In the 1950s thousands of babies, children of mostly Yemenite immigrants to lsrael, were allegedly taken away from their parents and given up for adoption to Ashkenazi families. Now an investigative report by Haaretz reveals dozens of Ashkenazi children also disappeared, arguing that the crime was not racially motivated.
On Friday morning, Haaretz readers woke up to find that the newspaper had decided to dedicate its lead story to a piece titled “Dozens of Ashkenazi Babies Mysteriously Disappeared During Israel’s Early Years.” The article, written by Ofer Aderet, was labeled as an exclusive investigatory piece that tells the story of Ashkenazi families whose children disappeared during the early 1950s.
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On paper the article is yet another layer in the thorough investigation by the liberal newspaper vis-à-vis the stories of the children – the vast majority of them Yemenite – who were disappeared during the first years of the state.
One may wonder about the Haaretz’s decision to frame the piece as an “exclusive,” since the Kedmi Commission, which convened in 1995 to investigate what came to be known as the “Yemenite Children’s Affair,” found 30 cases of disappeared children belonging to new immigrants from the U.S. and Europe. But this is a minor issue – publishing interviews with the families of disappeared children is an important contribution to exposing one of the most horrifying chapters in Israeli history, one that the establishment has done its very best to try and bury.
‘Just like the Yemenite children’
Perhaps this is the reason why it was so depressing to discover that, along with exposing another important piece of this tragic puzzle, Aderet’s article seems to contain a hidden agenda: by claiming that “this was done to everyone,” we see an attempt to erase the racial component of the crime.
Orna Klein, an Ashkenazi Israeli whose sister disappeared and who now collects information on disappeared Ashkenazi children, told Aderet the following:
When I tell my story to families of Yemenite immigrants, they tell me, ‘What, you too, the Ashkenazim, they took babies? No way.’ This was not racism by Ashkenazim against Sepharadim, but the condescension of veterans against newly-arrived immigrants. They treated them here as if they were from the diaspora. They humiliated them because they dressed differently and didn’t know the language. My parents hated Mapai [the ruling party that founded the State of Israel – o.n.] just like the Yemenis hated Mapai.
Just like the Yemenis. This, it turns out, is the bottom line with which Aderet hopes to leave his readers. The author of the piece himself wrote the following on his Facebook page: “Ashkenazim also disappeared from hospitals during the founding of the state. How many? Dozens, at the very least. Under what circumstances? Just like the Yemenis. And why is it different? Because they were Holocaust survivors and some of them lost their families and children before even making it to the promised land.”
Aderet goes even one step further than Klein: If Orna Klein believes ethnicity plays no role and all the victims are in the same boat, then he is convinced that Ashkenazim whose children disappeared are becoming more victimized than Yemeni families. Why? Because of the Holocaust.
Aderet’s use of the Holocaust for the sake of competition between the victims is foolish, but out of respect for those who perished I prefer not to expand too broadly on this issue. With that, two notes:
Aderet writes that, at the very least, dozens of Ashkenazi children were kidnapped from their families. That is, he assumes the number of testimonies by Ashkenazi families that reached the Kedmi Commission were partial – maybe even a small fraction – of the total number of children kidnapped. If so, why not assume that the number of Yemenite children who were kidnapped is significantly larger than what we see in testimonies (according to Rabbi Uzi Meshulam, who waged a campaign to expose the Yemenite Children’s Affair in the 90s, the number could reach up to 1,700). Even according to the most conservative estimates we are talking about several hundred Yemenite children. So how could anyone claim that the two cases are the same?
Erasing someone else’s tragedy
But Aderet’s most important comment relates to the circumstances under which these disappearances took places – the same ones he believes affected Yemeni immigrants. In the name of the “holy symmetry” between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim, the author erases the historical, social, and political context in which this terrible crime took place. He denies the existence of the sick mentality among both the enablers of the crime and those who carried it out – the same ones who viewed Jews from Islamic countries as barbarians who needed to be trained, even before they ever stepped foot in the country. Do we really need to remind ourselves of the words of Abba Eban?:
One of the great apprehensions which afflict us is the danger of the predominance of immigrants of Oriental origin forcing Israel to equalize its cultural level with that of the neighboring world. We must not view the immigrants from Eastern countries as a bridge on our way to integration in the Arabic-speaking world; we must imbue them with a Western spirit, and not let them drag us toward the unnatural Orient.
And is there any need to quote Arye Gelblum, who published an article in Haaretz in 1949 using the following language?:
This is a race unlike any we have seen before. They say there are differences between people from Tripolitania, Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, but I can’t say I have learned what those inferences are, if they do, in fact, exist. They say, for example, that the Tripolitanians and Tunisians are “better” than the Moroccans and Algerians, but it’s the same problem with them all… The primitiveness of these people is unsurpassable. As a rule, they are only slightly more advanced than the Arabs, Negroes and Berbers in their countries… The [North] Africans bring their ways with them wherever they settle. It is not surprising that the crime rate in the country is rising… above all there is one equally grave fact and that is their total inability to adjust to the life in this country, and primarily their chronic laziness and hatred for any kind of work.
In light of these remarks (and countless others like them), as well as the numbers of disappeared children, is it in any way moral to make these kinds of comparisons?
Whether or not he intended to do so, Aderet’s article lends credence to those who deny Mizrahi oppression. Here are only a few of the sarcastic responses he received on his Facebook page:
“No!!!! No!!!! No!!!! Soon they will find out that Ashkenazim were also in the ma’abarot [transit camps for new immigrants set up during the founding of the state, mostly populated by Mizrahi immigrants]. Soon they’ll find out that Ashkenazim were also sprayed with DDT. That they were also sent to development towns. No!!!!!! We cannot take away the fuel which powers the hate of a few Mizrahim. It’s not allowed.”
“How dare they! Once more the Ashkenazim are ruining the Mizrahi narrative.”
“Ofer, you decided to erase the only advantage Mizrahim had over Ashkenazim?”
I read these responses and wonder what are the mechanisms that prevent people from respecting the pain of other people without using it to erase tragedy. What in these people’s minds turns this story into a zero-sum game, in which recognizing the obvious racist component of kidnapping children suddenly turns Mizrahim into “crybabies,” which in turn leads to violent tribalism? Even Amram, the Israeli NGO that works to bring to light testimonies of families whose children disappeared, does not deny Ashkenazi children were kidnapped. On the contrary, members of the organization interviewed Ashkenazi families and have published their testimonies on their website.
The crime of kidnapping and disappearing children during the first years of the state was a racist one. A crime against Mizrahim, mostly Yemenite children, who were viewed by the establishment as human dust. This crime also had Ashkenazi victims. We must recognize this fact, and it is a good thing that these testimonies are being exposed. Instead of turning these testimonies into ammunition for Israel’s ruling class, which is trying to silence the voices of its victims, we ought to add them to the long list of people who have for years been fighting to bring to light all the information on this crime. In order to bring about justice, even the slightest bit of it, for both its Mizrahi and Ashkenazi victims.
This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.