The missing children: Yemenites who found their way to L.A. carry family wounds from Israel’s past

On a recent Sunday morning, Meir Cohen switched off the Israeli news playing on the television in his Encino home.
August 24, 2016

On a recent Sunday morning, Meir Cohen switched off the Israeli news playing on the television in his Encino home. He poured himself a glass of tea with hawaij, a cardamom-scented mix popular among Yemenite Jews such as himself. Then he reclined into a leather armchair.

Cohen had been hesitant to discuss what some see as “just another Israeli story,” he said. He’s told the story before, to little effect. He was worried another retelling would be just a waste of his time. Nonetheless, he agreed to talk.

In the late 1960s, when Cohen was about 15 years old, a letter arrived at his Tel Aviv home on Israel Defense Forces stationery — a draft notice addressed to Aaron Cohen. He’d never heard of such a person.

So he asked his mother, “Who’s Aaron?”

“Aaron is your brother,” he recalled her saying. “They stole him.” Then his mother started cursing the people who took her son from her.

At about that time, this same conversation was playing out in households across Israel.

The missing children’s parents were predominantly immigrants from Yemen, though not exclusively; some children from the Balkans and North Africa also went missing, and new media reports show that even some Ashkenazi families were torn apart.

Children said to have died in the sickness and depravation of transit camps during the state’s chaotic early years were being sent draft notices. For parents who had never really believed their children to be dead in the first place, the notices confirmed their suspicions.

It was the first time the traumatic saga of the yeladim hatufim — the kidnapped children — was resurrected. It has never completely died in the ensuing decades.

Three times in the years since, the Israeli government has formed a state commission of inquiry to investigate. And three times the commissions have failed to confirm or kill a belief, widespread among Yemenite Jews, that Israel’s early Mapai (Workers’ Party) government systematically kidnapped hundreds of children from transit camps and sold them to Ashkenazi couples who couldn’t bear children of their own.

Now, activists, legislators and journalists in Israel once again are elevating public attention on the story of the missing children. 

Cohen said he has little hope that this new round of questioning will be any more conclusive than its predecessors. He’s encouraged, though, by the fact that Tzachi Hanegbi, a prominent minister of Yemenite origin in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, has become the de facto leader of the new effort. 

The push in the Knesset to relitigate the issue started with Nurit Koren, a Likud member whose parents were born in Yemen. She grew up in a community where the missing children were a frequent topic of lament.

“I heard about it all the time when I was a child,” Koren told the Journal. After she was elected in 2015, “I said to myself, ‘I must do something with this.’ ”

In February, she approached Netanyahu to suggest he take up the issue and delegate to Hanegbi, a trusted ally of the prime minister, the task of declassifying as much evidence as possible.

But for her part, Koren is not waiting for the results of the investigation. Instead, she’s organizing a genetic database so children who suspect they went missing can potentially reconnect with their birth families. (In a phone interview, she encouraged those wishing to participate to reach out to her via email at nkoren@knesset.gov.il to learn how they can be tested free of charge.)

Koren described a massive outpouring of interest from impacted families after Israeli headlines began to crop up about her campaign.

“This is the time,” she said. “People want answers.”

Already, Hanegbi has ordered that previously classified material from earlier investigations be released to the public. But the Holy of Holies — a roster of names and addresses of vanished children — remains elusive, if it exists.

It is beyond doubt that something went awry in the early days of the state. Children were displaced from parents. Accounts of empty graves and grown children reunited with parents seem to confirm as much. In 1997, The New York Times carried the story of a Sacramento woman who had been shown by genetic testing to be the missing daughter of an Israeli Yemenite mother. 

Each successive commission has made note of a growing number of missing children while failing to explain the circumstances behind each instance. The most recent investigation, begun in 1995, dismissed the idea that children were purposefully kidnapped but sealed much of its evidence. 

The report chalked up the disappearances to a long list of bureaucratic and communication failures, said Nadav Molchadsky, a professor of history at the UCLA Nazarian Center for Israel Studies, who researched the investigations for a forthcoming article, “Negotiating a Contested Jewish Past: Commissions of Inquiry and the Yemenite Children Affair.” 

Painful questions linger in the wake of the last investigation, which went on for six years, the longest state commission of inquiry in Israel’s history, he said.

“Neither the commission nor the families give us a full explanation about what happened or did not happen,” Molchadsky said in an interview. “And it’s very hard to live with this notion, with this awkwardness, especially because it’s a tragedy — it’s a human tragedy and it’s a national tragedy.”

But within the Yemenite community, many are certain the Israeli government preyed on the naiveté of immigrants — predominantly, but not exclusively, Yemenite ones — to steal their babies from their very arms.

As Yemenite Jews have joined in the Israeli emigration to centers of Jewish life around the world, including to Los Angeles, they brought their pain with them.

“All these kids today are like hostages by these Ashkenazi families — period,” said Cohen. “We have to release them.”

A Right to Know

Three years before Meir Cohen was born, his mother gave birth to a beautiful boy. He remembers her saying the baby had “cheeks like apples.” A few days later, a nurse summarily informed her that Aaron was dead. 

Cohen’s mother demanded her son’s body — it’s a Yemenite custom to sit in mourning even for a stillborn baby — but the hospital refused. Shortly after, when his family opened the grave where hospital officials told them Aaron was buried, they found it empty.

Today, Meir Cohen is 63. If Aaron is alive, he is 66.

“Something very crooked happened,” said Yaniv Levi, an Israeli of Yemenite heritage in his early 40s who has lived in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood for 14 years.

The grandchildren of Yemenite immigrants — people roughly Levi’s age and generation — are leading the charge in Israel to declassify documents and hopefully bring to a close a painful chapter for their families. 

“We are not going to be suckers like our parents, our grandparents, who came [to Israel] and just went with the flow,” Levi said in an interview, sitting in the back patio of the office space where he works on Robertson Boulevard.

Yemenite children at Kisalon, a transit camp near Jerusalem, in 1950. Photo by David Eldan/GPO

The first time he remembers his family openly discussing the story of Pinchas, his uncle, was at the shiva, or mourning period, of his grandmother Miriam.

“It was Friday night,” he said. “We ate together during the shiva, and this issue came up — like, the kid doesn’t know that his mom passed away. His biological mom actually passed away. But what could we do, you know?”

Pinchas Levi was last seen by a member of his family on Dec. 10, 1949. He was 3. The toddler was being loaded onto the back of a truck in the Ein Shemer transit camp near Hadera in Israel’s north, supposedly to receive vaccinations, according to an email to the Journal from Yaniv’s father, David, and aunt, also Miriam. Both live in Israel.

“Pinchas was a beautiful boy, with light skin and blue eyes,” they wrote. “He had a birthmark on his neck.”

His mother was hospitalized when they came to take him, and his father had died, leaving Miriam, just 12, in charge of the family.

“Since that day, our mother didn’t see him, and until her last day, on Passover 1991, when she passed away, she never forgot him and was in sorrow of his disappearance,” they wrote.

Yaniv Levi wouldn’t mind seeing somebody in Israel’s government go to jail for stealing children, even though he believes it unlikely the people responsible are still alive. But punishment is not his focus. 

“If we will know who did the crime and they will be ashamed of themselves, that’s also welcome,” he said. “But the main goal is to know: Where is my uncle? We have the right to know where he is, and he has the right to know who’s his family.”

Koren, too, said recrimination is not her goal, and she’s willing to go as far as passing a law that would shield any perpetrators from punishment if it would further the investigation.

“I want to find the children,” she said. “I want to know what happened — only this.”

In the Cold and Mud

Ely Dromy moved to Los Angeles from Israel in 1971 and built a successful real estate business. Today, he is an active benefactor for many Jewish and Yemenite causes, including Tifereth Teman, a Yemenite synagogue on Pico Boulevard.

But in October 1949, his family left a comfortable life in Yemen to become penniless immigrants to Israel.

He was barely 6 months old when he boarded a plane with his family as part of Operation Magic Carpet (in Hebrew, kanfei nesharim — the wings of eagles), which airlifted thousands of Yemenite Jews to Israel.

Most of the immigrants had never so much as seen an airplane before. Dating from the Babylonian exile, the Yemenite Jews were isolated from the rest of the people of Israel. To them, the ingathering must have been an event of, literally, messianic proportions.

The reality that awaited them was an impoverished and untamed expanse of land surrounded by enemies and struggling to call into being a Jewish state. 

Dromy’s family found its way to Ein Shemer around the same time as Levi’s.

The makeshift camps’ former residents refer to them as ma’abarot, a word that seems to come from the Hebrew ma’avar, or transit.

Accounts of the camps are colored by disease and hunger. A lack of adequate shelter left residents boiling in the summer and cold and wet in the winter. It was amid this chaos that babies began to go missing.

Top:  Ely Dromy, left, shortly after his family left the Ein Shemer camp. Bottom: David Dromy (standing) and his father, Ely, at their Beverly Hills office. According to family lore, Ely was kidnapped in the Ein Shemer transit camp as a six-month-old child. 

Dromy believes he was almost one of them. Immediately upon his family’s arrival at the camp, authorities took him from his mother, Shula, to place him in a hospital nursery. After about five days, during which nurses turned away Shula when she came to see her son, Shula ran into her sister-in-law, who literally smacked her into her senses.

“My aunt said to her, ‘Be careful,’ ” Dromy recalled, sitting with impeccable posture in his Beverly Drive office. “‘It’s on your life. They are disappearing babies.’”

Shula went straight to the hospital and forced her way past staff members. She burst into the nursery, locked the door behind her and went looking for her baby. Finding him, she tied the baby around her belly and jumped from the second-story window.

“I trusted in God and didn’t think twice,” she says in a video recorded by her relatives before her death.

The winter of 1949 brought historic rains, Ely Dromy said, and the camps were choked with mud. When camp officials came looking for the baby, his mother had hidden him away in the muck of a friend’s makeshift abode until she could retrieve him.

I’m Sorry I Came

In the opening sequence of the classic Hebrew film “Sallah Shabati” (1964), a satire of the ma’abarot that mocked pompous kibbutzniks and unmannered immigrants with equal cruelty, the title character walks off a plane from Yemen with his large family and finds a local housing official.

“How many children do you have?” the potbellied Ashkenazi asks the slouching, bearded immigrant.

“A lot,” Sallah says. “Six.”

“It says here seven,” the official replies, looking down at his papers.

“Let’s see what?” Sallah says in his Arabic-inflected Hebrew, squinting at the documents. Then, he looks up shiftily and nods his agreement, “Seven.”

The stereotype of Sephardic and Mizrahi (Eastern) immigrants held that they had more children than they knew what to do with. In that context, they could afford to lose a few.

A high mortality rate contributed to the idea that life was expendable in the camps.

“They had dysentery; they had the flu; they had all kinds of diseases, fever, because the water wasn’t good, because it was hot and [they were] hungry,” said Malca Yarimi, an Israeli-born Yemenite Jew whose two older siblings were born in Yemen. “They were mizkenim [pitiful folks]. And, in general, a lot of kids died. So [camp administrators] thought they could say to them in the hospital, ‘He died.’ So he died!”

Yarimi, 63, now lives in Santa Monica. Sitting down in her daughter’s Pico-Robertson apartment over Nescafé and cream cookies, she recalled a childhood in Rehovot’s Yemenite community where neighbors and friends were devastated, believing in their hearts their children were not dead. 

Consigned to squalor and their trust in the new state broken, the enthusiasm of many immigrants quickly faded to disillusionment. The title “Sallah Shabati” is a play on the Hebrew, slicha shebati — I’m sorry I came.

‘A Knife in Your Back’

Yarimi’s daughter, Maya, remembers asking her grandfather if he was happy when emissaries from Israel arrived in Yemen to announce the coming operation.

“I was so amazed to see my grandfather’s reaction,” she said, scowling and swatting the air in front of her with the back of her hand. “Like that. I was like, ‘Why is he reacting like that?’ I was taught that the Israelis came and redeemed the Yemenites.”

After immigrating to Los Angeles at the age of 28, she began to read a darker history of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews in Israel — a history of marginalization and discrimination.

As a teenager, she had dismissed the stories of kidnapped children as tall tales. Now she began to believe them. 

“I became very upset,” she recalled. “I said, ‘You know what, I love Israel, but I’m not proud of the state of Israel, of what it did.’ ”

In general, Israel’s early European residents regarded the dark-skinned immigrants from Arab countries with distaste, said Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, who directs the Sephardic Education Center in Jerusalem and Los Angeles.

“When the Ashkenazi Zionists saw the boats coming, and they saw Jews from Yemen and Jews from Morocco, they didn’t really care,” he told the Journal. “It was, to them, ‘not us.’ ”

Nonetheless, Yemenite Jews were — and remain — by and large a deeply traditional community committed to the Zionist ideal. 

“All the community of Yemenites is Mizrahi, is Orthodox and is Zionist, and trusts and believes and serves in the army and everything,” said Rabbi Aharon Shaltiel, the leader of Tifereth Teman. “There’s no doubt.”

In fact, although some Yemenite Jews have become secular, like most Israelis, they remain deeply patriotic. 

Shaltiel is an energetic man with short gray sidecurls and a wide-brimmed black cap who is vocally proud of his own service in the Israeli army. But the idea that “Jewish people — people building a country together with you” could carry out the kidnappings is “very hard to live with.”

“It’s like somebody tells you we’re brothers, then puts a knife in your back,” he said.

An Uncomfortable Accounting

In the ma’abarot, the largely Yemenite population chafed at their conditions and their treatment by their light-skinned neighbors. Hungry residents stole produce from nearby farms. In 1952, rioting ensued when a kibbutz guard roughed up an old woman out gathering weeds for her goat at Emek Hefer, a transit camp close to Ein Shemer, according to an account in Haaretz. 

Even when immigrants relocated to Israel’s urban core or formed Yemenite communities in so-called periphery towns, the air of mutual suspicion lingered.

The affair simmered through two unsatisfying state investigations. In 1994, tensions escalated when Rabbi Uzi Meshulam, a Yemenite activist in a periphery town called Yehud, claimed to have evidence of 4,500 kidnapped children. Following a siege on his compound, Meshulam and his followers’ interactions with police turned violent, resulting in one death. But Knesset members eventually followed through on a promise they made to defuse the standoff and launched the 1995 commission of inquiry, which lasted through 2001.

Still, some Yemenites who grew up in Israel trade in rumors, though apparently with little foundation, of children sold as research subjects to the United States or harvested for organs.

On the other hand, some insist the entire affair of the disappeared children is made up. In an article in the Jewish newspaper Algemeiner, Steven Plaut, a University of Haifa business professor, compared talk of kidnapped children to accounts of extraterrestrial visitation.

Mistrust remains, compounded by lingering socioeconomic gaps.

Today, the periphery towns where many Sephardic and Mizrahi communities live receive a disproportionately small amount of government resources and their narratives get short shrift in textbooks, said Bouskila, the Sephardic Education Center director. 

As part of the tapestry of Sephardic and Mizrahi communities in Israel, Yemenites have long been influential in food and the arts — Middle Eastern crooners like Idan Raichel and Shlomi Shabat top Israel’s charts. But only recently have residents of periphery towns been able to attain the highest reaches of Israel’s government. 

“To become a member of Knesset or minister of government — that was not on the table in the first 40 years of Israel,” he said.

Now, the same lawmakers who have broken those barriers are demanding an account of the state’s early sins, messy as the story may be.

“The narrative is not as neat as you’d like it to be,” Bouskila said. “But I think a society like Israel only becomes better and stronger, and is only able to deal with its social and cultural problems, when it confronts them.” 

Koren, the Israeli legislator leading the charge, said she will consider her efforts a success if even a single family is reunited. 

“It’s enough for me to find one,” she said. “To bring one kidnapped child to their family.”

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