RAANANA, Israel — At 84 years old, Yona Yosef is full of life. Her eyes sparkle as she talks about her nine children and many grandchildren. But ask her what happened 67 years ago, when she and her family arrived in Israel from Yemen, and her eyes fill with tears.
“I was only 15. The people came, they told me to take Saade to the clinic,” said Yosef, her voice stalling as she recalled the day she took her 4-year-old half-sister for a routine check-up for new arrivals. “At the clinic, they told me to go home. They said they would bring her back. What did I know? I was only a child myself.”
Yosef never saw her sister again.
Like many immigrants at the time, Yosef and her family lived in a transit camp after they came to Israel in 1949. Her father’s second wife and two children, including Saade, lived with them.
Over the past 70 years, Israelis have become familiar with tales of Jewish immigrants from Arab lands who say their children simply vanished, possibly kidnapped, in the late 1940s and early ’50s, soon after arriving in Israel. In some cases, the children were taken away, never to be seen again. In others, parents were told their babies had died suddenly.
According to some theories, the children were handed to childless couples, possibly Holocaust survivors who could not conceive. Others think the babies may have been shipped to Jewish families in the United States.
Those who have studied the mystery point to the aggressive state-building process adopted by the ruling elite at the time — white, Ashkenazi Jews from Europe — and perhaps paternalistic notions they held toward uneducated Arabic-speaking immigrants who arrived penniless with multiple children. Some even might have thought they were helping the families by giving their children better lives.
Many suspect that state employees — doctors, nurses, social workers and government officials — were somehow involved. But whether orders to remove children came from high levels of government remains unanswered.
Three separate government committees, the last in the 1990s, investigated the affair, but all ruled that most of the children had died of illnesses, with perhaps a minority being put up for adoption. Most of the families refuse to accept that finding.
But in recent months, the story has garnered renewed attention.
In June, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was “lifting the immunity” on the case and appointed government minister Tzachi Hanegbi to reopen the files and “discover the truth.”
“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 that disappeared,” Netanyahu said.
Last month, Hanegbi told a news station that after looking at material from government inquiries into the matter, he is now sure that hundreds of Yemeni children were taken away from their parents, although he could not say why or where they went.
Hanegbi’s declaration has given hope to many families, whose claims have been continuously dismissed.
“We believe that the state needs to give us answers,” said Avi Yosef, Yona Yosef’s son. “We know that babies disappeared. Saade was taken from my mother’s hands.”
Avi Yosef, a lawyer, grew up hearing about Saade and two other children — born to his aunt, his mother’s older sister — who also disappeared in the transit camp.
“It’s clear there was a horrible crime here on an unprecedented scale and the state does not want to reveal it,” said Yael Tzadok, a former journalist who got involved in the issue more than 30 years ago when she began interviewing Yemeni mothers on her radio show.
“It was difficult to hear their stories. I could not sleep at night. It was clear to me they were telling the truth,” she said. “There were many witnesses saying these children were taken.”
Tzadok now works with Achim Vekayamim (Brothers Still Exist), a nonprofit organization set up to uncover the truth and track down relatives. Today most of the children would be in their 60s and 70s.
Zvi Amiri is one such child. When he was in his 30s, he discovered he had been adopted and started to search for his birth parents.
“I always had a feeling that something was not right,” said Amiri, now 64. “My parents kept moving from place to place, I kept hearing that I was adopted, but it was only when my father confessed that I started to look into it.”
With the help of a lawyer, Amiri obtained his adoption file and found that he had been born to immigrants from Tunisia. He found his birth mother, but she had been committed to a psychiatric facility. Possibly the toll of losing a baby had been too much for her, he said. And the documents he found in his adoption file, such as a declaration by his birth mother that she was putting him up for adoption, with no signature but only a thumb print, convinced him that there had been a coverup.
“If she did not know how to write her name, then how could she have possibly known what she was signing,” Amiri said.
Only a few dozen adopted children have managed to track down their birth families. Those who lost children are not legally allowed access to the files.
Amram, another nonprofit group that helps in these cases, lists hundreds of families on its website. There are tales of newborns taken to special units where days later mothers were told they had died, and stories of families with multiple children asked to give up their babies for adoption. When they refused, they also were told their babies had died.
Nurit Koren, a member of Knesset who heads the parliamentary lobby for families of stolen babies, said she has more than 1,000 case files detailing how children vanished, and information on hundreds of families that have been making such claims for decades.
Koren is working to set up a DNA database that will help children find their birth parents — but only at the children’s request.
“We don’t know what really happened, but the more information we collect, the more chance we have of finding out and finding these people,” Koren said. “What is important is that if this did happen, and we believe it did in an organized fashion, then the state should finally recognize it and take responsibility.”