Terra Incognita: The sickening contempt for missing Jewish Yemenite children

In 2016 it’s time to apologize for all this. The denial, excuses and attacks on people today for promoting “hysteria” and “conspiracies” are grotesque.

Immigrants from Yemen in a tent encampment in 1949. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Immigrants from Yemen in a tent encampment in 1949.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Between 1948 and 1954 more than a thousand Jewish children went missing. Their parents, who were poor and had just gone through the trauma of immigration, claimed the children had been kid- napped and put up for adoption. Last week the Israeli government and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced plans to open up more than 1.5 million pages of archival documents that include minutes from meetings investigating the matter. “The time has come to know what happened and to do justice,” the prime minister said.
A child who disappeared in 1950 would be 66 years old today. Their parents would be in their 80s or 90s. State archivist Yaakov Lazovic told Ynet that there were more than 3,500 cases of names that must be redacted when the documents are made public and that it will take time to release everything. How did so many Jewish children disappear in 1950s Israel? In a state claiming to be a homeland for the Jewish people? Why has it taken so long just to release information from state investigations, let alone provide the parents with an answer? Every time the tragedy is raised it is met with con- tempt on the Left and the Right. The well known jour - nalist Yaron London wrote in Haaretz in 2013, “Maybe they didn’t disappear.” Steven Plaut writes in The Jewish Press that “infants died, corpses were misplaced, parents not kept fully informed, parents imagined being perse- cuted.” Why didn’t the hospital inform parents when children died? “The hospital had no phone, the parents had no phone, lived in a tent, did not speak Hebrew and the mail did not work.”
Does anyone think Moshe Dayan’s children were at risk of being “misplaced”? Or David Ben-Gurion’s? No, of course not. The misplacement of children in 1950s Israel was related directly to the ethnicity and place of origin of the parents.
Shoshana Madmoni-Gerber, an academic who studied the media’s portrayal of the Yemenite victims, revealed in 2013 the contemptuous view of the nurses who dealt with the Yemenite olim. “Maybe we did them a favor,” one nurse said in 1995. What favor? To take their chil- dren, to not inform them of what happened? Another nurse told an investigating commission that the Jewish immigrants “were not interested in their children.” Those Jews should be happy they and their surviving children got an education, not complain, was the view of the nurses and establishment at the time.
On the Israeli Left the contempt is connected to a long history of bigotry against non-Europeans. Any sug- gestion that the state mistreated non-European immi- grants is seen as an accusation against the Labor Zionists who ran the country in the 1950s, and a threat to the myth of utopian, perfect Israel of those years. On the Right the view is that the Yemenite claims are part of an anti-Israel crusade.
Every parent cherishes each of their children. So when I’m told that “the Yemenites didn’t care about their children,” I want to ask, “but your Polish ancestors cared about their children, right?” Of course.
Historian Anita Shapira writes that when Yemenite Jews arrived “the teachers did not hesitate to tell stu- dents to cut their [traditional] sidelocks, throw away their hats and turn their backs on religious tradition.” Orthodox Jews who escaped the Holocaust in Europe stood fast against this establishment secular contempt. Yemenites, who were equally Orthodox but poor and living in tents behind barbed wire in maabaraot or camps, had less ability to resist.
Avigayil Ravitz, the widow of long-time Knesset mem- ber Avraham Ravitz, recalls how her husband when he was a teenager was one of a group of yeshivah students who witnessed the harm done to these Jewish olim first hand. “They took the children and put them in camps without their parents as if they were doing them a favor and told them not to keep the Torah and cut their simanim [Yemenite term for sidelocks].” The teachers tried to turn the children against their parents as part of state-sponsored secular indoctrination. Ravitz was one of those who would sneak under the barbed wire of the camps at night to visit the children and tell them they could keep their religious traditions and stand up for themselves.
The type of abuse meted out to these young children, forcibly isoleted from their families to be educated against their parents’ traditions, was never used against European Jewish immigrants. The concept of “boarding schools” for children from non-European backgrounds continued in Israel into the 1980s.
Other forms of contempt for the rights of Jews con- tinued up to the present. In 2013 it was revealed that Jews awaiting immigration were given long-term birth control shots called Depo-Provera. Not in New York of course, but in Addis Ababa. If the Israeli medical estab- lishment and NGOs that provided this birth control thought it was such a good remedy, then why isn’t it offered to women in Israel, or in Europe and America? No, only in Africa is it “normal.” Ethiopian women claimed they felt coerced into taking this shot, that pre- vents pregnancy for three months. The same mentality that underpinned “misplacing” children in the 1950s is behind the misguided view that because people are African they deserve a birth control option rarely if ever foisted on white women.
PEOPLE THINK they are “defending Israel” by excusing these incidents or pretending they didn’t happen. But if Israel is supposed to be a homeland for the Jewish peo- ple, then why is excusing abuses of Jews a “pro-Israel” stance? Why is it always the state that must be defended and not the individual, whose rights should be protect- ed against state power? The poor and weak have had their children taken in other countries. In Amero in Columbia parents say 236 children went missing after a landslide in 1985. They believe some are still alive and were adopted. A similar shocking story was revealed by journalist Martin Sixsmith in 2009 about how Catholic convents in Ireland in the 1950s took the children of unwed mothers and sold them to wealthy Americans and oth- ers. It’s obvious that Catholic authorities were terribly wrong in saving Jewish children but then baptizing them and not returning them to their families after the Holocaust, and it should be obvious that the brutal indifference shown by Israel to Jews from Yemen was a terrible injustice.
Israeli leaders viewed non-European Jews in remark - ably the same way the Catholic Church viewed unwed mothers. Politician Giora Yoseftal told the 23rd Zionist Congress in 1951 that Zionism must “change the life values of those born in primitive lands... by retraining the feral control of the male.” Redcliffe Salaman, a Brit- ish Zionist academic, claimed that Yemenite Jews “are not Jews, they are black with an elongated skull, Arab half castes, the true Jew is the European Ashkenazi,” in a lecture he gave in 1920 and 1933. With people like this influencing policies, the contempt people had for Yemenite Jews in the 1950s is not surprising.
In 2016 it’s time to apologize for all this. The denial, excuses and attacks on people today for promoting “hysteria” and “conspiracies” are grotesque. The state should have treated Jewish immigrants well, not called them primitive barbarians, and mocked mothers crying for their children with “your child was misplaced, the corpse is gone.” Anyone who has children and con- tinues this travesty must feel contempt for humanity, and has distanced themselves from their fellow human beings.
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