A scandal has been brewing in Israel that has been decades in the making. During Israel’s foundational years, thousands of babies born to Jews from Arab countries were kidnapped from their parents and given to white, Ashkenazi families for adoption. The affected families were mostly Jews newly-arrived from Yemen, but babies from Moroccan, Iraqi and Tunisian families were also targeted. As a settler-colonial movement, Zionism has always been deeply imbued with the kind of racist ethno-nationalism which considered “eastern” Jews (“Mizrahim”) to be inferior to white, Ashkenazi Jews from Europe.
Zionism’s project has always been to “gather” Jews from all around the world into a new “Jewish state” in the land of Palestine, most of which is now called “Israel”. The majority of the Palestinian people were expelled by Zionist militias between 1947 and 1948 in what at least one Israeli historian has labelled “ethnic cleansing”. This was because they were overwhelmingly non-Jewish, and as such stood in the way of Zionism’s colonial project. The Arab Jews’ very Arab-ness was another obstacle that stood in Zionism’s way, and so also had to be removed.
This racism went to the very top. Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, complained that the Arab Jews lacked even “the most elementary knowledge” or “a trace of Jewish or human education.” He explained that, “We do not want Israelis to become Arabs. We are bound by duty to fight against the spirit of the Levant that corrupts individuals and society.”
This racism was fundamental to Zionism’s animating ethos: the superiority of “the Jews” (implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, conceptualised as “white”) over “the Arabs” who were viewed as a “corrupting” spirit in the region. As such, Jews with an Arab cultural and linguistic background were viewed as a problem to overcome. Common slurs by Israeli soldiers against Arab Jews in those early years were that they were “negroes” who were “too primitive to learn” and with intelligence “much lower than that of white men.” Ben-Gurion himself told one magazine as late as 1965 that Jews from Morocco “had no education. Their customs are those of Arabs.”
Because of antiquated and racist colonial attitudes like this, the Arab Jews were subjected to an intensive process of de-Arabisation. This primarily targeted children so that, in Ben-Gurion’s words to the same magazine, “Maybe in the third generation something will appear from the Oriental Jew that is a little different.”
Among survivors of this process now living in Israel, anecdotes abound from Yemeni and other Arab-Jewish families of babies and very small children in the late 1940s and early 1950s being taken from their mothers and declared dead in highly suspicious circumstances. Mothers were refused access to the bodies, and death certificates were not issued.
As many of 5,000 of these children had, in reality, not died; they were, in fact, kidnapped and given to white Jewish families to bring up as their own. Often these families were childless Holocaust survivors. The racist standards prevalent in Israel meant that white European Jews were considered as being able to provide “superior” family environments compared to the “uneducated” Jews hailing from Arab countries.
Although this scandal certainly has its unique qualities, in some ways there are commonalities with other settler-colonial movements. Indigenous children in the lands that are now the United States, Canada and Australia were often taken from their families and compelled to live in establishments where the aim was to “Kill the Indian, Save the Man”. Australia’s officially-sanctioned policy of forcibly “breeding out the colour” from the black Aboriginal population is also well documented.
In the case of Israel, several state investigations into the allegations have denied any systematic state involvement. One Mizrahi activist in Israel has described this as 60 years of the entire political, media and legal establishment colluding to hide the truth.
An Israeli government minister tasked with re-examining the evidence conceded last year that hundreds of Yemeni children were taken away from their parents, although he claimed that he “did not know” where they went. According to Haaretz, “Between 1948 and 1954, between 1,500 and 5,000 children, mainly Yemenite toddlers, were reported missing, with many parents being told their children had died.”
A report on the issue in the Financial Times last year pointed out that, “Most parents believe — and in a handful of cases it has been proven, through DNA tests or paper trails — that their children were taken from hospitals or refugee camps and given to childless Ashkenazi Jewish Israelis of east European descent, including Holocaust survivors.” One Mizrahi campaigner told the Financial Times it was an act of “genocide” under the UN definition. Furthermore, “it’s something that can’t be separated from the Zionist project.”
Although denial over the affair goes deep in Ashkenazi Israel, there seems little realistic doubt that the kidnapping of thousands of “eastern” babies from their “uneducated” mothers so that they could be brought up and de-Arabised in white Jewish families must have involved some sort of establishment collusion. The only real question seems to be whether the Israeli government organised this effort actively or was otherwise complicit in it.
This, though, says one Israeli author, is essentially an academic question. “Ultimately, I don’t think it matters whether government officials actively planned what happened or they simply looked the other way while others carried out the kidnappings,” Shoshana Madmoni-Gerber told Al-Jazeera. “Either way it was a crime perpetrated against thousands of parents who still don’t know the truth about their children’s fate.”
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.