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Israeli government 'regrets' Yemenite children affair, stops short of apologizing

Will compensating these families help Netanyahu in the polls?

Jewish Agency representatives meeting Yemenite immigrants, upon arrival at Lod airport 1949. (Théodore Brauner/GPO)

The Israeli government recently approved almost $50 million compensation to be paid to more than 1,000 mainly Yemenite-Jewish families in Israel who insist that the authorities took their children and siblings from them when they arrived to Israel in the 1950s – a period characterized by mass immigration and chaos.

Seven decades later, the Yemenite children affair remains an open wound and continues to haunt Israeli society. 

The highly charged controversy refers to the disappearance of mostly Yemenite Jewish babies and toddlers of new immigrants who arrived in Israel during the years 1948 to 1954. The number of missing children varies between 1,000 and 4,500. According to the families, Israeli authorities allegedly abducted the children and illegally adopted them to childless Ashkenazi families (Jews of European descent), some even to Jewish families outside of Israel. 

This version is disputed by Yaacov Lozowick, chief archivist at the Israel State Archives, who reportedly documented that the large majority of the children died in hospitals from different illnesses. According to Lozowick, the state notified the families of the diseased and buried the children at the time. 

While the Israeli government expressed remorse over the tragic circumstances, it stopped short of offering an apology to the families.

It is unclear why the Israeli government suddenly decided to financially compensate these families and express its regret, however, there is some speculation that politics is a factor. With less than a month before the March 23 election – the fourth time Israelis head to the polls in less than two years – it is likely that politics played a prominent role behind the timing of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s accommodating decision. 

Israel’s successful and speedy COVID-19 vaccination program has not boosted the ruling Likud party in the polls, as Netanyahu had hoped. And while Likud’s political leadership is dominated by Ashkenazi Israelis, such as Netanyahu himself, the majority of Likud’s voters are Jews of North African and Middle Eastern descent. 

Today there are more than 400,000 Israeli descendants of Yemenite Jews who immigrated to Israel since the 1950s. Like most Israelis with roots in the Arab and Muslim world, Yemenite Israelis tend to be politically conservative in their voting patterns, which makes them an important voting bloc for Netanyahu’s Likud party. However, Netanyahu can no longer take these constituents for granted. There continues to be anger and resentment from his voter base — a response to the current socioeconomic crisis caused by the numerous lockdowns due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Furthermore, Netanyahu now faces a slew of political rivals on the right, namely Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope party and Naftali Bennet’s Yamina party. Sa’ar in particular holds at least two advantages over Netanyahu – he is not associated with the mishandling of the pandemic and he is partly of Central Asian Bukharan Jewish descent, serving as a bridge for voters of non-European descent. 

With the upcoming election expected to unfold into a close rollercoaster race, every vote matters. Netanyahu's government appears to be banking on this symbolic and financial recognition of the Yemenite children affair as a way to secure their crucial votes on Election Day.

The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.

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