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A not simple time: the stolen Yemenite children


In Hebrew, instead of saying something in the past was "difficult" or "complicated," the phrase is softened a little.  They say, "it's not simple."

One such not-simple period is the stolen children of Yemen. 

Here's the nutshell:

When Yemenite Jews came to Israel in the 1940s and early 1950s, some children were often taken and given away to Ashkenazi families, some of whom were survivors of the Shoah.  Not all, and perhaps not even many; but some.  The actual number doesn’t matter.  There’s no number that would have been acceptable.

Sometimes, Yemenite parents were told that their children were sick and needed to be in the hospital.  I read the story of one man whose adoptive mother simply showed up at the hospital and was told, "Pick a baby."  His birth mother, like most of the Yemenite parents, was told that her child had died.

Having seen so many Ethiopian families trying to adjust to life in modern Israel in the years we’ve been here, I find it

easier to understand what went on during this not-simple period.

Even during our supposedly more enlightened age, these newcomers are still viewed as more “primitive” and “different,” and children are sometimes considered better off if they spend more time in mainstream Israeli society and less time with their Ethiopian parents, family and culture.

I have met families from Ethiopia here who are utterly baffled here: in the store, they can’t figure out the prices on the shelves; they come on the wrong day to school events, and send their children unprepared; one Ethiopian father sat for half an hour patiently listening to the teacher only to discover that he was not in his son’s classroom after all.  

In my son’s first gan, the ganenet was constantly railing at the parents about keeping the kids clean – I saw flies landing on one child’s eyes because they were so dirty, something I honestly thought happened only in third-world countries. 

As an olah, I feel out of place often, but at least I understand the language, and more importantly, the concepts.  And being from North America, I know my rights.

Today’s Ethiopian Jews are in some way a good parallel to those early Yemenite Jews, at least in my mind, because everything from skin colour to dress, language and customs are very, very different.

If a doctor told an Ethiopian parent that their child was sick and had to go to the hospital, they would listen.  If they then said the child had died – well, what recourse would those parents have?  I like to think that today they would be able to find legal representation within their community… but I’m not 100% sure they would know and be able to fight for their rights, even today.

There’s something else, more troubling, going on here with this history.

Even though the European Ashkenazim had suffered tremendously at the hands of the “Übermensch” ideology and the eugenics fad that raged from Germany into Europe before WWII, they likely internalized these values to some extent.

Many Jews were proud, enlightened European citizens before the Shoah.

In which case, the swarthy, deeply religious, polygamous, guttural Jews of Yemen (many had distinctly African features) were not who these European Zionists envisioned building the land they dreamed of.


In order to turn them into chalutzim, ideal settlers for their bold new land, the Yemenites would need to be recast in the new Zionist archetype:  tall, pale (never forget your sunhat, lest you be mistaken for a middle-Easterner!), enlightened, educated, and above all else, rabidly secular. (For some, these attributes went hand in hand.)


Of course, this is also the same impulse that we Europeans followed when it came to North American Indians, or Australian Aborigines.  Residential schooling is just another side of the same vile coin… separating kids from their families and placing them with “better” families, giving them a “better” life.

In some ways, this idea was ingrained very deeply in the early Zionist / Socialist ideology, where internment camps and Kibbutzim had “children’s houses” and routinely separated children from their parents, presumably to both raise them with modern efficiency, as a group, and to indoctrinate them away from parents’ negative influence.

(I still see this today in how common it is here in Israel to send kids as young as Grade Six or Seven away to residential schools, some nearby and some quite a far distance across the country.)

Going back to the period of the early 1950s, there are a million other excuses why some bureaucrat somewhere might have thought it was a good idea to take Yemenite children away from their families:

  • Israel at the time was desperately poor and swamped with new olim
  • Israel needed to turn starving immigrant children into a powerful army
  • Yemenite families tended to have many children
  • Many of their children were not healthy and might have died if left in poverty

But you can certainly see where these well-meaning impulses wound up going horribly wrong.

I said before that it doesn’t matter how many children were taken.

But the question of exactly how many Yemenite children and families were involved, it turns out, is a sticky one.

Honestly, I couldn’t get a clear sense of it.  One activist in the Yemenite community, back in the 90s, claimed a “holocaust” of 4,500 children (ignore the 2011 date on this story; it’s a reprint from 1992, I believe).  Another source I found says that “A baby disappeared from one out of every eight Yemenite families.”

(Because many families were related, it’s possible that there was some overlap between the stories of disappearances, ie that multiple families remembered the same child.)

An official government probe in the 1990s investigated 800 suspicious cases, but concluded that only 56 children were taken; the rest actually did die.  Unfortunate, but true, says the official government  line.

The truth lies somewhere in between, though I’m inclined to believe it’s at the lower end (and boy, do I want to believe that!).


Right???  Nevertheless.

Even if it was only 10 children, only 5 children, only 1 child…  the State of Israel and/or the Jewish Agency should still apologize to the Yemenite community for its complicity, for its ineptitude, for its something.  Any type of apology would be a good start.

I know, I know.  I already said the past is not so simple.  But sometimes, it really is just that simple.  The truth is, something happened.  And somebody, somewhere knew.  For this, an official apology is about 60 years overdue.

Tzivia / צִיבְיָה

1 comment:

  1. You make a good point, Tzivia, about viewing the Israeli government's actions in the context of the times. Yes, it was obviously cruel for the bureaucracy to rule that Yemenite children could be forcibly taken from their parents. And, yes, the government should now formally apologize for having allowed this to happen. But the times, as you note, were confusing, demanding and just plain incomprehensible -- something the Black Hat critics often forget when they blast those terrible "Zionists" for committing such an outrage. (For the religious right, the forcible removal of Yemenite children from their families is a shibboleth, something akin to the Palestinians' endless citation of Deir Yassin as proof of Jewish treachery during the War of Independence). Israel, as you note, was poor, flat on its back, but was somehow responsible for suddenly absorbing hundreds of thousands of destitute Jews from Yemen, as well as from the DP camps of Europe. It was a confusing time. And, unfortunately, mistakes were made. And no sooner had Israel taken in this surge of refugees then it had to brace itself for a deluge of several hundred thousand more Jews -- first from Iraq and, after that, from North Africa. And Israel had to do so while fending off Palestinian terrorists and invading the Sinai. I like to put everything in context. Somehow, Israel survived and endured. More important, this small country educated, fed and integrated hundreds of thousands of refugees -- something Israel's "neighbors" have yet to do with the Palestinians!


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