Commission ruled with “certainty” that 979 infants died, 5 infants were found alive and adopted, and 69 cases remained “unexplained”. Following a more recent investigation by the Ministry of Justice, the number of unexplained cases rose to 76. The Commission maintained that the unexplained cases were probably cases of “incidental” adoption. Although the Commission acknowledged that in about 7% of the cases that were brought to its attention, parents were falsely told that their children had died, (while in fact some were put up for adoption, and there is no documentation of the death of the others), the Commission explicitly denied institutional “intent” or pattern behind these cases.
All three commissions cleared the establishment of any criminal wrongdoing. Isn’t that enough?
Although the Kedmi Commission cleared the authorities of criminal actions and “intentional wrongdoing”, it determined that the children – those who it claimed died, were adopted, or remain “unexplained,” — were separated from their parents as a consequence of a failure in the system.
The Commission clearly determined that government agencies operating in the camps were responsible for the separation of children from their parents and the failure to establish proper procedures to maintain contact between children and their parents and ensure the return of children to their families.
In other words, the Commission asserted that the authorities were, indeed, responsible for the disappearance of the children, but claimed their conduct was the result of extremely difficult times, the first years of mass immigration to Israel.
Nonetheless, we are aware today that the same agencies successfully dealt at the same time with mass immigration from Europe. Furthermore, the testimonies of officials and staff leave no doubt that Yemenite and Mizrahi immigrants were viewed and treated in a racist and patronizing manner.
The Yemenite, Mizrahi and Balkan Children Affair is not a result of incidental oversight, but a consequence of institutional racism.
As in similar affairs in Australia and Canada, the guilt of the perpetrators cannot be determined solely by the legal situation at the time of the events. Even if one cannot prove that the coerced separation of children from their parents was a clear policy dictated by high ranking officials, those responsible for the separation still bear criminal responsibility.
In any case, even if the authorities bear no criminal responsibility, the State of Israel still must acknowledge its moral and social responsibility to the victims of the affair. Unfortunately, this obvious step has yet to be taken.
For years you demanded to open the archives, and this was finally done: but no evidence of abductions was found.
There is no ‘evidence’ to be found in archives; at best, one finds data and information that can be the subject of serious historical research, as Prof. Gadi Algazi explains in his talk The Archives — What can be found and what not (Hebrew). Our demand to open the archives did not stem from a need to ‘prove’ to the public that the families spoke the truth: we already believed the families. Our campaign to allow access to the archives was aimed to achieve the following goals:
To enable each family to receive all possible information as to the fate of their child.
To allow a transparent public discourse as to the work of the inquiry commissions, revealing the failings and systematic problems in their work.
The commissions’ materials that were opened to the public in 2016 did not include archived documents of agencies that directly engaged with the children, such as WIZO and Hadassah, nor documents from other agencies, such as police reports that were not submitted to the commissions for various reasons.
Furthermore, these documents do not deal with about a thousand more cases, according to our estimate, that were never brought to the attention of the three commissions.
Are all the materials relating to the affair finally available?
No, but on the other hand, not all files remain classified. The situation at present is that some of the documents are available, but aren’t as accessible as they should be.
Some of the materials have been unveiled: the documents of the Kedmi Commission were declassified in 2016, but they included only documentation relating to the cases brought before the three inquiry commissions. Some of the newly-revealed documents still include blacked out passages, censoring crucial information. Families that did not appeal to any of the inquiry commissions find it very difficult to gain access to relevant materials in the tables and records of the various hospitals, since documents were uploaded without key words or names for queries.
Some of the material is still classified: the current declassification did not include the archives of bodies that took part in transferring the children – such as WIZO or Hadassah – or of other bodies such as relevant police files, that weren’t demanded by the Commission, or other materials that for various reasons never reached the Commission.
There are also files that unfortunately, no longer exist: here one can find a breakdown of the materials that should have been available to the inquiry commissions, including the hospitals that destroyed their archives, despite official requests to keep the documents available.
Some of the materials are in a ‘grey’ status: files that have been specifically requested to be declassified but are still awaiting the State Archives official response. Some of these requests were submitted by Amram and the families (December 2019-June 2020). Some were scanned and made available while other requests were turned down with the response, “We regret to inform you that the file is classified.”
When we demand to ‘open the files,’ we are demanding a process leading to complete declassification and accessibility to all relevant documents in state institutions and private archives, including the documentation held by the Jewish Agency, WIZO, Hadassah and others.
As for accessibility, navigating through the bureaucracy and the sheer volume of the State Archives is a daunting task for the families and victims. Declassification is not enough, the data must be made accessible. At present, retrieving information is still very difficult and incredibly time consuming.
In January 2019, Netanyahu signed a decree extending the classification of some relevant documentation. What does that mean, in practice?
As far as the State Archives, the documentation it holds does not fall under the jurisdiction of the laws promising freedom of information, but rather under the Archives Law (1955) or the Archives Regulations (2010). These regulations determine how long a document may be classified from the moment it is created, or, in other words the maximum number of years a document can be classified. Thus, minutes of the Security Cabinet must be opened to the public after 50 years. Local government minutes must be made public after 15 years. The longest time frame – 70 years – can be applied according to three articles: article 6 – security material relating to units connected to the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministry of Defense; article 7 – documents classified ‘secret’ by the Israeli Military Intelligence; article 8 – private material and an individual’s personal documents.
Therefore, documents created and thus categorized in 1949, were due to be declassified 70 years later, in 2019. In January 2019, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signed a classification extension of articles 6 and 7, for a further 20 years. This means that documents that should have been made accessible to the public in 2019 will be declassified in 2039 – unless they are subject to a further extension. Thus, a document created in 1951, supposed to be declassified after 70 years will be made accessible in 2041. For more information about the State Archives official information see https://www.archives.gov.il/archives-law-and-regulations/.
Until recently, a classified catalogue in the State Archives featured all the classified files, so that the public could request declassification of certain files, but in November 2019 the catalogue was integrated into the general catalogue. At present we have submitted requests to declassify several files, some under units related to the Prime Minister’s Office that might be classified according to article 6, as mentioned. The official response we received in some cases was: “the file is classified and following the request, we will reconsider its status.” Several files we requested were indeed made accessible after being scanned, but other requests were rejected due to privacy concerns as to personal information (e.g., if we located an abducted/adopted child according to the partial information in the document, we could not prove his or her identity since most of the information is blacked out due to privacy concerns).
Files recently declassified can be found here: https://www.archives.gov.il/publication/new-files/
So what did you find in the archive?
The reports of the inquiry investigators clearly indicated that many institutional actors refused to cooperate and submit information, despite being involved during these years in caring for the immigrant children and supervising adoption procedures.
We found testimonies of nurses and care providers that witnessed healthy children being separated from their parents and taken away for no reason, as well as evidence that they were silenced when inquiring about these children.
We found evidence of demeaning, racist, and violent treatment of families who asked about their children.
We found evidence that there were important investigatory avenues the three commissions did not fully pursue, including the retroactive registration procedure, medical experiments, sending children abroad for adoption, the disappearance of archives and files crucial to the understanding of the affair and more.
The study of hundreds of thousands of documents found in the archives, and our demand to open additional archives and declassify files might continue for many more years, and we may never uncover the full scope of the affair. We may never know how many children died, how many were abducted and given to adopting parents, nor how many were separated from their parents and died in institutions without their parents being told.
We may also never be certain as to the level of the institutional involvement in this affair and who the responsible parties were; still, we can determine with confidence that children were taken by force and deception from their parents and were never seen again.
So where are all the abducted children today? Why were none found?
In 1967, the first inquiry commission found several children that were adopted after their parents were told they had died or “couldn’t be found”. The commission explained away these cases as “incidental adoptions,” cases in which there was no contact with the parents. The commission did not recognize the rights of the parents to unite with their children, or even receive any information apart from the fact that they were adopted.
Moreover, throughout the years, some adoptees have tried to locate their biological parents, and some were eventually successful. Several of these stories can be found in our testimonies archive. The state does not recognize any of these cases as abductions and maintains that the children were abandoned or given up for adoption by their parents.
Beyond that, it is important to note that most adoptees, as in other cases around the world, feel obligated and committed to their adopting parents and in most cases have no interest in opening their adoption files or searching for their biological parents, for a variety of reasons: unwillingness to hurt their adopting parents, the belief that they were abandoned, fear and shame of finding out who their parents were, and more.
Even when adoptees wish to find their biological parents, in cases related to the Yemenite, Mizrahi and Balkan Children Affair, the adoption files might not exist or might lack crucial information, and existing information might be limited by the welfare clerk assigned to the case. In all cases, the process is emotionally and bureaucratically excruciating, demanding mental strength and perseverance.
Therefore, another goal of our work in uncovering and raising awareness about the affair is to encourage more adoptees to research their roots, and clarify that they were not necessarily abandoned and that they might have families that are still looking for them.
How could such a crime be committed in the Jewish State, of all places?
The phenomenon of child abductions is not particular to Israel, and in order to understand this crime in the Israeli context one must consider the ideas and perceptions in the world at the time, and in the nascent state of Israel in particular.
The Mizrahi immigrants, especially Yemenites, were perceived as a primitive and ignorant population that is unable and should not be allowed to own property, and is definitely ill equipped to raise children. Even before 1948, Yemenite Jews were treated horrendously by the ‘Yeshuv’ (Zionist settlers prior to the establishment of Israel). Incidents such as the expulsion of the Kineret’s Yeminite community or the humiliation and whipping of Yemenite women (the Makov Incident, 1913) commemorated in Dan Almagor’s poem “Zemorot Yeveshot”, are indicative of the attitude towards Yemenite Jews by the Yeshuv.
This attitude continued after Israel was declared — Yemenite immigrants were dispossessed of their cultural riches and manuscripts, under the pretext that they were too valuable to remain in their possession. Religious objects, jewelry and art were taken from the new immigrants when they boarded the planes, but were never returned.
Their ‘backward’ culture was perceived as a threat to the society of the new state that aspired to be secular and enlightened, based on the values of science and learning. In the name of this so-called “enlightenment”, many members of the Yemenite community were denied the basic right to raise their children.
“After 40 years I would be happy that my child received a good education” explained former Head Nurse Sonia Milshtein after she referred to the children as “corpses” and “packages” in her testimony. Ahuva Goldfarb, who was the National Inspector of Social Services for the Jewish Agency in Palestine, said in a recorded conversation to investigatory journalist Avner Farhi that many children disappeared and were given up for adoption at a transit camp in Yemen or when they arrived in Israel. “Maybe we did them a favor” she remarked. The prevalent view in Israeli society during these years, was that if a Mizrahi child was disconnected from its family and raised by an Ashkenazi family, even by deception or force, it was for the good of the child, a form of ‘favor’ to the Mizrahi families with all their children, even as a way of justice for those Ashkenazi families that didn’t have children.
Similar affairs around the Western world teach us that child trafficking for adoption and the exploitation of marginalized groups were widespread phenomena during these years. Similar affairs occurred simultaneously in several countries, including Australia, Canada, the United States, France, Ireland, Switzerland, and Spain. Children were taken by force or deceit from families who were deemed ‘unfit’ for various reasons — low socio-economic class, an ethnic group perceived as ‘backward’, as well as mothers who gave birth out of wedlock, and even the children of political dissidents. In recent years, some of those countries have initiated processes of acknowledgment, responsibility-taking, apology, and reparations for the victims.
Why are we not moving towards reconciliation?
Reconciliation is only possible after an official acknowledgment of the crime and true justice. The State of Israel has the tools to take significant steps to unite families and locate the abducted children.
What can we do?
Follow our Facebook page, share posts and engage in discourse on social media.
Attend protests, court hearings and awareness events.
We must keep applying pressure on the government and state authorities to assume responsibility for this crime, and strive for justice and healing. It is important to remember that public pressure brought this affair back to Israeli public discourse.
It is important to keep discussing, following, and bringing up the issue. The new awareness in recent years has encouraged adoptees to ask themselves questions and research their identities; it forced media outlets to keep engaging with the affair, and pressured the establishment to begin hearings on acknowledging the injustice.
Thanks to the donations of individuals, we uploaded an online archive of testimonies and translated our website to English.