Tag: Yemenite Israelis

Israeli government agrees to open up Yemen child’s grave

The latest development in the saga of the ‘disappeared Yemenite children’ is the  ‘ground-breaking’ decision by the Israeli Health Ministry to open up the grave of a baby who died in 1952. Meanwhile the unpublished findings of a report alleging that medical staff were implicated in the maltreatment of children, primarily from Yemen,  were disputed at a stormy Knesset hearing this week. The Israeli government last year approved a NIS 162 million (almost $50 million) compensation programme to families who lost children. The Times of Israel reports:

Yemenite children with the Alaska Airlines plane which airlifted Jews to Israel (Photo: AJM)

The Health Ministry said Sunday that it is preparing to open the grave of a baby who died in 1952 next week to confirm to the boy’s surviving family of Yemenite immigrants that he really is buried there, and was not spirited away from them 64 years ago.

The planned procedure will mark the first time that a grave is opened for DNA testing in the Yemenite children affair, the decades-old claim by immigrants who arrived from Yemen that their children and siblings were kidnapped from them as babies in the 1950s.

The child is Uziel Houri, and he is buried in the Segula cemetery in the central city of Petah Tikvah. Five families related to Houri asked for and received a court order permitting the exhumation.

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A Knesset Health Committee meeting on Monday turned turbulent during a discussion over an unpublished Health Ministry report, which alluded to medical staff wrongdoing in the so-called Yemenite children affair, with calls to reveal its findings publicly.

During the committee meeting, a Health Ministry legal adviser rejected the unpublished report by former ministry deputy director general Prof. Itamar Grotto that indicated a history of medical staff involvement in the maltreatment of children from Yemen, North Africa and the Balkans during the early years of the State of Israel.

The legal adviser, Meir Broder, instead adopted the criticism of Prof. Shifra Schwartz, a history of medicine researcher, who denied Grotto’s findings of potential medical staff involvement. Broder’s denial of Grotto’s report created a storm at the meeting.

Yemenite Jews arrived in 1881, preceding ‘First Aliya’

Shortly before what is known as “The First Aliyah”, a group of Jews from Yemen arrived in the Land of Israel. Several dozen Yemenite families had embarked on a long and arduous journey to settle in Jerusalem. How did they overcome hostility and who came to their aid? Amit Naor for The Israel National Library charts the remarkable story of Silwan (Shiloah) outside the Jerusalem city walls.(With thanks: Michelle)

Yemenite Jews settled outside the city walls (photoi: National Library of Israel)

When did “The First Aliyah” – the first major wave of Zionist immigration to the Land of Israel – begin? If you answer by recounting the pogroms in Russia in 1881 and the pioneers of the Bilu movement, you may be mistaken. There were various reasons that led historians to label this wave of immigrants from Europe as “The First Aliyah”, when in fact Jews had been immigrating to the region in a steady trickle before then, from different parts of the globe. Several months before the Eastern European Jews landed in the port of Jaffa to expand and revitalize the local Jewish community, another group of Jews had arrived, but to much less historical fanfare. These were Yemenite Jews, most of them from the city of Sana’a, who had set out on an arduous journey to the Land of Israel shortly after the festival of Shavuot, in May 1881.

What led them to take this step? The reasons are not entirely clear, but apparently, a contributing factor was the Ottoman governor of Yemen’s issuing of an immigration permit. The first few arrived in August 1881. In the following months, and throughout 1882, more immigrants arrived from Yemen, about 200 people in all. In comparison, the Bilu pioneers that landed a few months later numbered only a few dozen. The Hebrew name given to this wave of Yemenite immigrants, E’eleh BeTamar, means, “I will climb up into the palm tree”. It is taken from a verse in the Song of Songs (7:9), and also derives from an anagram of the Hebrew year 5642 – תרמ”ב (corresponding to 1881-1882 and pronounced tarmab in Hebrew).

The Jewish community in the Land of Israel at the time, the Yishuv, consisted of both new arrivals and long-time residents who had been around for generations. Immigrant newcomers had just established the farming community of Petah Tikva, another at Rosh Pina had recently been abandoned, to be re-established the following year, and studies were underway in the Jewish agricultural school at Mikveh Israel.  Yet the majority of Jews in the Land of Israel resided in the four holy cities: Jerusalem, Hebron, Tiberias and Safed. These people were known collectively as the “Old Yishuv.”

Homes in Shiloah (Photo: National Library of Israel)

The new immigrants from Yemen had their sights set on only one place – Zion, Jerusalem. Their journey had been long and difficult, with few friendly and welcoming faces along the way. They had to pass through rough terrain, traveling through Egypt and India, until they finally reached the Holy Land. Even those who had left Yemen with means arrived in the Land of Israel with their pockets empty.

Once in the Land of Israel, they made their way to Jerusalem. But when they reached the city, these Jews from a distant land, dressed in their unique garb, or what was left of it, were met with hostility. The Yemenite Jews not only looked very different from the Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews already living there, they followed different traditions, which made it difficult for them to integrate into the Jewish population. What’s more, some of the locals even called into question the new immigrants’ Judaism. This was somewhat ironic, considering Jews were living in Yemen well before Europe’s Sephardi and Ashkenazi communities even coalesced into existence.

The suspicion and doubt also had practical implications. The Old Yishuv in Jerusalem was organized according to community networks, called kollels, which facilitated financial support for the city’s Jewish residents. The Yemenite Jews’ incompatibility with the familiar ethnic patterns caused the community’s administrators to refuse to accept them into the existing kollels and, as a result, they did not receive their share of the charity funds that supported the city’s Jews during this period. In practical terms, this also meant that the recent Jewish arrivals from Yemen were forbidden from settling within the walls of the Old City.

Destitute and looked upon as foreigners, the Yemenite Jewish immigrants had no choice but to seek housing elsewhere. Still, they did not relinquish their dream of settling in Jerusalem. As a first step, they built simple huts outside the Old City’s walls and slept outdoors, under the open sky. Some Yemenite immigrants even slept in caves, barns, and other makeshift shelters in the vicinity of the walled city.

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More about Silwan





Government to compensate for disappeared Yemenite children

In an effort to gain closure for the Yemenite Children Affair,  the Israeli government has approved a plan to compensate some 1,000 families whose children had disappeared following their arrival in Israel some 70 years ago.  The government has expressed regret for the families’ suffering, but has stopped short of an apology. The Times of Israel reports (with thanks: Sarah, Stan):

Jews from Aden and Yemen awaiting their airlift to Israel in 1949

Under the terms of the plan, families will receive NIS 150,000 ($46,000) for each child whose death was made known to them at the time. A sum of NIS 200,000 ($61,000) will be paid for each child whose fate is unknown.
In total, the government will allocate NIS 162 million ($46,600,000) for the compensation plan.

 Only families whose cases were already reviewed by one of the three state committees set up over the years to investigate the issue will be eligible to apply for compensation. Requests must be filed between June 1, 2021, and November 30, 2021. 

A committee will be established to oversee distribution of the compensation money.

There are 1,050 families that qualify for compensation, according to the Ynet website. Receiving compensation will be dependent on a written commitment to not file any further lawsuits on the matter as well as to close and waive any existing legal action. 

 The proposal included a declaration that “the government of Israel regrets the events that happened in the early days of the state and recognizes the suffering of families whose children were part of this painful issue.”

 “It is not in the power of a financial plan to provide a remedy to the suffering caused to families,” the declaration noted. 

“However, the State of Israel hopes that it will be able to assist in the process of rehabilitation and healing of the social wound that this affair has created in Israeli society.”

The compensation plan came against the background of several lawsuits by families regarding the matter. 

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More about the Yemenite Children Affair

Deaf dancer ‘s childhood overshadowed by vanished sister

This is the amazing story, told by Ruth Corman in her blog, of how Amnon Damti, born profoundly the deaf son of Yemenite parents, became an award-winning Israeli dancer with his wife Jill. They danced for the US president, deaf and disabled children and prisoners, devising a new ‘Damti Method’ to bring out the best in them. But Amnon’s childhood was scarred by the disappearanceof a sister, and he grew up in her shadow. 

Amnon and Jill Damti

His mother Shulamit, born in the mid 1920’s in Yemen, was given in marriage to a divorcé when she was aged 10. Her new husband, all credit to him, was patient, waiting until she was ‘mature’ (12) before the marriage was consummated.

 Her first son was born when she was 14 or 15 – she never knew her real age, and she later had three more boys. In 1947 the family emigrated to Israel with their four sons, three of whom, including Amnon, the youngest – were deaf.

 The family had trekked across Yemen, encountering many hardships en route until eventually reaching a place where airplanes were waiting to fly them to the Holy Land as if ’on the wings of eagles’. On arrival they lived in a tented camp. Life was hard, but Israel represented a safe haven for Shulamit and her family, far from the dangers they had experienced in Yemen.

She had brought some jewellery with her, made by her artisan grandfather. Unfortunately, this was stolen, but compared to the subsequent ‘theft’ she suffered, the loss of the jewellery was insignificant. 

After two years she gave birth to a long awaited daughter, Miriam.

When the baby was almost a year, Shulamit, having insufficient milk to breast feed and was advised to visit the doctor for stamps to receive extra food. 

 She had heard stories about Yemenite babies being taken away from their parents so was nervous about going, even more so when, at the surgery, the doctor told her that she was young and beautiful and could easily have more children. He continued”Your daughter is very ill, and must go to hospital.” 

Shulamit replied saying “I may be primitive, but my daughter had neither fever nor cough, however she could not argue with the doctor. They were immediately taken by taxi to a hospital where a waiting nurse took the baby from her arms – it was the last time she ever saw her. 

Returning to the surgery she discovered that the ‘doctor’ had disappeared. Shulamit desperately searched for a year but could find no trace of Miriam. 

Even when she was 90 years old she said there was not a single night that she did not cry herself to sleep and never once stopped looking for her baby. 

 When Amnon was young his mother left his hair long and in pigtails. On one occasion there was a fancy dress party for the Jewish festival of Purim. He wanted to be a cowboy or a soldier but his mother insisted on dressing him as a girl, telling him how beautiful he looked. 

He never knew the story about his sister until his brothers told him several years later, but his mother never spoke of it until many years later when Jill was making a film on this subject.

 Amnon began slowly to realise why, despite his being loved by his mother, he somehow felt as though he was living as a mere shadow of the sister he never knew, whilst Shulamit spent her whole live looking endlessly for her missing daughter. Despite years of searching no trace was ever found. 

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Jill and Amnon Damti dancing ‘Between two worlds’

More about the Yemenite baby affair

Yisrael Yeshayahu, an architect of the Wings of Eagles airlift

If it were not for Yisrael Yeshayahu, Jews from Yemen’ and Aden’ might never have been airlifted to Israel, or might have arrived much later and in smaller numbers. Yeshayahu, who later became speaker of the Knesset, put constant pressure on the Histadrut (the Israel trade union federation) and Mapai ( Labour party). Sephardi Ideas Monthly showcases research by Daniel Gladstone into Yeshayahu’s contribution: 

Yeshayahu plants a tree outside the Knesset building in 1976
Yemen today is in tatters, torn asunder by war and famine. The Yemen in which Yesh’ayahu came of age was comparatively stable and ruled by a single ruler: the Zaydi Imam Yahya.

 Yahya reinstated the dreaded “Orphans Decree,” which permitted the kidnapping and forcible conversion to Islam of any minor Jews whose fathers had passed away.

While the decree was only sporadically enforced, it loomed ominously over the entire community. Yesh’ayahu helped to smuggle Jewish children out of the country to protect them from forced conversion. 

 In 1929, Yesh’ayahu made ‘aliyah, arriving in a Land of Israel that was still under British dominion. He rose to a place of significance in the Histadrut, the union that, under the leadership of David Ben-Gurion, was one of the most important institutions of pre-state Zionist society.

 His initial achievement, however, was due in large part to the more grassroots, radical activism of the Yemeni Union, a Yemeni lobby first established in 1920 with which Yesh’ayahu briefly affiliated before he became one of its leading opponents.

The Yemeni Union competed with the Histadrut for Yemeni Jewish membership, charging the leading institutions of the Yishuv with neglecting and discriminating against Yemeni Jews.

 The Histadrut responded by tapping Yesh’ayahu to lead its Department for Sephardim and Yemenis, established primarily to compete with and discredit the Yemeni Union. Indeed, Yesh’ayahu campaigned fiercely against the Yemeni Union and against Zachariah Gluska, who represented the Union in Israel’s first Knesset (parliament) in 1948, although Yesh’ayahu later mourned Gluska’s passing.

 The two men were enemies, and Gluska surely considered Yesh’ayahu a traitor to Yemeni Jews. But Yesh’ayahu may have known that, ultimately, any good that he was able to do—for the Yemeni Jewish community and for Israel—would never have been possible if not for the Yemeni Union’s demands for radical change.

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