Historian attributes mystery of missing Yemenite children to chaos, ill health, paternalism

"No Yemenite child was kidnapped," says Bar-Ilan University’s Dr. Dov Levitan.

December 29, 2016 02:37
4 minute read.
Prof. Dov Levitan

Prof. Dov Levitan. (photo credit: YOU TUBE)

In stark contrast to the accounts of Yemenite and other families about the disappearance of their infant children in the early years of the state, Dr. Dov Levitan, a historian at Bar- Ilan University’s Interdisciplinary Department of Social Sciences and an expert on Israel’s Yemenite community, gives a starkly different account of the disappearance of the children.

Levitan has researched the issue for 25 years and has given evidence to the Shalgi Committee and the State Commission of Inquiry that investigated the allegations.

The historian lays out his explanation of events as a confluence of tragic circumstances, deprivation and chaos on the one hand combined with a paternalistic attitude bordering on racism on the other, which culminated in the suffering of families who never knew what happened to their children.

Levitan argues that the Yemenite Jews who emigrated to Israel suffered from high rates of infant mortality, stating 40% of Yemenite children at the time did not survive to their first birthday and 50% did not survive to the age of 12.

They also suffered from generally poor health due to the lack of adequate health care in Yemen in the first half of the 20th century. In addition, the arduous journey on foot through mountains and deserts of Yemen to the transit camp in Aden from where they were flown to Israel took a heavy toll on the health of the immigrants and their children.

Upon arrival, the Yemenite immigrants were housed in ma’barot (transit camps) in canvas tents in the immediate aftermath of the War of Independence.

Levitan notes that thenprime minister David Ben-Gurion wrote in his diary that “The Yemenite children are dying like flies” and said many of the children were indeed separated from their families to give them better medical attention and more suitable accommodation to allow them to recuperate.

According to Levitan, name tags written on paper and tied to children were accidentally torn off, while other officials working with the immigrants at the time have spoken of families having trouble recognizing their well fed and clothed children after they were taken away emaciated and with no hair.

Most of the Yemenite women did not speak Hebrew, while Israeli officials did not recognize and correctly register the names of some of the many Yemenite children who were treated.

Levitan also says that since they had become inured to the deaths of many of their children in Yemen, parents were fatalistic when informed that their children had died, and did not ask to see the bodies and would also have been unfamiliar with death certificates.

“When they were told the child had passed away they were used to it, it was a part of life,” he said.

Combined with this chaos was what Levitan describes as a highly condescending and paternalistic attitude of the Israeli staff at the camps and hospitals dealing with the Yemenite immigrants, viewing them as primitive, backward people who could not take care of themselves.

In many instances, says Levitan, the deaths themselves were not even registered, even though their arrival had been, mostly as a result of the huge chaos brought about by the arrival of some 50,000 people to the country and the necessity of providing many thousands of them with medical treatment.

Because the children had been registered as Israeli citizens but the state had not registered that they died, many Yemenite families began receiving draft notices for their lost children in the 1960s, which led to the first demands for an inquiry.

“No Yemenite child was kidnapped,” Levitan says decisively.

“Most of the children [who went missing] simply passed away. This material has been investigated several times, and not one case has been found of an adoption that you could say conclusively was illegal.”

He adds that there are also very few people who have come forward to say that they are one of the missing children, saying that there are a maximum of fifteen such cases, all of which have been examined and in which no illegal circumstances have been determined.

Levitan also argues that due to the prevailing attitudes among European Jews in Israel, Yemenite children were seen as less intelligent, primitive and undesirable by people who wished to adopt children.

The historian noted that approximately 600 Yemenite orphans were sent to orphanages and other institutions in Israel upon arrival because families could not be found for these children, and questions how demand for adopting Yemenite children could have been so high in these circumstances.

“This was a chaotic situation,” Levitan said. “Every night and every day planes flew hundreds of newcomers, the camps hosted thousands of people, there weren’t not enough beds, there wasn’t enough to eat, the medical situation was as bad as you can imagine, and this combined with these condescending attitudes meant that mistakes were made."

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