Commission: Yemenite kids not abducted

JERUSALEM, Nov. 5 (JTA) — An Israeli commission has rejected claims that Yemenite children were snatched from their parents and given away for adoption during the country’s first few years of statehood.

The families of the missing children, however, remain unconvinced.

According to the report of the Cohen Commission, most of the children who “disappeared” actually died as a result of the high infant mortality rate at the time among Yemenite immigrants.

The commission’s report covers the disappearance of children from immigrant and transition camps in Israel from 1948 to 1954.

From 1948 until 1951, many Yemenite immigrants lived in camps run by the Jewish Agency for Israel in which the children were placed in communal children’s houses, similar to those on kibbutzim.

From 1951 until 1954 the immigrants moved to transition camps, where they lived together as family units. Most of the alleged disappearances took place during the earlier, immigrant camp period.

According to the commission’s findings, a child’s “disappearance” usually was a result of death after hospitalization, though sometimes families who couldn’t care for their own children left them in the Jewish Agency’s care. If a baby died, however, there often was a lack of contact with the families, and babies even were buried without the family being notified.

There also were instances when the Jewish Agency assumed babies had been abandoned when parents didn’t visit their children for some time. The commission again found that the authorities often made no effort to find the parents, and criticized the Jewish Agency for this failure.

The parents alleged that their children were taken from them — because of anti-Sephardic bias, they charge — that Israeli organizations never told them what happened and that they didn’t provide death certificates.

“We waited for this commission to finally tell the truth,” said Shlomo Bahagali, whose son Haim was three months old when he disappeared in 1949. His wife went to nurse Haim in the children’s house one evening, Bahagali said, and the next morning the baby was gone.

“What, all the Yemenite children died at the same time?” he told Ha’aretz. “What was it, an epidemic?”

While critical of the Jewish Agency, the commission also noted that the issue had to be viewed in context. In the first three years of the Yemenite immigration, a nation of some 600,000 inhabitants absorbed an additional 685,000 immigrants, including 50,605 from Yemen.

“There is no need to say much in order to convey the scope and scale of the enterprise to absorb the wave of immigration of the time,” the commission wrote. Still, it noted, “The problems in communication between the families and the staff of the children’s houses — who were mainly Ashkenazi — served as fertile ground for many difficult problems that left a bitter taste among many of the families.”

According to Menahem Yitzhari, whose brother Shlomo disappeared at the age of 6, the commission wasn’t really seeking the truth. His brother disappeared while hospitalized for a scratch on his leg, he said. On the fourth day of his hospitalization, his mother was told that he had died, but the family was never provided with a death certificate or a gravesite, Yitzhari said.

Yitzhari believes his brother was abducted by Jewish Agency officials and given to another family. Some Yemenites charge that the babies were given to barren Ashkenazic couples.

According to the commission report, families that didn’t know about burials couldn’t pay for tombstones, and graves often were marked only with a sign. Those signs frequently disappeared, making it impossible to locate the graves.

The commission report, published after nearly six years of examination, determined that documentation exists for 972 of the 1,033 missing children. Five additional babies were found to be alive. They were unable to discover what happened in 56 other cases.

In those 56 cases, the commission said it was possible that children were handed over for adoption in individual cases, following decisions by local social workers.

The commission was established in 1995 by then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, following extreme and occasionally violent efforts by Uzi Meshulam, a militant rabbi who lobbied and petitioned for a commission.

At one time, Meshulam and dozens of his followers barricaded themselves in his home, hurling Molotov cocktails at the police and demanding that a new commission investigate the disappearances.

It wasn’t the first. There had been two previous commissions, in 1967 and 1988, but their findings were criticized and dismissed.

Even now, the families of the missing children accused the commission of concealing information, obstructing justice and forgoing additional sources of information, such as DNA testing of bones in unmarked graves.

Twenty-two graves were found and remains were sent for DNA testing in 1996, but they didn’t yield DNA that could be tested.

“The whitewashing continues,” Rosh Ha’ayin Mayor Yigal Yosef told the Israeli daily Ha’aretz. Rosh Ha’ayin is a small city in the center of the country with a large Yemenite community.

“I am pained and angry that they continue to insult our intelligence,” he said. “The affair is not over.”

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