JEWISH IMMIGRANTS from Yemen in 1950 after their arrival to Israel.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Uzi Meshulam was a radical rabbi who, during Passover 1994, brought attention to what is referred to as the Yemenite Children Affair by barricading himself in his home with a group of followers and ample arms.
In the ensuing confrontation with police, one of Meshulam’s followers was killed and Meshulam was jailed for more than six years.
The high-profile confrontation gave birth to the Cohen Commission, headed by then Supreme Court justice Yehuda Cohen. But after seven years of investigations, starting in January 1995, no conclusive evidence was found for allegations that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of children whose parents immigrated to Israel from Yemen, or other Muslim countries in the region or from the Balkans, were kidnapped and transferred to Ashkenazi families either in Israel or in America. Fifty-six cases remained unresolved.
Since 1967, three separate investigative committees have concluded that the majority of the missing children had died and, due to insensitive or racist hospital policies, been buried without their parents’ knowledge. Documents examined by the Cohen Commission were sealed by government order for 70 years until 2071. Privacy concerns and archival procedures were cited as the reasons.
Meshulam died on June 21, 2013. Ever since, the day has been set aside as the Day of Remembrance and Awareness for the Yemenite, Balkan and Mizrahi Children Affair. Activists continue to claim that the affair is being covered up and demand both justice and monetary compensation.
This year the day was marked with an unusually high level of media attention, in part because the case was resurrected in the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee and in a special Knesset conference. Both focused solely on the matter of classified documents sealed in the wake of Cohen Commission’s probe.
The time has come to get to the bottom of the matter once and for all. The ban on publishing the documents gathered by the Cohen Commission must be lifted. If revealing the documents involves a breach of privacy laws, ways can be found to protect the identities of those involved who are still alive.
Lawmakers from both the coalition and the opposition support the move, as do the prime minister and justice minister.
“I think the time has come to find out what happened and do justice,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a video posted to his Facebook page on Tuesday. Netanyahu appointed Minister-without-Portfolio Tzachi Hanegbi to draft a government recommendation on the matter of the classified documents, noting “that, as of this moment, I don’t know why it [the directive to seal the documents] exists.”
A number of factors have come together over the years to hamper efforts to get to the bottom of the story. Until 1979, when the Likud came to power, the Mapai establishment had an interest in covering up the story. According to numerous eyewitness accounts, babies were forcibly taken from their families – who were told their children had died – and handed over to Ashkenazi families who belonged to the elite under the paternalistic or racist assumption that Yemenites and Mizrahim were unfit to raise their own children.
Also, the Mizrahi children who were adopted often resisted efforts to find out the truth. The adoptive family is their rock, their home and their space, both physical and emotional.
Many would sooner live in denial than admit that their parents were involved in kidnapping and human trafficking or bought into the racist idea that Yemenite families are unfit to rear children.
Even if the adoptive parents had no idea that their child was handed over against the wishes of the biological family, these children have no wish to uncover a painful chapter in their lives. Undoubtedly, much psychological pain and mental and emotional confusion result from such undertakings.
However, if children were taken from their parents, the parents have a right to know. Alternatively, if the children did in fact die, they have a right to know this as well.
Shedding light on this dark chapter in Israel’s history is an imperative. Doing so could reveal that the dimensions of the affair are much smaller than what has been claimed by men like Meshulam. Still, even if there were just a few cases of kidnapping, the truth must be revealed. Lifting the ban on the Cohen Commission documents while protecting the privacy of those involved is the necessary first step toward getting to the truth once and for all.