Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Israeli Mystery of Lost Babies

The news below is from the NY Times.


JERUSALEM — Some Israeli families received army call-up papers and voter registration notices for children who had been declared dead as babies. Many others were never given an official cause of death by health officials, never saw the bodies of their infants and were never able to locate their graves.


For decades, about 1,000 families have lived with their doubts and a deep distrust of the authorities, suspecting a systematic scheme to abduct babies from families who immigrated to the newly established state of Israel from Yemen and other countries in the 1950s and give them up for adoption by childless couples from the Ashkenazi elite.


Many of the missing children had been admitted to clinics or hospitals after falling ill — often a result of poor sanitary conditions in the intake camps where their often-large families were initially housed — or were being looked after in day care centers. The overburdened immigrants and their offspring recall the authorities treating them with a highhanded disdain.


On Wednesday, the Israeli government made available online 200,000 previously classified documents from the state archives pertaining to the missing children. The hope was to shed light on a painful episode in the young country’s history and to try to help families answer lingering questions that three official commissions of inquiry since the 1960s had not resolved. The commissions concluded that there was no systematic abduction of children for adoption, and that most of them had simply died, but the families did not believe them.

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While the opening of the archives was not expected to provide a conclusive end to the chapter for many of the families, given the partial and sometimes contradictory information in the files, the government hoped to at least dispel the notion that it was hiding information, and to perhaps bring some relief.


“Today we are correcting an historic injustice of disregard or discrimination or concealing — we don’t know which — the fate of what have been dubbed as the ‘Yemenite children,’” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at a ceremony activating the website of the documents. “As harsh as the reality is, we are not prepared to allow that to continue.”


The issue recently re-emerged with a new generation demanding transparency, including many siblings of the missing children who have grown up in Israel and are better educated than their immigrant parents. The call for a more thorough accounting comes against the background of a cultural reawakening, or revolt, by Israel’s Mizrahi Jews, who hail from North African and Middle Eastern countries, against the old cultural hegemony of the Ashkenazim, of European origin. The Mizrahim make up about half the population of Israeli Jews.


The growing calls for the state to reveal all it knew came from ordinary people, like Avner Tzuri, 52, an insurance agent in Jerusalem, whose sister Malka was admitted to a hospital in Haifa one day in July 1953 and was declared dead and said to have been buried by the next morning. The calls also came from members of Parliament with family connections to the missing children, and celebrities like Boaz Sharabi, 69, a popular singer who appeared on television weeping as he spoke of his missing twin sister, Ada.


Describing the episode as “an ever-bleeding wound,” Mr. Sharabi said the pain had never left his parents. He was speaking of a generation that is now dying out.


The past commissions of inquiry gathered documents that pertained to 1,060 children and included burial certificates for 923 of them. In the cases of 69 children whose parents had contacted the official panels, no records were found and their status was defined as unknown.


The documents made public on Wednesday include personal files of the children, arranged by alphabetical order, containing hospital records, burial certificates, police reports and protocols of the official commissions of inquiry, as well as testimony given by the parents. The only details not made public were those involving children who were officially placed in adoptive homes and other cases in which privacy might be compromised.


Many of the documents were originally meant to remain classified until 2031. This summer, Mr. Netanyahu appointed a government minister, Tzachi Hanegbi, to examine the documents and decide if there was any justification for keeping them secret. Mr. Hanegbi found none.


“I’m not sure this is going to heal the wounds,” Mr. Hanegbi told reporters on Wednesday. But, he said, it may reduce the suspicions and distrust of the establishment. “No more hiding. All the details are out there.”


The next step, Mr. Hanegbi said, is to build a DNA bank where people who suspect they were unofficially adopted as children can search for matches with the missing children’s families.


Much of the confusion may have stemmed from the chaotic bureaucracy of Israel’s early years. Records were badly kept; similar-sounding names were mixed up. Immigrants, often illiterate, arrived with large numbers of children and lived in crowded transit camps.


But for some, instead of clarity, the opening of the archives on Wednesday only created more anguish and turmoil.


That was the case for Mr. Tzuri, the insurance agent, the youngest of six remaining siblings. One is named Malka, for the older sister who went missing. Their parents, Michael and Kochava Tzuri, came to Israel from Iran, via Iraq, in the early 1950s and lived in temporary housing in a transit camp near Hadera, south of the port city of Haifa.


On July 19, 1953, Ms. Tzuri found Malka, 14 months old, lying unconscious, apparently after accidentally ingesting oil, according to the child’s file and the mother’s testimony, given to the Cohen-Kedmi commission in 1997.


The child was taken to a local clinic, and then went with her mother in an ambulance to Rambam Hospital in Haifa. The doctors told Ms. Tzuri that she could not stay overnight, but that she should come back the next morning. When she returned the next day, she was told that the child was dead, but she was not shown the body. Ms. Tzuri testified that she had been told the hospital would arrange the burial, and that she believed the documents concerning Malka were fake.


The version that the siblings say they grew up with was that Malka had been buried by the time Ms. Tzuri arrived. The family later obtained a certificate from the burial society in Haifa, but when they found the numbered plot, they said, there was no sign of a grave.


Mr. Tzuri had been hoping that the newly released protocols of the Cohen-Kedmi commission would put to rest the questions he has been chasing for years.


Instead, he said in an interview after examining the online files at work on Wednesday, “it became more complicated than before, because we discovered something new.”


According to the records, the commission had located the hospital’s surgery registry, which showed that an autopsy had been performed on Malka on July 20, and the registry from the cemetery showed that she had been buried three days later, on July 23.


“If that was the case, why didn’t they let my parents see her body?” asked Mr. Tzuri, whose parents are dead. “This only sets off more red lights. It is all lies.”

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