Last Monday, before going to vote in the Labor Party leadership primaries, I stopped off at the post office to collect a parcel. Next to me sat a pleasant-looking man, who was complaining about the service, commenting that this is what happens when services are privatized.
Assuming he was a socialist, and possibly a Labor supporter, I asked him what he thought about what was happening in the Labor Party. His first answer was that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Labor leader Isaac Herzog were exactly the same – Ashkenazim, who did not care about the Mizrahim. I pointed out that Labor was about to choose between two men of Moroccan origin as its next leader, to which he answered: “[Amir] Peretz and [Avi] Gabbay are not authentic Mizrahim, but puppets of the Ashkenazim.”
He then went on to the issue of the Yemenite children who disappeared in the 1950s. “How do you explain the fact that three commissions of inquiry appointed to look into the issue did not come up with the truth?” he asked.
“Well,” I answered, “perhaps the problem is that they did not come up with the result that you wanted – that doesn’t mean that what they found was not the truth, or at least part of the truth.”
He gave me a contemptuous look and said: “What do you expect of three commissions appointed by the Gestapo,” and added that the doctors who allegedly cared for the Yemenite children in the 1950 were no better than SS physician Josef Mengele.
I was taken aback, even though this was not the first time I had heard a radical-left Mizrahi spewing libelous venom at Ashkenazim. However, in this particular case what the man had said – in extreme, totally unacceptable and unwarranted words – was more or less what many official spokesmen of the current Yemenite children campaign are saying in more polite language. Namely that what had happened was a deliberate act by the Ashkenazi authorities, of kidnapping Yemenite children, handing them over for adoption or even sale to wealthy Ashkenazim in Israel and the US, carrying out scandalous medical experiments on them and then trying to cover up the traces.
For several weeks I have been following a correspondence among participants in an academic forum (professors and lecturers from all the Israeli universities), and have been both amazed and shocked by the intensity of the debate, and by the extreme positions expressed by some of the well-known figures taking part in it.
At one extreme are Ashkenazim who argue that children were not kidnapped, and that all that happened was the result of confusion and disorganization – sick children brought to clinics and hospitals, whose parents could not be found after they had recovered, or who died and were buried without the parents being informed in real time or provided with any official documents to that effect. At the other extreme are Mizrahim who believe there was a conspiracy, and that to the current day there is a systematic effort under way to prevent the uncovering of the truth, by destroying physical evidence, and by cowing witnesses. Some even claim that the Shin Bet (Israeli Security Agency) is involved from giving evidence.
What do we actually know?
• That many of the immigrants who arrived in Israel in the early years of the state from Muslim countries were in very poor health, and that the death rate among their children – but especially Yemenite children – was extremely high;
• That many devoted doctors and nurses did their utmost to save as many of the sick children as possible, but were not always successful; • That the rules and regulations regarding using patients as subjects for medical research were much more lenient than they are today, and that much of what was done in those years in this sphere with regard to Yemenite children (and other patients) would be considered ethical if not criminal offenses today;
• That hundreds of Yemenite children (and others for that matter) who were left in clinics and hospitals never returned to their parents, either because they had died, or because the parents could not be found. We have no way of knowing whether or not greater efforts could have been made to find the parents before the children were buried or handed over for adoption, under the conditions that prevailed at the time;
• That there was a condescending approach among Ashkenazim toward the immigrants from Muslim countries in North Africa and the Middle East. Many viewed the new arrivals as primitive and ignorant. Much too often this resulted in disparaging conduct toward the immigrants, and disregard for their feelings, customs and rights;
• That many Ashkenazim believed that in many situations separating the children from their biological parents, and raising them in Ashkenazi frameworks (e.g. kibbutzim) and families, was in their best interest. There is evidence that in practice there were cases in which the parents were not consulted or informed, under circumstances mentioned above. We also know that there were cases in which representatives of certain women’s organizations offered money to families in distress to give up a newborn for adoption. Many of the families refused the offer, others accepted.
Of what is there absolutely no evidence? That there was an official policy – at the government level – to kidnap Yemenite children for purposes of handing them over for adoption. Furthermore, there is no way to check whether all the evidence provided by parents and siblings regarding the circumstances under which children were separated from their families is accurate. The details of many specific stories have changed over time. No doubt those who give the evidence or tell the stories believe in their accuracy. However, as time goes by, memories are fickle, and do not always tally with the facts.
Under the circumstances, what should be done now?
Certainly the plan to create a gene-bank that will include information on the DNA of unidentified children buried all over the country in the 1950, members of families that were separated from their children, and of adults who were adopted as children and suspect that their origin is Yemenite should be realized as rapidly as possible. In addition, despite the privacy laws and regulations, the relevant adoption documents from the 1950s should be opened to authorized persons, without any information being blotted out. Of course, after the information is revealed it should not be published without the consent of the adopting parents (assuming they are still alive) and/or those adopted (who must be in their 60s today).
However, most important of all, despite the emotions raised by the whole affair, a concerted effort should be made to lower the flames, bridle the rhetoric and concentrate all effort on finding the truth – the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Who better than us knows where baseless hatred leads.