Yemenite immigrants in a camp in 1950   

Stealing children from feckless mothers so that they will have great expectations in the home of a loving, educated couple seems to have been a common practice in the early 20th Century. In Australia, Canada, Spain, Germany, Ireland, and Argentina scandalous tales of baby-snatching have emerged in the media.

In the wake of the revelations come poignant stories of men and women who suddenly discovered that they were not who they thought they were. They are often tormented by grief and resentment for having been torn from their birth parents.

Less well-known is what happened in Israel. In what has become known as the Yemenite Children Affair, hundreds of babies and toddlers of new arrivals, mainly from Yemen, between 1948 to 1954, were taken from their parents. Mothers were told that their newborn had died; sometimes the children simply disappeared. Stories have surfaced in the media over the years, but the complete history of what happened has not been told, as vital documents have been classified by the government.

This year gut-wrenching memories have again surfaced as activists demand the truth. A cabinet minister tasked with the investigation, Tzachi Hanegbi, now admits that between 1,500 and 5,000 children, mainly Yemenis, were kidnapped and given to Ashkenazi parents. “They took the children, and gave them away. I don’t know where,” he told a TV program. But it is still unclear whether the children were stolen with the connivance of the government. “We may never know,” Hanegbi says.

“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,” Prime Minister Netanyahu said earlier this year.

According to The Times of Israel, this has been “the largest cover-up in the history of the State of Israel”. Yael Tzadok, an Israeli journalist who has been tracking the story for years, told Al Jazeera: “This is Israel’s darkest secret. Jews kidnapped other Jews, Jews who were coming to a state that had been created as a refuge in the immediate wake of the Holocaust. Bringing the truth into the daylight risks causing an earthquake.”

One dark element in the story is allegations of conflict between the Ashkenazi Jews from Europe and the Mizrahim, Jews from Arab countries. The Europeans looked down upon the penniless, darker-skinned, ill-educated Jews of the Levant with their Arab customs.

“Mizrahi parents were seen as bad, primitive people who were a lost cause. The dominant view then was that, by placing the children with Ashkenazi families, they could be saved – unlike their parents. They would be re-educated and made into suitable material for the new Zionist state,” Tzadok says. “The hospital staff and officials probably didn’t think they were doing something wrong. They thought it was their patriotic duty.”

In Al-Jazeera, journalist Jonathan Cook cites the experience of Gil Grunbaum, who was raised by an Ashkenazi couple. He was 40 before he discovered that he had been stolen at birth from recent immigrants from Tunisia. The hospital told his mother that her son had died shortly after birth. “My[adoptive] father had been in Auschwitz and my mother in Dachau. The survivors suffered from psychological and physical traumas that meant it was difficult or impossible for them to have children,” he said. “The view at that time was that the Yemenites had large families and could afford to lose one or two.”

Grunbaum eventually tracked down his birth mother and met his five siblings. The discovery was devastating for him, “the most shocking moment imaginable. Everyone I loved – my parents, aunts, uncles and cousins – had been deceiving me for decades.”

After 70 years, the truth of this tangled affair may never be known, not only because of the problems of documenting it, but because it overlaps with a heated debate over the origins of the nation itself: right against left, Ashkenazi against Mizrahim, Israeli against Arab.

But this tragic story is not Israel’s alone. All over the world 20th Century governments and institutions appear to have underestimated the power of genetic bonds. They justified the colossal injustice of tearing infants away from their mothers because they were giving the children a better standard of living. How wrong they were is only now becoming apparent.

Have we really learned the lesson of genetic attachment? In the 21st Century the same injustice is being repeated in a more sophisticated way, with surrogate mothers and sperm and egg donors. But is still wrong.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet. 

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet.