Mizrahi Jews renew calls for justice over stolen babies

Mizrahis demand the state open sealed adoption files and officially recognise its crimes against Jews of Arab origin.

Tel Aviv rally
Mizrahi Jews protest on Monday for the theft of their children and loved ones in the 1950s [Yuval Abraham/Al Jazeera]

Tamar Maatuf, 90, wept as she remembered her son who she says was kidnapped from her only weeks after she gave birth to him.

“My heart is broken. I thank god for blessing me with children, but there’s that one child I’ll never forget,” said Maatuf, as she stood in a protest by Jewish Mizrahi families who were victims of institutional child-theft in Israel in the 1950s.

She held a sign that read: “Dear son, I never gave up on you. Waiting for you, mom.”

Tamar Maatuf at Monday's rally against the theft of Mizrahi babies in the '50s [Yuval Abraham/Al Jazeera] 
Tamar Maatuf at Monday’s rally against the theft of Mizrahi babies in the ’50s [Yuval Abraham/Al Jazeera] 

Mizrahis, “those from the East” in Hebrew, are Israeli Jews whose families originated from Arab or Islamic countries. They constitute about half of Israeli society, but are a marginalised group.

“Justice! Recognition! Healing!” shouted hundreds of protesters that took to the streets of Tel Aviv on Monday to demand justice.

A wealth of testimonies collected from victims by “Amram”, the organisation behind the demonstration, tell a chilling story.

Up to 5,000 healthy babies were taken from their parents, under the false claim that they were ill, only later to be put for adoption, Their parents, for the most part, never saw them again.

READ MORE: The shocking story of Israel’s disappeared babies

Most of the evidence collected by Israeli journalists and observers suggested that most of the missing children, from newly immigrated Mizrahi families, were sold or given away to European Jews – known as Ashkenazim.

An Israeli journalist, Yael Tzadok, who was investigating the case for 20 years, told Al Jazeera in an earlier article that “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”.

Doctors and nurses told them that their babies had died, without ever allowing them to see proof or a dead body.

“My mother gave birth to a beautiful, healthy baby girl and named her Batya,” Yehudit Zfira, whose sister was kidnapped, told Al Jazeera at the rally.

“Officials came to the camp where my mother lived and announced that parents and babies need to be separated, to keep the babies safe and healthy they claimed, and that mothers should come and nurse the babies every few hours.”

Zfira holds a sign that says: 'I am asking for my sister' [Yuval Abraham/Al Jazeera]
Zfira holds a sign that says: ‘I am asking for my sister’ [Yuval Abraham/Al Jazeera]

In the morning, Zfira’s mother nursed a seemingly healthy child, but when she came back later that day, the baby was gone.

“They said she was sick and taken to a hospital, but when my mother got to the hospital, a nurse told her the child passed away,” she said.

“She lost her mind, demanded to see a body, because she knew the child was healthy from before, but they ignored her, and eventually the nurse said angrily, ‘Stop it already! You’ll have more children.'”

“Today, my mom is 86, and not a day goes by that she doesn’t mention Batya” she continued.

Rally speakers demanded that the state open sealed adoption files, officially recognise its crimes, and hold a national memorial day for the victims.

Prominent Israeli politicians such as Yitzhak Herzog, leader of the opposition in the Israeli parliament, attended the rally, an indication of the acceptance that the once-muted affair is slowly gaining.

Several other developments, including a new documentary, and an academic programme focused on the Mizrahi struggles, are telling of a trend in challenging Ashkenazi hegemony.

Ancestral Sin

The new documentary, released in May, titled Ancestral Sin, directed by David Deri, sheds light on another muted affair from Israel’s initial years – the discriminatory way Mizrahis were settled in peripheral towns, far from the main cities and lacking opportunities for employment.

After Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands in 1948, the state’s leadership was concerned with physically guarding the empty territories and blocking Palestinian refugees’ return to them.

As 80 percent of Israeli Jews were living in large cities at the time, this proved to be a challenge.

A campaign that sought to spread-out the population into state-built “development towns” commenced, but few were willing to give-up city life for an unattractive, distant settlement.

The wave of Mizrahi immigrants from Arab countries that joined the predominantly European society in the 1950s provided a solution.

Professor Elisha Efrat, one of the urban planners of the development towns at the time, described Mizrahis in the documentary as poor, naive and weak: A “perfect alignment of stars” for Israel that could now “create a state out of nothing, with people who are nothing”.

Upon docking at Haifa’s port, many Mizrahis were directly taken to these development towns, despite protests. Those who attempted to leave were put on blacklists and denied social and healthcare and employment benefits, according to state documents revealed in the documentary.

But when a wave of Jews immigrated to Israel from Poland, roughly during the same period, government officials in the documentary were quoted saying these Jews are made of “different human material” and cannot live next to the “barbaric Moroccans” in the development towns. A new town was built for them in Tel Aviv.

The hierarchy of oppression between Ashkenazis – European Jews – and Mizrahis, and the Palestinians in Israel, became evident.

While many praised the documentary, some criticised it for not challenging the basic aim behind the development towns – to block Palestinian refugees from returning to their lands using Mizrahis.

Today, development towns are still largely populated by Mizrahis and remain a source of inequality in society.

They are neglected, and the many vocational schools built in them continue to track Mizrahi youth to low-paying jobs away from power.

Jewish-Arab culture in Israeli academia

This year, a new Bachelor’s programme, the first of its kind at the at Tel-Aviv University and the Negev-based Ben-Gurion University, will open for students to learn about the more than 1,000 years of language, literature, culture, and philosophy of Jewish-Arab existence in Arab countries.

“It is difficult to comprehend the fact that Arabic is a Jewish language,” Almog Behar, a Jewish-Israeli poet of Iraqi descent and one of the lead initiators of the programme, told Al Jazeera.

“It is difficult for new students or young Jews who grew up in Israel, but also difficult for Arabs. The memory of the Jewish communities in the Arab world cannot be taken for granted. I think the programme is important in both these aspects,” said Behar.

“Opening this programme wouldn’t have been possible 20 years ago.”

According to Behar, past attempts to promote Arab-Judeo cultural studies in the 1950s were rejected by mainstream Israeli academia, due to Israel’s wish to maintain a binary separation made between Jewish and Arab.

But now, Behar claims, things are changing as Arabic-speaking Jews have slowly been absorbed into Israeli society. 

While many first-generation Mizrahis spoke Arabic fluently, their children and grandchildren were encouraged to speak Hebrew and forget the language, under a melting-pot policy that viewed the pasts of Jewish immigrants an obstacle in creating one unified Hebrew-speaking Israeli nation.

A survey conducted in 2015 by The Van Leer Jerusalem Institute revealed that while 25.6 percent of first-generation Arab-Jews spoke Arabic, while among the third-generation a mere 1.3 percent still know the language.

“When my mother was in the fourth grade, the school teacher came to her parents’ house to tell them to stop speaking Arabic with her. They didn’t stop, but from that moment on, she stopped answering them in Arabic, understanding that it’s not the correct language to fit in Israeli society,” Behar said.

“If Mizrahi culture is cut off from its roots, a great deal of which are a dialogue with the Arabic language and Islam, it will become a caricature of itself. So, from a Mizrahi perspective, there’s an advantage to creating a bilingual society here, one that will breathe life into Mizrahi culture and enable a shared existence for Jews and Palestinians,” Behar explained.

“Only the understanding that Israel is in the Middle East, coupled with improving Israel’s relations with the Arab world, could lead to equality between Mizrahis and Ashkenazis,” he added.

WATCH: Israel’s Great Divide (46:51)

In order to distance themselves from their Arab roots and try to fit into European Israel, Mizrahis have taken several positions, such as traditionally voting for the Zionist right-wing Likud party, which is outspoken in its disregard and racism towards Palestinians and Arabs.

Voting for the Likud, the Labor’s historic political rival, as Mizrahis have traditionally done, could also be seen as a protest against the Labor’s mistreatment and disregard towards Mizrahis.

The Zionist-left, which is mainly associated with the Labor party and has a largely Ashkenazi voter base, is commonly perceived as the natural partner to make peace with Palestinians, due to its endorsement of the two-state solution.

But some critics say that the Zionist left’s dialogue of two separate states, one for Jews and one for Palestinians, is an expression of its long-standing urge to keep Arabs separate from Israel – an urge that has hurt both Mizrahis and Palestinians in different ways.

These critics highlight the fact that the Palestinian Nakba and the discrimination against Mizrahis are both denied and neglected by the Zionist left, which founded Israel and is responsible for these crimes that can both be sourced to a similar colonial and white supremacist attitude.

READ MORE: The Nakba did not start or end in 1948

In contrast with the Labor’s romantic painting of Israel’s founding years as a time of morality, pioneering and rationalism, both Mizrahi and Palestinian struggles are undermining these historical myths.

Yet, despite these similarities, while the Palestinian struggle inherently challenges the Zionist regime, Mizrahi struggles, especially if they remain separate from the Palestinians’, can at times be contained within the Zionist framework.

“There are slow positive changes in various fields, like culture, Mizrahi popular music, liturgy or in regards to the kidnapped children,” says Behar, but other Mizrahi challenges, like promoting a bilingual reality, are harder as they “threaten the Zionist narrative in a different way”.

Reuven Abergel, one of the founders of the Black Panthers, a Mizrahi protest movement in the 1970s, told Al Jazeera that the next stage in the Mizrahi struggle must involve solidarity with other oppressed groups, despite difficulties.

“We, the Black Panthers, waged a war against oppression, discrimination, police beatings, arrests, unemployment and the lack of health and education in our neighbourhood. We lacked
political conscious at first and developed it through struggling,” he said.

“The greatest advice I can give Mizrahi activists is to realise all struggles in Israel are connected,” Abergel said.

“When you separate struggles, you lose the legitimisation of the rest of the groups, and you serve the system” he added.

“Today, when Palestinians are hurt, they are hurt alone – there’s no solidarity from the Israeli left.The only way to replace the regime is to unite everyone oppressed by it.”

Source: Al Jazeera