The tragedy and shame of 1950s Israel’s treatment of Yemenite children

“It was chaos,” has always been the excuse among the mostly European Jewish immigrants who were responsible for running the hospitals in the 1950s.

December 29, 2016 14:37
Yemenite immigrants

Yemenite immigrants gather for a photo at Rosh Ha’ayin, in the early years of the state.. (photo credit: ILLUSTRATIVE: GPO FLICKR)

It was just “chaos,” the excusers say. The 50,000 Yemenite Jews who arrived in Israel during the first year and a half of independence had poor health and some children died. Sick babies were taken by hospitals to “recuperate” and name tags were misplaced. They died and were buried in unmarked graves. Yemenites didn’t speak Hebrew so they couldn’t find their children or interact with medical professionals.

“When they were told the child had passed away they were used  to it, it was a part of life,” historian Dov Levitan told our reporter.

When I think of the parents searching in vain for their missing children, from hospital to hospital, faceless condescending government bureaucrat to bureaucrat, I am reminded of some of my own family. They too immigrated through chaos. They too came from a place where infant mortality was high (around 240 deaths per 1,000 births in the Russian empire in 1913). 

I see the old photos of my ancestors from 1911 in New York City. The authorities at that time also thought the streets were crowded with foreign Jews. A cover of The Jewish Immigrant magazine in 1909 shows lines of elderly coming through Ellis island to be made anew into Americans. But no one took their children by the hundreds and buried them in unmarked graves. The chaos of migration did not give rise to thousands of missing babies. In Israel it did.

Israel has wrestled with the issue of the missing Yemenite children for decades. Three state inquiries were held.  Now the public has access to the State Archives and more than 400,000 documents relating to 3,500 case files. According to our report, they relate to 1,226 death certificates and 923 burial records. All Yemenite families have asked over the decades is to know what happened.

One report in the Post on December 29th tells the story of Sara Ashraf who told a committee in 1995 that when they were living in the Ein Shemer Bet migrant camp their son was taken away to a hospital. Then he disappeared. “They didn’t say. We didn’t hear. To this day. Our heart aches.”

Because so many children disappeared, rumors spread over the years that they had been kidnapped and given or sold for adoption. Over time a straw man was erected by those denying it happened, arguing that as long as it was proved that there was no conspiracy to kidnap children, then no one was to blame.

“It was chaos,” has always been the excuse among the mostly European Jewish immigrants who were responsible for running the hospitals in the 1950s.

But their words tell a different story. “The Yemenites are ingrates; they lack feelings and don’t appreciate what has been done for them,” one doctor said in the 1950s.

In research carried out by Shoshana Madmoni-Gerber there are numerous examples of similar views among nurses at the time. “Maybe we did them a favor,” one said. Others claimed the Yemenites didn’t care for their children. Another researcher named Orit Rozin found that Yemenites were stereotyped by European Jews as “uncaring” and had to be taught “advanced western methods of child care.”  One doctor in a hospital near Afula said transit camps for Jews from the Middle East should be situated at a distance from European Jewish communities so that “infectious diseases could not spread to kibbutzim.”

The leitmotif of the time was not merely “chaos,” but a deep-seated racism against Jews from Yemen and the Middle East. Arthur Ruppin, a leading Zionist and sociologist wrote in 1907 that East-European Jews were poor but that “even more primitive is the mode of life of the Yemenite Jew, who is happy to have any sort of home. Nevertheless these immigrants from Yemen are a valuable element for Palestine…cheap labor.”

Leading scholars in Israel and government bureaucrats routinely described Jews from Yemen and the Middle East as “primitive” and often as “impure,” as British Zionist and eugenicist Redcliffe Salaman wrote in 2011 in The Genetics review that “the Sephardic or Spanish and Portuguese Jew cannot be considered so pure [as the European].”

We have to understand the tragedy of the treatment of Yemenite children against the backdrop of this racism. The state employed doctors and bureaucrats who often saw these Jewish immigrants as lumpenproletariat in the words of Jewish Agency executive director Dr. Giora Yoseftal. They were “human material,” living in squalor and stereotyped in the media of the time as sickly, disease-ridden, dirty, corrupt and “feral.”

One cannot escape the fact that the media portrayed them as almost inhuman. These were supposedly Jewish brothers being ingathered, the whole point of Zionism, but we mustn’t forget that just as in America there were those who saw immigration as healthy for the “melting pot,” there were those who feared and hated dark-skinned migrants.  Notions of European supremacy were still common in the colonial era and unfortunately common in Israel among some. Even in 1963 in Jerusalem the Jewish intellectual Hannah Arendt described Jews from the Middle East as “speaks Hebrew and looks Arabic,” and claimed that they were an “oriental mob, as if one were in Istanbul or some other half-Asiatic country.”

Because Yemenites were not from Europe and didn’t speak Yiddish or Hebrew which was used by those treating them in hospital, they were subjected to an often faceless and uncaring bureaucracy. Paternalistic nurses and doctors took children away for care and carelessly didn’t inform parents. In some cases children were illegally adopted. But the files show that in many cases the hospitals didn’t lie when they said the children died.  What the hospitals and the state did was callous and uncaring, due to the social distance of the Yemenites from the elites. If it had been a European Jewish immigrant child who disappeared, the social services would not have been so cold-shouldered.

The parent’s right to care for their children is a most basic human right. Article 9 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child notes “state parties shall ensure that a child shall not be separated from his or her parents against their will” and recognizes that the child “should grow up in a family environment, in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding.”

The 1,000 or more Yemenite children who disappeared were taken against their will from their parents and their parents were not informed of their whereabouts. The parents did not receive a death certificate, or a place to grieve beside a grave. This is not only an essential and universal human right, it is also a Jewish right. Jewish religious custom provides for mourning of children who have survived thirty days after birth.  Yet in these hundreds of cases parents were provided little to no information. Tragically, here was a Jewish state in 1950 taking in Jewish immigrants and denying them basic rights to their children.

It’s not enough to say,“there was no secret plot,” as some newspapers have concluded. It’s not enough to say it was “chaos.” What if these were the children of David Ben-Gurion? What if they were the children of Moshe Dayan and Golda Meir? I think we all know that if those parents had gone to the hospital and a child was ill and was transferred for treatment, they would receive regular and proper updates. Not just “well, it died, go away.”  Not just “we couldn’t find the parents, it was chaos.”

Israel survived a difficult time in the 1950s but it does not remove the responsibility to apologize for the massive injustice that was done to a thousand families. Considering that out of 50,000 immigrants around two percent of them disappeared, it represents a huge percentage of the young babies born that year. For such a small community, it is a large number of people. It’s as if 160,000 children disappeared today. Confronted with such massive numbers, one cannot say “infant mortality” as an excuse. There is no excuse for not providing parents with the right to bury their child, to mourn, to visit the grave.

There is too much denial among some in Israel, too many excuses. When they say “chaos,” ask them if that chaos applies to their family? At Ellis Island we had chaos too. There was chaos on the kindertransport in the 1930s. But nothing absolves a hospital from gross negligence of not informing parents. One parent missing their child is too many. It’s time for the shame and tragedy to be faced and the excuses, which compound the suffering and are often based on arrogance and racism, to stop.

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