Nazareth – Some 200,000 documents concerning the mysterious disappearance of thousands of babies in Israel’s early years were made public last week for the first time.
The Israeli government declassified the files, publishing them in an online archive, after decades of accusations that officials have been concealing evidence that many of the babies were stolen from their parents.
The families, most of them Jews from Arab countries recently arrived in Israel, fear the infants were handed over by hospitals and clinics to wealthy Jewish families in Israel and abroad.
Three official inquiries concluded instead that most of the babies died during a time of chaos after the state was founded in 1948, falling victim to disease or malnourishment.
But many of the families were never issued a death certificate or shown a grave. Other say healthy babies were snatched out of their hands by hospital staff and never returned to them.
Suspicions of a cover-up were heightened by the decision of the Kedmi inquiry, which published its findings in 2001, to place many case files and testimonies under lock for 70 years.
Inaugurating the digital archive last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the release of the documents marked a new era of transparency.
“Today, we correct a historic injustice,” he said. “With one touch of the keyboard”, the public would be able to trace what happened to each of the missing children.
However, campaigners for the families told Al Jazeera that Netanyahu’s claims were misplaced.
The most damning evidence had been “destroyed many years ago” by hospitals and welfare authorities before the Kedmi inquiry could examine it, said Naama Katiee, an activist with Amram, an association that campaigns on behalf of the families.
Amram has noted that a proportion of the files relating to missing children requested by the inquiry were never handed over, with officials often claiming at the last moment that the documents had been destroyed by fires or floods.
Katiee added that the inquiry examined the fate of only some 1,000 babies, a fraction of possibly as many as 8,000 children who disappeared in the first two decades after Israel’s creation in 1948. Amram has created an online database to identify new cases.
Nurit Koren, who heads a group of legislators researching the missing children, told Israel’s Army Radio that there were another 200,000 documents – from the two investigative committees before the Kedmi inquiry – that had yet to be made public.
She pointed out that the archive covered only the period until 1954, even though the disappearances continued until the mid-1960s. “We are obliged to give these families answers,” she said.
As campaigners began the painstaking process of poring over the massive archive, much of the Israeli media were quick to declare no “smoking gun” had been found implicating the government in the children’s disappearances.
Katiee dismissed such expectations. “It is ridiculous to imagine that we would find an order in writing, telling hospitals to kidnap babies,” she told Al Jazeera.
But she said the testimonies that had been unearthed already painted a disturbing picture of systematic abuses, and a climate that permitted the taking of babies from poor immigrant families.
Most of the missing children were born to Jews who had recently arrived from Arab states and been placed in temporary absorption camps.
It is overdue for the parents to receive an apology from the state. The authorities must take responsibility for the crimes that were committed.
Yemeni families suffered the largest proportion of disappearances, with possibly as many as one in eight children under the age of four going missing in the state’s first six years.
Some 50,000 Yemeni Jews were airlifted to Israel in the state’s first 18 months alone. Significant numbers came from elsewhere in the region, including Iraq, Morocco, Tunisia and the Balkans.
Some of the testimonies suggest that Israeli officials regularly forced parents to hand over their babies against their will, failed to record names properly or tell parents where their children had been hospitalised, and put infants out for adoption when they were unclaimed.
Other evidence hints more openly at a trade in children.
In August, Al Jazeera published the disturbing case of one baby sold by a clinic in Haifa to Holocaust survivors in 1956.
Gil Grunbaum found out only by accident – and nearly 40 years after the event – that he had been secretly adopted. He managed to locate his biological mother, originally from Tunisia, after a three-year search and over the opposition of Israeli welfare authorities.
He told Al Jazeera: “The release of these documents is an important first step – not least because they prove the families were not hallucinating, as they have often been told. But there is much more the government can and should do. Public pressure will continue to grow for more answers.”
He said it was vital that the authorities urgently opened up the state’s adoption files from that period, so that people who suspected they had been put out for adoption could search for their biological families.
“Seventy years after the event, arguments about privacy and sensitivity no longer apply, especially when we know that crimes were committed,” he said. “It should not be possible still to hide behind a veil of secrecy.”
The families of the children have long claimed that their mistreatment stemmed from the endemic racism of Israel’s establishment towards Jews arriving from the Arab world, a group popularly referred to in Israel as the Mizrahim.
Most senior officials at that time were of European origin, known as the Ashkenazim. Records show Israel’s founders feared that the supposedly “backwards” Arab culture of the Mirzrahim would harm their new state.
Yael Tzadok, an Israeli journalist who investigated cases of missing children, has noted that the officials involved may have believed they were doing the infants a favour.
“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,” she told Al Jazeera.
Tzachi Hanegbi, the minister put in charge of making the archive public, admitted that the Kedmi inquiry’s definitive finding that almost all the children died was not supported by the available evidence.
“The fact is that 1,000 children disappeared without graves, a reason of death, a funeral or a body,” he said.
Amram, however, believes there are far more cases than those cited by Hanegbi.
Several of the newly released testimonies confirm evidence published by Al Jazeera in August suggesting that Mizrahi children were taken from absorption camps or hospitals and put out for adoption.
They don't have the courage to take responsibility for what happened. They are afraid that the guilt will stick to them, and that the state will be inundated with compensation claims.
Yehudit Durani, who served as a nursery assistant in a camp south of Haifa, told Kedmi that children would regularly disappear, often following visits by American Jews.
She said the foreign visitors would play with the children and buy them dolls. The next day when she arrived at the camp she would be told a child was sick and had been hospitalised in Haifa.
“Many disappeared … every day, a child was missing,” she said. Referring to one infant, she added: “They sent him to Haifa. [But] he was healthy and ate supper and there was nothing wrong with him when he was with me.”
In other testimony, Miriam Adani recounted an admission from a doctor that he had transferred Mizrahi babies from the camps to wealthy families. The doctor reportedly said: “The Yemenites are ingrates. They lack feeling and don’t appreciate what has been done for them.”
In a letter from 1952 seen by the inquiry, a government legal adviser admits there were frequent complaints of “unsuitable treatment” by hospitals that gave up children “to all kinds of people for the purpose of adoption”.
Ruth Baruch, who founded an adoption service, told the inquiry that a former nurse in northern Israel had spoken on her deathbed about the abducted children. “Things were done, I know that things were done,” Baruch says she confessed. “I have to go to the next world clean.”
Some of the nurses’ testimonies paint a very different picture: of Mizrahi parents who failed to come to collect their children from the hospitals, or denied the children belonged to them when staff visited the camps.
In such cases, the babies were sent to care homes. “What happened to them next, I don’t know,” one nurse, Sarah Meller, told Kedmi.
Other testimonies, however, suggest that few precautions were taken to ensure parents in the camps knew where their children had been taken. Compounding the problem, the children’s names and identities were often not properly recorded.
One Haifa paediatrician, Rosa Amster, told Kedmi: “Names were a big problem. Every child had many names and we didn’t know what was the first name and what was the surname.”
The families have also noted that few of the recent immigrants could speak Hebrew and negotiate the complexities of Israel’s bureaucracy.
“Given that these events happened so long ago, and so many files were destroyed or later forged, we will probably never get the full picture,” Katiee said.
“But it is overdue for the parents to receive an apology from the state. The authorities must take responsibility for the crimes that were committed.”
According to Hanegbi, the government is considering setting up a DNA bank to help those who suspect they were secretly adopted find their parents.
Katiee said the government must also begin mapping the sites of graves to find out where the children were supposedly buried. “Then, the families can take a DNA sample and get a clear answer on whether their children really are buried there,” she said.
It was important for the families to have graves to visit and a place to grieve, she added.
Grunbaum said he doubted the government was ready yet to apologise.
“They don’t have the courage to take responsibility for what happened,” he said. “They are afraid that the guilt will stick to them, and that the state will be inundated with compensation claims.”