How Arab Jewish children were kidnapped in Israel

Israeli forces violently detaining a Palestinian minor [File photo]

Israeli forces violently detaining a Palestinian minor [File photo]

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.

Image of Israel's first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion [file photo]

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.”

Fact-checking Israeli Ambassador Mark Regev

Mark Regev

Mark Regev, the Israeli ambassador to the UK

Israel’s Ambassador to the UK, Mark Regev, places a premium on speaking at university campuses. The context? Israel’s uphill struggle to assuage a growing sense of frustration and anger at a Benjamin Netanyahu-led government seen as a serial violator of international law and human rights.

In October, Regev addressed Cambridge University students at its famous Debating Union. The event was recently uploaded onto YouTube, and of particular interest is the Q&A (beginning 27 minutes in). The questions are predominantly critical, or sceptical, and Regev has to shoot from the hip.

So here are three claims that the Israeli ambassador made in response to students’ questions – and an analysis of their accuracy.

1. “Israeli democracy is very, very strong” and “on a positive trajectory”.

In the first question to be taken from the audience (46 minutes in), a student put it to Regev that there is a lot of evidence to suggest Israel is “undemocratic”.

Regev was defiant, telling the Union that “Israeli democracy is very, very strong.” He went on: “If you look at a timeline, Israeli democracy is stronger today than it was 10 years ago, and it’s stronger still than 20 years ago.” After citing the judiciary, media and NGO community, Regev reiterated: “I, as an Israeli, am confident that our democracy is strong, and is actually on a positive trajectory.”

Even putting aside the long-standing “institutional and societal discrimination” (the words of the US State Department) experienced by Palestinian citizens of Israel, Regev’s claim that things have been getting better over recent years is laughable. But don’t take my word for it; let’s see what the NGOs – whose work Regev is apparently so proud of – say about the subject.

Take the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), for example, who has warned of “intensifying infringements on democratic freedoms in Israel” over “the past few years”. This has included “harsh and unprecedented statements against human rights organisations, political groups, and minorities” by “senior officials”, who “have made various attempts to curtail their operations.”

In ACRI’s view, 2016 was a year when Israel “moved backwards” with respect to human rights. Similarly, Adalah, the legal centre for Arab minority rights in Israel, noted last December that “the civil society space available for human rights defenders to work is further shrinking”, adding: “we expect to have to redouble our efforts to defend basic human rights.”

International human rights groups echo such observations. Last year, Amnesty International said an “escalation of acts of intimidation by the [Israeli] government” has contributed to creating “an increasingly dangerous environment” for human rights defenders. The group also noted “recent legislative initiatives…apparently aimed at constricting freedom of expression.”

The regional director of Human Rights Watch, having been refused a working visa earlier this year by the Israeli authorities, described the decision as “part of larger pattern of shrinking the space for critical voices within Israel”, adding: “it signals a significant deterioration in basic democratic values.”

2. Under Netanyahu, settlement construction has gone down.

The second question from the audience (50’11) zoomed in specifically on the issue of Israel’s illegal settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt).

“You kept on saying that the Israeli government is committed to peace,” the student said, “but Netanyahu’s relentless settlement expansion entirely contradicts this. So surely you can understand that settlements are only hindering the peace process?”

Under pressure, Regev looked to an unlikely source for assistance: Israeli newspaper Haaretz. “Last year,” he told the students, “some of their smart people crunched all the numbers, and looked at the growth of settlement under Netanyahu and compared to previous [Prime Ministers].” According to Regev, it was discovered that “under Bibi, settlement construction has gone down.”

The ambassador was almost certainly referring to an article published by Haaretz in October 2015, which examined Netanyahu’s boast the previous day that the West Bank settler population had grown by 120,000 since he took office in 2009. According to Haaretz staffer Chaim Levinson, the population increase was due to “natural growth”, not construction.

Two weeks later, however, a follow-up article appeared in Haaretz, asking whether settlement growth really had slowed under Netanyahu.

The authors first noted that “the statistic on new housing starts ignores East Jerusalem, an area in which for the past six years settlement construction has been at its highest annual level since 2000.” Much of that construction, they wrote, “alters potential future borders, in significant ways.”

In addition, they pointed out, the figures are skewed by Netanyahu’s 2009-2012 term, when there was a 10-month “moratorium” on settlement approvals in the context of US-led peace talks. By contrast, “during Netanyahu’s 2013-2015 term, new construction starts in West Bank settlements have spiked, reaching a higher level than under any government since 2000.”

Regev’s misrepresentation of the facts is even more shameless, since when he appeared at the Union he would have known that official Israeli data showed a 16.7 per cent increase in the number of housing starts in West Bank settlements during the first half of 2016 – a number (1,195) that surpassed the annual totals in 2010 and 2011.

By the end of 2016, construction on new Israeli settlement homes in the occupied West Bank had risen by 40 per cent compared to the previous year, “the second highest number of construction starts in the past 15 years”. 2016’s figures brought the total number of settlement units started under Netanyahu since 2009, excluding East Jerusalem, to 14,017 units.

3. Netanyahu never rejected the goal of establishing a Palestinian state.

When a member of the audience asked (1’05’40) Regev to condemn Netanyahu’s pre-election vow in March 2015 that a Palestinian state would not be established on his watch, the ambassador seemed to be in an awkward spot. So how did he respond?

“The Prime Minister was doing an interview, and he was being asked about the peace process and all the problems,” Regev began, “and he was asked does he think there’ll be a Palestinian state during the next four years, during his next term of office, and he said ‘No, I don’t think so’. And he was describing a descriptive situation, he wasn’t saying what his goal is.”

So, let’s see how Regev’s account compares to the actual interview. Here’s the relevant section from the original article, as published by NRG – and thanks to Ofer Neiman for the translation.

NRG: Some people are hesitating between Jewish Home and Likud. You said the Bar Ilan speech is irrelevant. According to you, and as Bennett says, a Palestinian state will not be established?  

Netanyahu: I think whoever is going to establish a Palestinian state today and evacuate land, will cede offensive terrain to extreme Islam against the State of Israel. This is the true reality which has been formed here in recent years. Whoever is ignoring that is burying their head in the sand. The left is doing so, burying its head in the sand time after time. We are realistic and we understand. The test is who will form the next government. I do not fold under pressure. After all, they would not focus this huge effort against me if they thought I am not the braking force. They understand that. We have stood up to enormous pressures, and we will keep working.  

NRG: If you are the Prime Minister, a Palestinian state will not be established?

Netanyahu: Indeed.

The idea that these were simply “descriptive” comments, as Regev put it, rather than a declaration of intent, is laughable. Even more so when you recall that, just 24 hours before the NRG interview was published, Netanyahu had openly vowed: “We won’t divide Jerusalem, we won’t make concessions, we won’t withdraw from land.”

In October 2014, for example, Netanyahu told CNN: “I think we have to adjust our conceptions of sovereignty.” Earlier this year, Netanyahu acknowledged that what he is “willing to give to the Palestinians is not exactly a state with full authority, but rather a state-minus, which is why the Palestinians don’t agree [to it].”

But it’s not just the prime minister. In October 2015, Israel’s Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked declared: “We are against a Palestinian state. There is not and never will be a Palestinian state.” Economy Minister Naftali Bennett is also a long-standing, opponent of Palestinian statehood.

Indeed, as of June 2016, only one out of 20 Israeli ministers were on record as backing the two-state solution (before you even get into how they define such a formulation).

In one 24-hour period last month, Israeli ministers variously described Palestinian statehood as a “hallucination” and “no solution for peace.” Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan affirmed: “I think all the members of the cabinet oppose a Palestinian state, and the prime minister first among them.”

Just this week, Israel’s deputy foreign minister Tzipi Hotovely told an audience in Washington DC: “We need to go to a million settlers in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank]…We need to think of new ways of thinking that will include Judea and Samaria under Israeli sovereignty forever.”

At the same meeting, Israeli minister Tzachi Hanegbi declared that the West Bank was given to Israel “not by Google and Wikipedia, but by the Bible.”

Palestinian options dwindle without reinforcement of collective memory

Children perform during the commemoration titled 'Our Land is Our Identity', organized by Culture and Free Thought Association (CFTA) of Palestine, as part of 41st Palestinian Land Day at The Rashad Shawa Cultural Center in Gaza City, Gaza on March 29, 2017 (Mustafa Hassona - Anadolu Agency )

Children perform during the commemoration titled ‘Our Land is Our Identity’, organized by Culture and Free Thought Association (CFTA) of Palestine, as part of 41st Palestinian Land Day at The Rashad Shawa Cultural Center in Gaza City, Gaza on March 29, 2017 (Mustafa Hassona – Anadolu Agency )

President Donald Trump generated considerable discussion earlier this year with his vague suggestion that the US may no longer abide by the two-state “solution”, albeit while offering no alternative in the process. In 2016, international institutions started voicing the very obvious observation that the two-state imposition is obsolete, yet still insisted upon negotiations tethered to the same paradigm.

Debates over two-state or one-state drew two main conclusions. Israel is opposed to both, although the cycle of negotiations based upon the two-state hypothesis provides it with an unregulated opportunity to colonise more and more Palestinian territory. A one-state possibility is, apparently, unacceptable to Israel due to its demography altering the concept of a “Jewish state”; there would be “too many” Palestinians in it. Palestinians and Palestinian supporters, on the other hand, are more partial to a one-state result, given that such an arrangement would stand more of a chance of ensuring equal rights and addressing outstanding issues such as the legitimate right of return.

Between these opposing views, there is a sinister reality which has been depicted clearly by a recent poll conducted by the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs, a research institute specialising in public diplomacy and foreign policy. The poll’s findings, based upon a total of 521 Jewish-Israeli respondents, were described as representative of the Israeli population as a whole and seeking “to examine the attitudes of the Jewish public in Israel on several issues regarding a peace agreement or other arrangements with the Palestinians.”

Among other issues, this “representative sample” is opposed to ending Israel’s military occupation and in favour of a “unified Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty”; the latter drew the approval of 79 per cent of the respondents. Withdrawal from the entire occupied West Bank was opposed by 77 per cent of the participants in the poll; full Israeli security control of the occupied West Bank was preferred by 76 per cent; and in case of any agreement between Israel and Palestine, 74 per cent favour US involvement.

In light of these findings, there are several factors which are overlooked, primarily the absence of any importance attached to Palestinian historical narratives. This is contributing overtly to a situation in which any possible outcome will eliminate permanently any concept of Palestinian rights, let alone a semblance of a state. The findings not only represent what Jewish-Israelis are thinking, but also provide proof of the irreparable damage that the international community has inflicted upon the indigenous Palestinians.

Both the two-state and the one-state paradigm presage an identical quagmire. Since the international community has sought consistently to find “solutions” which protect colonialism and its associated violence, Palestinian rights, as well as territory, have been classified as impediments rather than urgent considerations requiring attention over and above Israeli whims. A just solution would entail a reversal of priorities: placing Palestine and Palestinians – who are, after all, facing a very real existential threat – first, while Israel becomes the unfavourable point of contention.

If this does not happen, it should be remembered that, as altruistic as a one-state option might sound, the current poll suggests that much has to be done in respect of replacing imposed international colonial narratives with the authentic Palestinian voice. If the international community continues in the same vein of accommodating Israel almost exclusively, neither option will guarantee Palestinian rights.

Hence, instead of premature discussions that only address the immediate concerns with increasing, and indeed justified, alarm, a more comprehensive approach would entail going back to the early colonisation process which lacerated Palestinian territory and people. Bringing back Palestinian collective memory in an organised manner should form the basis for ensuring that a one-state hypothesis, if ever implemented, does not become a euphemism for complete colonial dominance and the extinction of the Palestinians in their own land.

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