Tag: Yemenite Israelis

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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Yemenite henna ceremony is the height of fashion

A traditional Yemenite henna  adorns the front page of  Vogue – the world’s leading fashion magazine – who knew? The article, by Liana Satenstein with photography by Talia Collis, has a detailed description of the clothing and jewellery worn at the ceremony, which is even becoming popular among Ashkenazim.(With thanks: Michelle)

Approximately a week before a Yemenite wedding takes place, what’s known as a henna ceremony is performed. Just as the name suggests, the ritual involves the application of temporary natural dye to the hands of the bride in intricate patterns that symbolize fertility.

The crowning glory of her look, which comes in vibrant red—also to symbolize fertility—and gold, is a majestic beaded headdress, or gargush, that is in the shape of a cone and resembles a tiered cake. The headpiece weighs more than two pounds. But that isn’t the heaviest part: That’s where the jewelry comes in. She wears a chestful of necklaces, including one under her neck called a labbah, a thick collar of silver filigree beads braided into red yarn.

Avda and Ahivu Tsur at their henna

 At the henna ceremony of Adva Tsur (née Zabari) last summer in Kadima, a town just outside of Tel Aviv, all of those beautiful sartorial customs were on display. “At first, it doesn’t feel heavy but after a while with the walking, dancing, it becomes very heavy on the chest,” says Tsur over the phone from Tel Aviv. “I felt pretty and I didn’t want to take the jewelry off even after the henna was over.”

Jewelry-making has a special place in Yemenite culture, and many silversmiths today in Israel are of Yemenite descent. The bride’s necklaces speak to that tradition—Tsur wears the traditional labbah, in addition to weighty pieces made from amber and silver, which historically represented wealth. In other words, the bigger the necklace, the richer the bride’s family.

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‘White Zion’ is not without black humour

With her new book White Zion, Gila Green adds grit and detail to a literary field where the Yemenite experience in Israel remains under-represented. Lyn Julius reviews the book in Jewish News (Times of Israel):

Why did Gila Green, a writer, editor and teacher who moved to Israel from her native Canada,  call her book White Zion? In this thinly-disguised autobiographical collection of short stories,  there is a constant tension between  effete, icy Ottawa, and the rugged landscape of Israel, where her Yemenite father spent his childhood. In  his family’s stone house  on the edge of Jewish Jerusalem,  he would meet pilots in the 1948 war taking a coffee break in a shack on the roof. Yet it is  Gila (or her character Miriam)  who ends up living in Israel, while her father  remains in his White Zion, Canada.

The writing is picturesque, even naturalistic, although sometimes the similes are extravagant. For example, at a tea party:’I would have expected something closer to a look of disgust and a shake of the head, as though turning away from a close- up view of roadkill while sitting in the passenger seat.’

 Green mines the contrast between Miriam’s well-spoken Canadian Ashkenazi mother, and her brawny ex-paratrooper father, wearing his perennial shorts even when it is  minus 20 outside. He never manages to master enough English to write down telephone messages.  The parents engage in language wars, yet the relationship seems to survive. Although the father works in a TV repair shop with a sideline in home porn movies,  the family are poor enough to take in boarders. Some turn out to be thieves and even mental cases.

It is the Yemenite side of her family which most interests Miriam: she persuades her father to start writing down his childhood memories in Jerusalem. Some are reminiscent of Amos Oz’s.  Green’s  subjects are Miriam’s  brother, her much-married mother, her gay uncle, who is taken under the wing of a Russian dance teacher, her father’s own squabbling parents. All the Yemenite characters seem to accept the hardships of life in Israel. They are devout and work hard, the women eking a living from selling food or cleaning houses. However, Miriam’s tough ex-paratrooper father, shouting Arabic expletives, is not afraid to take his revenge on those who  upset him.

In painting her picture of developing Israel, Green suggests the white-on-black racism of the Ashkenazi establishment, passing the Yemenite grandfather over for promotion despite his loyal service to the Mapai workers’ party. There is the black-on-black racism of the Arab who objects to what he thinks are  two Arab girls (in fact one is the swarthy Miriam) consorting  in the Jewish students’ canteen.

Back in Canada Green subtly hints at the effects of assimilation  – Miriam’s brother marries out, presumably to a woman with money whose rosary hangs in her SUV. Miriam’s prematurely dead uncle is hurriedly cremated by his shiksa wife before his shocked parents have time to say farewell. At the other extreme we are given a glimpse into Israel’s secular-religious divide, where a yeshiva  boy talking to a girl could be reason for savage punishment.

White Zion is not short of black humour, and some moments in  Gila Green’s short stories are hilarious.   Take the description of the religious wedding in a shabby hall. The groom  has gone ‘frum’ and the marriage begins inauspiciously with  his forcing the wedding ring down on the bride’s finger. Rats scamper in the toilet. Ironically, the bride in the toilet stall  has to console her rattled young escort, who is there to protect against the evil eye.

White Zion never ceases to fascinate while at times it repels. Gila Green should be commended for  adding grit and detail to a literary field where the Yemenite experience remains  under-represented.

White Zion by Gila Green (Cervena Barva Press, 2019)

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