JERUSALEM — A painful chapter in Israel’s history — the mysterious disappearance, or abduction, of hundreds of Yemenite children shortly after the country’s founding — resurfaced to rattle the country during a special Knesset session on Tuesday, June 21.
An emergency assembly of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee decided on Tuesday to demand release of all protocols and archived materials for several National Investigative Committees into the saga known as the “Yemenite Children Affair,” referring to the allegation that hundreds of newborn babies of newly-arrived immigrants, predominantly Yemenite, were kidnapped by authorities and handed over for adoption to Ashkenazi Israelis and Jews overseas between the years 1948 to 1954.
“Following today’s debate, the committee chairman, Nissan Slomiansky, issued a stern declaration in which he called on the government to release all protocols and relevant documents,” the committee’s spokesman, Shimon Malka, told TPS. “Should this request not be honored, the committee will propose legislation compelling the government to do so.”
The affair has been investigated multiple times, but the protocols and crucial records remain sealed.
Yosef Gamliel, a Yemenite immigrant who testified before the Knesset Committee on Tuesday, recounted the story of his missing brother to TPS.
“I have a baby brother, Yochanan, who was born in 1954 and shortly after his birth was hospitalized in the Kaplan hospital in Ashkelon. A few days after he was hospitalized we were told by Kaplan that, for medical reasons, he was transferred to a different facility in Jerusalem. But when we finally arrived to Jerusalem — not a simple journey in the ‘50s — we were simply told that Yochanan had died and was already buried before we got there.”
In circumstances strikingly similar to hundreds of other documented cases across the country, the Gamliel family never received a death certificate, an autopsy report or even the actual burial site.
Between 1967 and 2001 four different national inquiry committees were assembled by various prime ministers to investigate the allegations made by the families of abducted children. These committees inspected close to 1,500 individual cases, and over the years concluded that 1,300 children had died, two were adopted and the rest remain unknown. Investigators attributed the confusion to the language gap facing the new immigrants and the general disarray of the nascent country’s official records.
Yet the Yemenite families continued to suspect that their children had been systematically stolen and sent to other parents — a worry bolstered by the sensational discovery in 1997 of an Israeli woman, Tzila Levine, whose DNA tests proved she was the biological child of a Yemenite mother whose baby had mysteriously gone missing.
“In the ‘80s I testified before a national committee. Only after this committee did the state issue a death certificate and I got the location of a burial plot in Jerusalem. However, there was no grave there with my brother’s name on it and no possibility to exhume a body for verification,” Gamliel told TPS.
After his childhood struggle to find out what happened to his brother and achieve closure, Gamliel went on to study law. He now leads several legal battles as part of the Achim Vekayamim (Hebrew for ‘Brothers and Still Here’) organization against various public institutions to divulge information for family members of lost children.
“Only last year was I finally able to get my hands on my own brother’s medical records,” Galmiel said. He described finding a chilling handwritten discharge note that read: PATIENT RELEASED “HOME” — WHERE??
Someone, it seems, had noticed baby Yochanan’s disappearance and left a simple, ominous question as to what happened to him. The answer remains elusive.
“So I still can’t say for certain that my brother is dead or alive,” Gamliel said.
The Yemenite Children Affair returned to the public consciousness and garnered unprecedented support after a May exposé by Israeli anchorwoman Rina Matsliah on her Channel 2 show “Meet the Press,” spurred on by an Israeli lawmaker who was personally touched by the disappearances.
“I have been working on this one issue since being elected to office,” Likud MK Nurit Koren told TPS. “I pester the prime minister on a daily basis. I walked hand in hand with Rina Matsliah to get the story featured on television, and it worked — finally, today we got unprecedented public support from the highest officials.”
“I have two cousins that were taken from my aunts and uncles on my father’s and mother’s side, and my husband’s sister was taken as well, that’s why this issue is in my blood.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself expressed his wish to see the archives opened and held a private meeting with Yosef Gamliel.
“The issue of the Yemenite children is an open wound that still bleeds for the families who don’t know what happened to their lost babies,” Netanyahu said in a video posted to his Facebook account on Tuesday. “To this day I myself don’t understand why these documents are classified. We will investigate it and we will handle it ”
“I am very happy that for the first time in history a prime minister actually weighed in on the matter, expressed his public support for the families and said that he is interested in opening the archives,” said Koren.
Both Koren and Gamliel told TPS that Netanyahu has decided to task the newly-appointed minister Tzachi Hanegbi with the investigation of the Yemenite Children Affair.
For Gamliel and the other families of missing children, the renewed interest seems promising.
“This is the first time in 60 years that the establishment is actually listening to the Yemenites and that someone is sympathizing and is willing to take the kind of action that has never been taken before,” said Gamliel.