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The Yemenite Baby Affair: What if this was your child?

A well-known Israeli journalist casts doubt on one of the most tragic affairs in the country’s history: the alleged kidnapping of thousands of Yemenite babies between the years 1948 to 1954. Now, one prominent scholar asks why journalists are siding with the state’s narrative, rather than using their power to expose what may be hiding from the Israeli public.

By Shoshana Madmoni-Gerber

In a 2011 interview with Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show,” award winning American journalist Bill Moyers paraphrased George Orwell: “Journalism is about what people want to keep hidden, everything else is publicity.” Case in point: famed Israeli television journalist Yaron London’s recent article in Haaretz, “Maybe the kids didn’t disappear?” [Hebrew].

London’s tone and perspective perfectly illustrate Moyers’ assertion; it is a textbook example of how the Zionist hegemonic machine constructs a public discourse to maintain the status quo. At the same time, opposing claims, however legitimate, are silenced. London has considerable influence on the public discourse. But like his colleagues in the Israeli press, instead of using his power to expose the hidden, to ask worthy investigative questions, he chose to defend the state. As Ilana Dayan told Yarin Kimor on Israel’s version of “Meet the Press” in 1996: “the state doesn’t need you… If you think nothing happened, move on to a different topic!”

A voter registration card for the 14th Knesset, addressed to a child who disappeared 20 years earlier, which arrived at his parents’ home. (Screenshot from Tzipi Talmor’s film, “Down a one-way street,” which dealt with the kidnapped children.)

London admits to having limited knowledge about one of the most tragic affairs in Israel’s history. But his lack of knowledge, and apparent inability to comprehend the magnitude of the tragedy, doesn’t prevent him from forming a conclusion. To no one’s surprise, it aligns perfectly with the state’s efforts to obfuscate and conceal the issue by saying: most of them died; this is really just a one big misunderstanding. This, despite hundreds of testimonies of parents to the contrary, including mothers testifying that their babies were physically kidnapped from their hands, such as Naomi Gavra and Miriyam Ovadia. And despite clear cases such as Miriam Shuker [Hebrew], who was kidnapped and given for adoption, all while her father, David, was looking for her all over the country.

This is the same conclusion all state-appointed commissions reached. And not investigative bodies, by the way – the first two commissions were only inquiry commissions with no subpoena power and no intention to investigate; all commissions, including the last, were exceptional only in how slowly they worked and how little new information they could discover[i].

At the same time, the press showed a remarkable lack of interest in the state’s obvious conflict with a clamor of Yemenite and other Mizrahi voices. With the exception of Haolam Haze in 1967, and a few articles in Haaretz and Ha’ir in the mid 1990s, inquiry into public outcry was nearly non-existent. From the 1960s until the last commission’s findings were published in November 2001, state press releases and media reporting show incredible consistency with each other.

When I examined the media narrative for my book, based on my Ph.D. dissertation, Israeli Media and the Framing of Internal Conflict: the Yemenite Babies Affair (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), I found a discourse that was overwhelmingly supportive of state efforts to quash discussion of the affair. Starting with the first articles in the 1960s, writers were eager to dismiss claims of kidnapping. “Don’t you think that if these accusations were true the police would have opened some files to investigate these matters” (Maariv, October 9, 1966). In other words, if there was no investigation, there was no crime in the first place. Others dismissed all calls for an investigation, saying, “all people working in the camps, with no exception, were honest people” (Maariv April, 1, 1966), or, “no child was ever released from the hospital without identification” (Tel-Aviv, December 20, 1985).

Reinforcement of negative racial stereotypes was the other major theme when the media bothered to mention the affair. New Yemenite immigrants were shown as primitive, at best incapable of caring for themselves properly, and at worst, not even caring if a child lived or died. One article in Davar (February 24, 1966) describes the Yemenite immigrants as “peeking through the window and seeing for the first time how to bathe a baby and how to change a baby’s diaper.” Another quoted a nurse as saying Yemenite parents had a cavalier attitude towards the death of a child. “If a child died in the tent they would say, ‘God gives and God takes’” (Davar, February 26, 1966). From this perception, the road to thinking they were unfit parents was very short. Moreover, these racist sentiments, as Naama Katii rightly noted [Hebrew], were echoed years later during nurses’ testimonies to the commission and the press. “Maybe we did them a favor,” said 92-year-old Ahuva Goldfarb, former head nurse in the absorption camps in an interview with me back in 1995. Another head nurse, Sonia Milshtein, told the commission the Yemenite parents “were not interested in their children.” This same nurse shocked even the sleepy Judge Cohen when, during her testimony, she called the babies “carcasses” and “packages.” And further, she added, “oh, after 40 years, I would just be happy that my child got a good education.”

The biggest issue here is not that the commission supposedly disproved an institutional conspiracy. Sanjero’s main contribution is the complete discrediting of this commission’s work. As he writes, “the commission was lacking the most central tool for any investigation: an epistemology of suspicion.” (Page 48, Hebrew) If any journalist bothered to read the last commission’s report, it would have been crystal clear that referring to any conclusion made by this commission using the term “determined with great certainty” is, how should I put it… embarrassing.

But, more importantly, we must realize that in the absence of an honest discussion about the past, the same racist attitudes continue to dictate the present and future. The same racist attitude that likely led to these terrible acts are also motivating the years-long silencing, and the rejection of a legitimate cry for answers. Both the government and the media legitimize this sentiment. This is where London should have focused his deconstruction efforts. There was a massive cover up; this is a fact. And this should have gotten any qualified reporter asking, “why?”

The Kedmi commission’s report, just like the previous commissions, is full of contradictions and factual errors; too many to detail in this short space. Important lines of inquiry were dropped, including an important investigation in the U.S., crucial testimony was given behind closed doors and remains classified for the next 70 years. Source files, hospital archives and burial records were mysteriously lost and even burned.[ii] Birth files requested by the commission from Hillel Yaffe Hospital, for instance, were “accidently burned,” not in the 1950s, but in the late 1990s and during the so called investigative work. Rather than flagging the event, or investigating who corrupted these records, the commission merely dismissed it as an “administrative failure.” I ask, as Sanjero did, how, during a working investigation, could such an overt flouting of procedure remain uninvestigated? I think that even the Hasamba boy would have known what to do here.

The state’s efforts to silence discussion of this perspective has only been possible with the media’s full cooperation over a long period of time. As Claris Harbon noted, in her review of my book[iii], this affair is also part of a larger system of oppression that is consciously maintained and back up by the legal system. What Harbon is offering is a new way to examine the law breaking, “perceiving it as a viable language, as a legitimate form of resistance, invoking greater principles of justice… and aimed at correcting past/present injustices.” It’s important to understand in this context that Rabbi Meshulam’s vilification and ridicule by the media, and his ultimate demise was deliberate and complete, in an effort to delegitimize his protest. In the public eye, the issue at hand was his “insanity,” not the moral obligation of the media and public to demand answers to the question  – why and how hundreds if not thousands of babies were forcefully removed from their parents to never be seen again?

The Ein Shemer immigrant absorption camp, September 9, 1950. (Photo: Fritz Cohen / GPO)

Ignorance fuels racism. Not knowing isn’t the weapon for conspiracy theorists, as London wishes us to believe, less than it is a weapon for those who were actively squelching and preventing a legitimate demand for proper investigation. Kidnapping, or the forcible transfer of babies/children from one group to another, is not only a violent act, it is defined by the UN as genocide. This fact alone should have gotten not only the media going, but also the whole country out in protest.

But instead of being motivated by a healthy dose of suspicion, the media eagerly helped by recycling the lame “immigration mess” excuse. Which, by the way, paradoxically didn’t prevent the Kedmi Commission from producing the definitive conclusion that all documentation from that time is accurate. So which is it? Messy or accurate? But why bother with little unimportant terminology when it is so easy to blame the victim. And this is just what the Kedmi Commission did. As Sanjero noted: “throughout the report the commission detailed a dry description of severe actions without the slightest bit of criticism… in the whole entire report the commission doesn’t name even one person, flesh and blood, responsible… but blaming the parents they did…”

What any citizen of Israel, including reporters, should ask him or herself is why as a society we sympathize with one pain, and not another? Why in the case of Yosale Schumer, the Haredi boy who was kidnapped by his grandparent in 1962, the entire state, government and the Mossad got involved until he was brought back to his parents. No effort was too big to get one boy, while hundreds of Yemenite parents were not worthy of a fraction of this sympathy or willingness to fight?

So “what’s between Shmita to Mount Sinai?”, you ask – compassion and humanity. A true fight against injustice should put on its agenda all systems of oppression, for they are interconnected. As Martin Luther King said in 1963: “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” When the Israeli Left will fight against intra-Jewish injustices and racism with the same enthusiasm and passion often used to protest the occupation, we might have a chance at a better future here.

Shoshana Madmoni-Gerber is an associate professor of communications and journalism at Suffolk University in Boston.

The constant usage of the inaccurate phrase “three investigative commissions have investigated this affair…” only made the Yemenite look like nudniks who are standing in the way of closing this story, instead of criticizing the lack of investigation.

For detailed examples read Shoshi Zaid’s book And The Child id Gone, Geffen (2001) and Rfai Shubeli’s many articles in the journal Afikim, as well as my book.

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    1. Maxim Reider

      Even before we check the facts about the Yemenite kids – what kind of country should it, for things like that to happen? Probably some terrible Third World country, ruled by military junta, with no moral laws whatsoever. So kidnapping kids for adoption couldn’t have been the only atrocity. Are you sure this what was Israel at the time?
      Give me a break.

      Reply to Comment
      • Philos

        Sounds like Israel in the 50s. Wait, sounds like Israel today.

        Reply to Comment
    2. XYZ

      This tragedy has nothing to do with “Zionism”. It was a common phenomenon in the post-War world. Canada did the same thing to Eskimos and Australia to Aborigines. There are probably more examples. The US Army exposing soldiers to radiactive fallout from nuclear tests or bacteriological warface experiments show the same mentality. The belief was, at the time, that central goverments know what’s best and they have the right to run everybody’s life. This was the result of the appearance that central planning in both the Western democracies and the Communist bloc succeeded in mobilizing the war effort against Fascism and in building an industrial infrastructure that could create a prosperous society. The technocrat and the “expert” became the ideal person to organize society. In fact, this is coming back into vogue…that we need “experts” to tell us how to live and that citizens need to be “protected” from obesity, “hate speech” and the such.

      Reply to Comment
      • Philos

        So, the Zionist government, in your own admission implemented the racist policies of Canada and Australia (which they both later admitted were racist and apologized for) of kidnapping children from minority groups? So, is Zionism racist? I mean, what motivated Canada and Australia were ideologies of white supremacy (they didn’t abduct the children of poor white people), which is broadly comparable to Zionism. There aren’t two way of spinning it XYZ. My own grandmother was abducted by the authorities but they didn’t count on my formidable great-grandmother walking all the way from her interment, sorry, refugee camp to Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem some 30 kilometers away. You see, my great-grandmother already had five children so the kindly people at the camp took my grandmother and her sister for a “health check-up” that seemed to last days and days. If my great-grandmother hadn’t been the loving and wonderful battleaxe that she was I, well, really 21 people (all my grandmother’s children, grand children and great grand children)wouldn’t have been born. And my grandmother’s given name wasn’t Ruti or Ireen. It was Fawasia. Unfortunately, she doesn’t remember what the family name was before it was “Israelized.”

        Reply to Comment
      • Ray

        It has to do with Zionism because Zionism is a type of settler colonialism (similar to that of Canada and Australia and the US) and that is a tool of racism that colonialism depends upon.

        Reply to Comment
    3. maxim reider

      And BTW where are these “thousands or maybe even tens of thousands” kidnapped kids now? Where they were transferred too? Sold to rich Ashkenazi Jews in Tel Aviv? Or in Brooklyn? Have they ever asked their adoptive parents about their past? Were their adoption papers (“thousands or even tens of thousands”) faked? Quite an industry, no? And it all passed unmentioned by the authorities? And the police has never really investigated it? Wow!
      So what is next? Using Christian infants’ blood for preparation matzot?
      The entire article by the associate professor does sound serious. Does not smell well either.

      Reply to Comment
    4. nahum514

      kudos to Barry Chamish who revealed this tragedy a looooong time ago

      Reply to Comment
    5. BaladiAkka48

      So you think Neta Elkayam who speaks about her Moroccan grandmother having her child kidnapped from Soroka Hospital in 1965 (in the article Searching For Identity: From Maghreb to Negev) is lying too ?
      If your BS about the Christian infants blood is the only thing you have to say about serious research by a Jewish intellectual, wonder how you react to any criticism of Israel by goyim…

      Reply to Comment
      • Maxim Reider

        Habibi, intellectual is not a profession, but historian – is. I want to see a well documented reserch and not just another hysterical blah blah. Snatching tens of thousands of infants and passing – or selling – them for adoption demands a well oiled criminal syndicate, with high position officials,both in Government and Police deeply involved for covering this crime. In a small country – smaller than a very small Israel of today – how could tens of thousands infants have disappeared? Where are they now? A crime of this kind and of this scale could have happened in a long rotten, corrupt society – is this what Israel at the time was like (well, a reply from somebody with nickname BaladiAkko48 is obvious, but let’s not get personal). I want to see a research – otherwise, professionally speaking I don’t see much difference between this article and blood libel.
        One thing is to teach journalism in University and another thing is just to make a good journalistic research – go down to the field and bring documented stories of “tens of thousands” snatched kids. Where are the raw facts? Where are these tens of thousands?

        Reply to Comment
        • Maxim Reider

          I don’t know the facts and I can’t say – it has never happened. But can’t believe there were thousands or tens of thousands. And I want the facts.

          Reply to Comment
          • BaladiAkka48

            “Let’s not get personal”
            Exactly, that’s why you should avoid calling people you don’t know ‘habibi’. Another Orientalist habit… or an Ashkenazi desperately trying to prove that he belongs to the area.

            Reply to Comment
          • Susann Codish

            The author of this piece never speaks of “tens of thousands,” but rather “hundreds, if not thousands.” Sometime quantity is quality. I absolutely believe that the ‘balagan’ that prevailed here during the first years of statehood made it possible to disappear (as a transitive verb) many infants. Even if there were fewer than a hundred – or fewer than ten – why didn’t any of these infants receive the same treatment as Yossele Shumacher did? Sorry – the state was racist then and is racist now, and I speak as an Ashkenazi Jew living in a Yemenite moshav. Closing our eyes to that ugly phenomenon won’t make it go away.

            Reply to Comment
    6. I did a story on this for the Jerusalem Post in 1995 or 1996, and the two lead investigators for the inquiry commissions told me that they found death and/or burial certificates for 90% of the 600 or so children whose cases had been brought forward. The investigators (a Bar-Illan prof and private detective, both of whom said they entered the case assuming that the children had indeed been kidnapped) said the children died in the hospitals from severe illnesses that their parents evidently were not aware of. I believe this, and disbelieve the claim of kidnapping both because of the investigators’ work, and also because for such a huge, terrible crime to have been kept secret, countless people, from prime ministers to van drivers, would have had to collaborated in the cover-up for 50 years – it couldn’t have happened. What did happen, though, the crime that the state did commit, was one of grotesque negligence by failing to keep track of which children belonged to which parents so that it could inform the parents of their childrens’ deaths. The authorities brought the immigrants from Yemen, put them up in transit camps, then took their children to clinics, then to hospitals, then to the cemetery – and did not tell the parents anything after they first took the children away. That’s an awful crime. Another crime was the massive theft by immigration authorities of books, jewelry and other valuables belonging to the Yemenites. Terrible stuff. Criminal. But mass kidnapping of children did not, I don’t believe, occur.

      Reply to Comment
      • Richard

        Good choice for Larry to throw the anti-zios a few scraps about how Israel left Yemenite parents in the dark. Not gonna earn you as much Mondoweiss street cred as the kidnapping story, but you really must tread softly on the conspiracy theories when your audience is froathing for fairytales about evil Jews.

        Reply to Comment
        • Nazi, Nazi, Nazi, Nazi. I just wanted to raise the level of debate.

          Reply to Comment
          • Richard

            not raising the level of debate, pandering.

            Reply to Comment
      • sh

        So it did happened to 60 Yemenite children? That would be how the rumour became widespread and why everyone who lost a child to sickness believed their child had been removed for adoption. Whenever I read about this, I recall that I, along with my colleague, was responsible for 10 children between ages 2 and 3 in a kibbutz children’s house in the mid-60s. Out of the ten three, all boys, all brown, had older, childless couples as adoptive parents.

        The Yossele Schumacher story isn’t really in the same category as it involved the removal of a Jewish child from the country which is totally against the Zionist ethos, there was a court order, the Neturei Karta was involved, etc. But I do remember reading a story about the disappearance of the baby of Eastern European holocaust survivors who had been brought here from DP camps. It was on facebook, a sibling was researching it. Shame I didn’t keep it.

        Reply to Comment
        • Sh, I asked the prof from Bar-Ilan (Dov Levitan, I think) about the adoptions, and he said there were some children taken to the hospitals who did survive, and the authorities lost track of who they belonged to, and their parents never found them, and when no one “claimed” them, they were offered for adoption. Sickening story. I asked the private detective (of Yemenite background) how the authorities could have lost track of who belonged to whom, and, as I recall, he suggested that the authorities didn’t understand that Yemenite names were written with the family name first and the given name last – really pathetic. There was no excuse for them to lose track of these kids – what they did to the parents is unconscionable. Unfortunately, the debate is over whether the state kidnapped these kids, and on this the state is innocent, so it gets off the hook.

          Reply to Comment
      • Edward

        Mr. Derfner, even if the only crime was bureacratic ineptitude, the State has in fact for 60 years managed to obfuscate that and not admit that either. The modern state can twist and hide almost anything. A radical like yourself should know that.

        Reply to Comment
    7. sh

      Oh yes, sickening, unconscionable, tragic. Also for the children. They were not necessarily newborn when they were adopted.

      Yemen was not the only country that put the surname before the first name on official documents. Several European countries did (still do) that too.

      Reply to Comment
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