What Price Redemption
THE DISAPPEARANCE OF YEMENITE BABIES DURING THEIR ALIYAH TO ISRAEL 1949-1954 Over 60 years ago Israel captured the imagination of the world with one of its extraordinary feats: Operation “On Wings of Eagles.” It brought 48,000 Yemenite Jews to the Holy Land, in 519 flights. This appeared to be a page right out of the Bible. “You Shall Return On the Wings of Eagles.” When the Jews of Yemen were told to gather in Aden, on the southern coast to board planes on a flight to Israel, they sold or just left their homes, bundled their hand written books and began the long trek across the Arabian Desert. Seeing planes for the first time, they persevered by holding onto their precious children. Upon arriving in Israel from Yemen, hundreds of immigrant families suffered the loss of one or more children under suspicious circumstances. These families relate similar stories: their baby was brought to the sanitary children’s house where they slept in the Maabara, (a transit camp.) The mothers went there to breast feed their children. After a period of time, the families were informed that their child had died; the families were never given a death certificate for the child, nor was the family shown a body or a grave. Eighteen years later, the families whose children had supposedly “died,” received letters from the Defense Ministry. Their children were told to appear for induction into the army. This occurred to so many families, that three ‘official’ investigations were conducted regarding these missing children. They were to report on some 650 children who were kidnapped during this period. Others have estimated that the number of these children is in the thousands – and most of them were of Yemenite nationality. To kidnap over a thousand Yemenite babies at will is to dehumanize a segment of Israel’s countrymen. Were not the authorities sensitive to the pain of the parents? Was it some perverted Zionist ideology that gave them the right to steal babies from their parents, clinics and hospitals? To say there was ‘confusion in those days’ is the lamest of excuses. There were professional doctors, nurses, sanitary children’s quarters and records of every tent, blankets, beds, dishes and utensils. How could they lose a human being so easily? What is so disappointing is that the leaders of Israel in those early days did not appreciate that Yemenite Jews came to Israel out of their strong feeling for their return to Zion. This was to be their redemption. They knew they were descendants of the ancient Israelites and were returning from where they originated. No other Jewish community immigrated with such messianic Zionist fervor as the Yemenites. This issue known as Yalde Teman (Yemenite children) was extremely painful because of the implied reprehensible treatment of Yemenite Jews by the Ashkenazi authority and their subordinates. It is as though the early philosophy of Zionism was to be a beacon for the ingathering of Jews within the safety of a civilized democracy, meant only for Ashkenazi Jews. `Although three commissions of inquiry had government approval, the government never gave the investigators adequate authority to solve this travesty of justice.. None was empowered to subpoena records, or to compel testimony under penalty of perjury. The government’s lack of progress, coupled with alleged threats by the Israeli secret police against reporters, and others, who had taken up the cause of these suffering families, had led many in Israel to believe that the government was covering up the fate of these children to conceal its own involvement in their disappearance. When I was elected President of the Yemenite Jewish Federation of America, I had interviews with mothers whose children disappeared. I acquired official documents and recordings that their children reported as dead, were very much alive decades later. The third investigating committee called me in New York to ask if I would help them find any missing persons in the United States. I assured them that I would do my best. ‘Chabad’, a pro Zionist organization invited me to make an appeal on their weekly T.V. program. And that is how I discovered Tzila Levine. THE TZILA LEVINE STORY With documents in hand and having all the information at my fingertips, I told the story of Yalde Teman and put my office phone number on the screen. Chabad are great believers in miracles and her story in many ways was a miracle. This cable program was aired at 9:30 a.m. Sunday morning in N.Y. It was broadcast throughout the United States, South America and parts of the Pacific Tzila Levine, a 49 year old secular woman living in Sacramento, CA, could not sleep on that Sunday morning. So she put on the T.V. Out of 200 cable stations that she had access to, she turned to “A Cable to Jewish Life,” which airs at 6:30 a.m where she lives. She watched me speak and knew she was one of the children I was talking about. The next day she called me believing she was one of the kidnapped children. She sent me her identification number and adoption papers that were later found to be a forgery. She included a letter stating that her adoptive mother told her she was given Tzila by a pediatrician in Haifa who had many other babies to choose from. The pediatrician and his wife both worked in Rambam Hospital in Haifa. I sent all these documents to the Committee in Jerusalem. Tzila visited us in Southampton and stayed for a week so that we could get to know her. After that, Tzila called me weekly to hear of news from the Committee. MY COMMITTEE APPEARANCE After five months of waiting, I appeared before the Committee asking why had they not acted on Tzila’s case, as she was the only person who came forward with documentation. Tzila had a great need to know who she was, why she was kidnapped and why she was illegally put up for adoption. The 83-year-old Chairman Yehuda Cohen, a former Chief Justice said: “Mr. Giat, you did not come to Israel to advise this committee how to operate.” “Our mandate is only to find out what happened and how it happened.” He then complained that not enough Yemenites were coming forward. I suggested to the Committee that after ten years of continued Government investigations with no results, the Yemenite community felt the committee was purposely not subpoenaing those responsible to get at the truth. I said: “If the Committee, with your great powers and more than adequate funding, would single out Tzila as a priority case and find her biological parents, more Yemenites would come forward.” They refused!! I told them I would then have to do it myself, without their powers and funding, as I felt responsible for her. GETTING RESULTS I then interviewed attorneys in Israel who could represent us pro-bono before the Supreme Court. I chose a Yemenite attorney from Petah Tikva. Tzila and I gave him power of attorney. We published her photos in Israeli newspapers. The family of Margalit Omessi from Amidar outside of Bnei Brak, had a suspicion that Tzila could be from their family. After Tzila was interviewed on the 6:00 Israeli television news, the Omessi family was convinced. They called the TV station to say they would come to see Tzila in person. The resemblance between the sisters was striking. I recommended caution until a DNA test could be done. As it was, Dr. Hassan Khatib the Director of the Department of Genetics at Hebrew University in Jerusalem heard the story on TV. For humanitarian reasons, he offered to do the DNA tests free. On August 25th, after taking blood samples from Tzila, Mrs. Omessi, her son and two daughters, the DNA showed 99.99143% that Tzila Levine was in fact Margalit Omessi’s daughter. It became an overnight sensation as all of Israel rejoiced. I am proud to say that at least this family was finally reunited after 49 years. What more proof does the world need that there was a systematic program under the responsibility of the Israeli government, which kidnapped Yemenite babies and were given or sold to Ashkenazi Holocaust Survivors through illegal adoptions, all without parents’ permission? When one realizes the enormity of this operation, it is obvious that it had to have been officially organized and coordinated. The Ministry of Interior and the government were protecting the perpetrators through sham investigations and locked files. I have collected over one hundred pounds of evidence, hours of video tapes, and documents about Yalde Teman. I donated all of these for safekeeping to the Jerusalem repository of the Ben Zvi Institute for Middle East Studies. It is now open to all scholars for further examination.