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In 1994, a few dozen armed Yemenite Jews barricaded themselves in a home in the central Israel city of Yehud. They would not leave, they warned, until an official investigation was launched into allegations that Yemenite children had been systematically abducted and handed over to Ashkenazi families – sometimes in exchange for money – in the early years of the state. Their leader was a radical rabbi named Uzi Meshulam, who threatened bloodshed. The standoff lasted seven weeks, and Meshulam ended up serving nearly six years in prison.
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Contradicting the conclusions of a state panel, Minister Tzachi Hanegbi said on Saturday that hundreds of Yemenite children were taken away from their parents. “They took the children, and gave them away. I don’t know where.”
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Hanegbi, who was intervied by Channel 2’s “Meet the Press,” was referring to a 65-year-old affair that returned to the headlines a few months ago. Between 1948 and 1954, between 1,500 and 5,000 children, mainly Yemenite toddlers, were reported missing, with many parents being told their children had died, sparking claims they were taken and given to Ashkenazi couples.
Hanegbi, tasked with reviewing archived material on the affair, said he hoped the disclosures would answer the long-standing questions about the fate of the children. One question left unanswered was whether the establishment was aware of, or even complicit in, the affair. “We may never know,” Hanegbi told program host Rina Matzliah.
Tzachi Hanegbi.Credit: Daniel Bar-On
In 2001, the Kedmi Committee, charged with examining allegations of the children’s disappearance, determined that there was no factual basis of organized “abduction” of Yemenite children. That committee, and two others, determined that most had died of illness and a minority had been adopted.
Retired Justice Yaacov Kedmi, the committee’s chairman, died in July, aged 85, leaving many questions unanswered, including the fate of a few dozen children.
The committee’s conduct and professionalism was questioned by families, legal experts and the media, including Haaretz, which published a series of investigative reports on the affair.
Hanegbi’s statements, as the senior official in charge of examining the matter at the behest of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, bolster the struggle of many Yemenite families to know the truth about the missing children. The families believe the children disappeared as the result of a secret, official policy by which they were given to childless Ashkenazi Holocaust survivors.
The story reached the headlines again and came before the Knesset over the past few months due to the activities of organizations that published testimony by families of Yemenite origin who believe the children were taken and the facts covered up.
“The issue of the Yemenite children is an open wound that continues to bleed in many families who do not know what happened to the babies, to children that disappeared, and they are looking for the truth,” Netanyahu said last month.
Hanegbi began examining heretofore confidential documents in the State Archives. About 1.5 million pages of documents were collected by the three investigative committees that have discussed the affair since the 1960s. Some will remain sealed for several more decades.
“It’s an ocean of material,” Hanegbi told Matzliah. “I’m reading testimony of nurses, social workers and people who admitted the children to hospitals and a variety of people, each of whom saw a small piece of the puzzle,” he said.
Hanegbi said he was not given access to all the material — adoption records, for example. He explained that only a judge can allow records of this type to be unsealed. He said the government is seeking a solution that would allow him to see such files as part of his investigation.
It was reported earlier this month that as part of his probe, Hanegbi asked the head of the Shin Bet security service and of the Mossad as to their stand on the release of classified documents involving the actions of these two agencies with regard to the disappearance of the children.
Hanegbi said that he would continue to examine the material until October, at which time he would recommend that the government release the material to the public. “My recommendation will be to release the material, to allow any person, at a click on the internet, to reach a site where all the material that has been released can be seen.”
He said the material has already begun to be scanned so that as soon as the government decides to make it public it can do so.