Israel opens files on disappeared Yemenite children. But is it enough?

The declassification of hundreds of thousands of documents on one of the most chilling and tragic chapters in Israeli history is a victory for Mizrahi activists. But many files, including on alleged kidnappings of Yemenite children, are still out of reach for the public.

Yemenite children's affair.

Israel’s State Archives last week released over 200,000 previously classified documents on to the disappearance of Yemenite children during the early years of Israeli statehood. The documents, which were supposed to be declassified only in 2031, have now been made accessible on the state archives website.

The declassified documents provide us with an opportunity to gain some insight into the atmosphere that surrounded the now famous Cohen-Kedmi Commission, which was established in 1995 to investigate the disappearance of hundreds of newborn Jewish babies — including allegations of kidnappings — most of them children to immigrants from Yemen to the nascent state of Israel between 1948 and 1954.

Beyond the heartbreaking stories of disappeared children, the documents also allow us to better understand the power relations between the commission’s investigators and the testifiers, as well as between the Zionist establishment and the new immigrants during the years of the disappearances.

Haokets sat down with Racheli Said, an activist with Amram, an NGO that has been fighting for the state to open up its archives on the Yemenite Children Affair — and which actively documents hundreds of cases of missing children — to discuss the significance of the state’s decision.

After such a long struggle to open the archives, do you consider last week a historic one? Was it a victory?

This was a huge step for the struggle, for the families, and for civil society in general. The first serious step that was taken toward recognition and understanding of the injustices that took place here. Until now, many families had not seen the documents that led to the commission’s conclusion, and were supposed to be classified for dozens more years. Once you see them with your own eyes, you can understand what happened here. This is information that needs to be available to the public — these are things that were done here, they are part of this state’s history. There is no need to “protect” society from its own history — on the contrary: the path toward reconciliation and healing must first pass through recognition.

Is it possible to generally map out the new materials and summarize what we can learn from them?

The archives released documents on 3,500 cases, many of them are dozens of pages at length — that’s a total of over 200,000 documents that were uploaded to the Israel State Archives website. There were several journalists who, only a few hours after the archives were opened, came to the conclusion that there was no “smoking gun” that points to institutionalized kidnapping of the children who disappeared.

Nurses and mothers taking care of Yemenite children, Rosh Ha'ayin, 1949. (photo: GPO)
Nurses and mothers taking care of Yemenite children, Rosh Ha’ayin, 1949. (photo: GPO)

First of all, we must dive into these documents and read them in a diligent manner. What we do see are many instances that raise suspicions. We saw instances in which the commission made strange and even negligent decisions, which reveal the negligence of the commission itself. For example, a case in which a child is declared dead according to a handwritten note by a nurse. Or for instance, the commission asks testifiers for specific people’s addresses — you are the state, why aren’t you able to locate an address? The commission’s approach can be summarized as follows: when there is no real suspicion, there is no real investigation.

This is related to what you heard from those who provided testimony to Amram?

It is very connected, and exposes the criminal behavior toward the parents at the time. Surely medical ethics, already existed at the time. Permission from parents before treatment or surgery for their child was a necessary requirement at the time. But in this case, these norms were simply ignored when it concerned a certain population group. Ben Gurion claimed that some people aren’t fit to be parents due to their ethnic and cultural background. This is precisely what allows the authorities to take children from their parents, since there is no value in having that child grow up with her or his biological family. Even the protocols that focus on the nurses reveal how they spoke about the parents. In Sonia Milstein’s testimony we see how during the polio outbreak in the 1960s, children who came from the kibbutzim for treatment were not separated from their parents. It is enough only to see the number of times the nurses used the phrase “this did not matter to me” during their testimonies to completely debunk the myth of the caring, doting nurse.

David Ben Gurion (Government Press Office)
David Ben Gurion (Government Press Office)

What can’t we find in the documents?

It is important to remember that while this was a giant step — it is only that. At no point did Amram label the opening of archives a “revelation of the truth,” since these are the commission’s documents. The commission operated under extremely problematic assumptions, and did not doubt the veracity of lists of names, did not crosscheck information, failed to summon key figures to provide testimony, and did not investigate the disappearance of entire archives or the refusal by certain bodies to hand over information. It is important to note that the existing documents only discuss the families whose cases were examined by the commission. Many families, including many who gave testimony to Amram, did not file a complaint to the commission.

There are, however, materials that remain classified without any stated reason. For instance, Dr. Rupin’s testimony on medical experimentation, which does not appear in the declassified documents, although it should be there.

Much of the material that remains classified has to do with adoptions — including statistics on adoptees whose names have been blacked out. The Adoption Law, which lays out the procedures for adoption in Israel and keeps all information on adoptees confidential, was passed in the 1960s and applied retroactively to all these cases. We have testimonies of adoptees who were told that they have no file, testimonies on adoption papers which include the mother’s forged signature, testimonies of children’s last names that were changed in order to make it harder for their parents to find them, and even a testimony on how the welfare authorities refrained from intervening in matters of private adoptions.

We cannot accept that these things are kept confidential. We must ask hard questions.

This article was first published in Hebrew on Haokets. Read it here.