Israel’s Mizrahi community still mourns vanished children
‘Yemenite babies’ seek ‘recognition, justice, healing’
Gil Grinbaum’s parents never told him he was adopted. He learned the truth when an aunt from America mentioned it to his wife during a conversation about Ashkenazim and Mizrahim, Jews from countries in the Middle East.
It took two years for Grinbaum to find his birth mother. When he called her and identified himself, she fainted. Later she told him, “I gave birth in Haifa, and they told me you were dead.”
Grinbaum’s story was one of several shared by Shlomi Hatuka at Princeton University on Feb. 7. Hatuka — a poet, editor, teacher, and activist — is also a cofounder of Amram. The nonprofit organization aims to further Mizrahi culture and has taken on the issue of the “Yemenite babies” — hundreds of healthy babies community members believe were stolen from new immigrants in the early years of the State of Israel and given to Ashkenazi families for adoption.
Grinbaum found nurses who were involved in his case, Hatuka said. “They said they had been ordered to tell the mothers that the kids are dead.”
Hatuka continued, “In the file were all the papers, just without the signature of the mother.”
Even the assurances of three investigative commissions — the Bahlul-Minkowski Committee in 1967, the Shalgi Committee in 1988, and the Kedmi Inquiry in the 1990s — that most of these babies actually did die of natural causes — have not placated Hatuka’s generation, the third after the large migration of Mizrahi Jews to the fledgling State of Israel.
During the Princeton program, Hatuka screened testimonies gathered by Amram and available on the organization’s website, edut-amram.org, and explored why the Sephardi community does not fully trust the government’s reassurances.
In the testimonies gathered by Amram regarding the “Yemenite babies affair” (so-called because Yemenites constituted three-quarters of the babies involved), now-elderly immigrants, or their children, tell remarkably similar stories: After giving birth to healthy babies, mothers were told to leave them in the hospital for observation. When the parents returned for their child, they were told the baby had died and had already been buried. If the parents raised a fuss, they were thrown out of the hospital.
Hatuka’s spur to activism was the pain and anger of these parents as well as his own family’s story. “My grandmother gave birth to twin daughters in a hospital in Petach Tikva, and a nurse asked if she wanted to give one up for adoption because she had too many children, and my grandmother said, ‘No, thank you.’ The nurse told my grandmother that she needed to go home with one because the other had died. When my grandfather came to the hospital, they kicked him out.”
Despite the deep suspicions of the Mizrahi community, Prof. Dov Levitan of Bar-Ilan University in Israel said in a CNN report that “most of the missing children died because of a high infant mortality rate among new immigrants — and that other children were lost or sent to the wrong families in crowded immigration centers that relied on group nurseries.”
The context for the events in question, Hatuka said, was “discrimination and racism” by the majority European Jews living in Israel.
Hatuka said the cultural racism of the time thought of Israel’s minority groups as “depraved, not because of DNA, but by nature, and” thought the Ashkenazi elite, “we can save them.”
He explained, “This kind of racism made the kidnapping [of babies for adoption] a good thing: We are saving them!”
Hatuka also cited a worldwide demand for children during the post-World War II period, adding that after the Holocaust “many families were not able to bring children” into the world, and their desire for progeny “was not just physical, but emotional.”
The social structure in Israel at the time prevented his grandparents from acting, said Hatuka, but his own generation decided to take action and document families who claimed their babies had been stolen. “We knew the testimonies were the most significant and powerful things,” he said.
He holds the Israeli government accountable. “It was so unbelievable — a crime that the Israeli government tried over all the years to make it silent,” he said.
The scope of at least the first two investigations was limited, and the third occurred only after Uzi Meshulam — who in 1994 led a radical group of Yemenite Jews who resisted Israeli law enforcement authorities — and his armed followers demanded an investigation (and Meshulam served a six-year prison sentence as a result).
According to a June 22, 2013, article in Haaretz, the Kedmi Inquiry in the 1990s examined the cases of more than 800 babies, and in 733 found reliable evidence regarding the babies’ deaths. For 56 of the cases, they could find no evidence as to their fates and “did not rule out the possibility that the babies were handed over for adoption by local social workers.”
Hatuka said there are questions, about the nature of the investigation, suggesting that the committee chose not to interview witnesses to the alleged kidnappings, such as hospital nurses, but used only the testimonies of parents.
Nor were adoption files used, even though some of the 15 to 20 adopted children who have been discovered confirmed their birth families through DNA tests.
The distinction between kidnapping and adoption, Hatuka said, is that in the latter case, the baby comes with “the signature of the mother that says I am relinquishing my position as a parent.”
But adoption laws in the 1950s were “strange,” Hatuka said. The Knesset allowed children to be taken out of Israel without a passport. A procedure called “a late register” allowed parents to claim a baby even up to one year old by signing an affidavit that the baby was theirs and was born at home; the baby would then receive a birth certificate. Another law prohibited adopted children from publicly saying they were adopted.
Hatuka spoke to one adult child who, after his adoptive parents had died, hired investigators and with their help found and interviewed the doctor in Israel who had facilitated the (presumably illegal) adoption. The doctor “told them that after he did so he wasn’t able to go to sleep the rest of his life without thinking about this story,” Hatuka said.
Initially the government sealed the documents from the Kedmi Inquiry for 70 years. “In the archives are mainly testimonies of the families,” Hatuka said. “After you see them, you see why the government doesn’t want anyone to see them.”
Only in late December 2016, due to the Mizrahi community’s advocacy, did Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu inaugurate an on-line database that gives the public full access to about 400,000 pages of declassified documents.
“We want recognition, we want justice, and we want healing,” Hatuka said. “The government needs to understand it is not something we can leave behind. People are living in the pain.”