One of Israel’s most well known journalists casts doubt on one of the most tragic affairs in the country’s history. His conclusion, reached despite self-admitted ignorance on the topic, aligns perfectly with the way the Israeli media handled of Yemenite Baby Affair from day one – glossing over evidence and unquestioningly towing the state line.
By Shoshana Madmoni-Gerber
In a 2011 interview with Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show,” award winning American journalist Bill Moyers paraphrased George Orwell: “Journalism is about what people want to keep hidden, everything else is publicity.” Case in point: famed Israeli television journalist Yaron London’s recent article in Haaretz, “Maybe the kids didn’t disappear?” [Hebrew].
London’s tone and perspective perfectly illustrate Moyers’ assertion; it is a textbook example of how the Zionist hegemonic machine constructs a public discourse to maintain the status quo. At the same time, opposing claims, however legitimate, are silenced. London has considerable influence on the public discourse. But like his colleagues in the Israeli press, instead of using his power to expose the hidden, to ask worthy investigative questions, he chose to defend the state. As Ilana Dayan told Yarin Kimor on Israel’s version of “Meet the Press” in 1996: “the state doesn’t need you… If you think nothing happened, move on to a different topic!”
London admits to having limited knowledge about one of the most tragic affairs in Israel’s history. But his lack of knowledge, and apparent inability to comprehend the magnitude of the tragedy, doesn’t prevent him from forming a conclusion. To no one’s surprise, it aligns perfectly with the state’s efforts to obfuscate and conceal the issue by saying: most of them died; this is really just a one big misunderstanding. This, despite hundreds of testimonies of parents to the contrary, including mothers testifying that their babies were physically kidnapped from their hands, such as Naomi Gavra and Miriyam Ovadia. And despite clear cases such as Miriam Shuker [Hebrew], who was kidnapped and given for adoption, all while her father, David, was looking for her all over the country.
This is the same conclusion all state-appointed commissions reached. And not investigative bodies, by the way – the first two commissions were only inquiry commissions with no subpoena power and no intention to investigate; all commissions, including the last, were exceptional only in how slowly they worked and how little new information they could discover[i].
At the same time, the press showed a remarkable lack of interest in the state’s obvious conflict with a clamor of Yemenite and other Mizrahi voices. With the exception of Haolam Haze in 1967, and a few articles in Haaretz and Ha’ir in the mid 1990s, inquiry into public outcry was nearly non-existent. From the 1960s until the last commission’s findings were published in November 2001, state press releases and media reporting show incredible consistency with each other.
When I examined the media narrative for my book, based on my Ph.D. dissertation, Israeli Media and the Framing of Internal Conflict: the Yemenite Babies Affair (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), I found a discourse that was overwhelmingly supportive of state efforts to quash discussion of the affair. Starting with the first articles in the 1960s, writers were eager to dismiss claims of kidnapping. “Don’t you think that if these accusations were true the police would have opened some files to investigate these matters” (Maariv, October 9, 1966). In other words, if there was no investigation, there was no crime in the first place. Others dismissed all calls for an investigation, saying, “all people working in the camps, with no exception, were honest people” (Maariv April, 1, 1966), or, “no child was ever released from the hospital without identification” (Tel-Aviv, December 20, 1985).
Reinforcement of negative racial stereotypes was the other major theme when the media bothered to mention the affair. New Yemenite immigrants were shown as primitive, at best incapable of caring for themselves properly, and at worst, not even caring if a child lived or died. One article in Davar (February 24, 1966) describes the Yemenite immigrants as “peeking through the window and seeing for the first time how to bathe a baby and how to change a baby’s diaper.” Another quoted a nurse as saying Yemenite parents had a cavalier attitude towards the death of a child. “If a child died in the tent they would say, ‘God gives and God takes’” (Davar, February 26, 1966). From this perception, the road to thinking they were unfit parents was very short. Moreover, these racist sentiments, as Naama Katii rightly noted [Hebrew], were echoed years later during nurses’ testimonies to the commission and the press. “Maybe we did them a favor,” said 92-year-old Ahuva Goldfarb, former head nurse in the absorption camps in an interview with me back in 1995. Another head nurse, Sonia Milshtein, told the commission the Yemenite parents “were not interested in their children.” This same nurse shocked even the sleepy Judge Cohen when, during her testimony, she called the babies “carcasses” and “packages.” And further, she added, “oh, after 40 years, I would just be happy that my child got a good education.”
The biggest issue here is not that the commission supposedly disproved an institutional conspiracy. Sanjero’s main contribution is the complete discrediting of this commission’s work. As he writes, “the commission was lacking the most central tool for any investigation: an epistemology of suspicion.” (Page 48, Hebrew) If any journalist bothered to read the last commission’s report, it would have been crystal clear that referring to any conclusion made by this commission using the term “determined with great certainty” is, how should I put it… embarrassing.
But, more importantly, we must realize that in the absence of an honest discussion about the past, the same racist attitudes continue to dictate the present and future. The same racist attitude that likely led to these terrible acts are also motivating the years-long silencing, and the rejection of a legitimate cry for answers. Both the government and the media legitimize this sentiment. This is where London should have focused his deconstruction efforts. There was a massive cover up; this is a fact. And this should have gotten any qualified reporter asking, “why?”
The Kedmi commission’s report, just like the previous commissions, is full of contradictions and factual errors; too many to detail in this short space. Important lines of inquiry were dropped, including an important investigation in the U.S., crucial testimony was given behind closed doors and remains classified for the next 70 years. Source files, hospital archives and burial records were mysteriously lost and even burned.[ii] Birth files requested by the commission from Hillel Yaffe Hospital, for instance, were “accidently burned,” not in the 1950s, but in the late 1990s and during the so called investigative work. Rather than flagging the event, or investigating who corrupted these records, the commission merely dismissed it as an “administrative failure.” I ask, as Sanjero did, how, during a working investigation, could such an overt flouting of procedure remain uninvestigated? I think that even the Hasamba boy would have known what to do here.
The state’s efforts to silence discussion of this perspective has only been possible with the media’s full cooperation over a long period of time. As Claris Harbon noted, in her review of my book[iii], this affair is also part of a larger system of oppression that is consciously maintained and back up by the legal system. What Harbon is offering is a new way to examine the law breaking, “perceiving it as a viable language, as a legitimate form of resistance, invoking greater principles of justice… and aimed at correcting past/present injustices.” It’s important to understand in this context that Rabbi Meshulam’s vilification and ridicule by the media, and his ultimate demise was deliberate and complete, in an effort to delegitimize his protest. In the public eye, the issue at hand was his “insanity,” not the moral obligation of the media and public to demand answers to the question – why and how hundreds if not thousands of babies were forcefully removed from their parents to never be seen again?
Ignorance fuels racism. Not knowing isn’t the weapon for conspiracy theorists, as London wishes us to believe, less than it is a weapon for those who were actively squelching and preventing a legitimate demand for proper investigation. Kidnapping, or the forcible transfer of babies/children from one group to another, is not only a violent act, it is defined by the UN as genocide. This fact alone should have gotten not only the media going, but also the whole country out in protest.
But instead of being motivated by a healthy dose of suspicion, the media eagerly helped by recycling the lame “immigration mess” excuse. Which, by the way, paradoxically didn’t prevent the Kedmi Commission from producing the definitive conclusion that all documentation from that time is accurate. So which is it? Messy or accurate? But why bother with little unimportant terminology when it is so easy to blame the victim. And this is just what the Kedmi Commission did. As Sanjero noted: “throughout the report the commission detailed a dry description of severe actions without the slightest bit of criticism… in the whole entire report the commission doesn’t name even one person, flesh and blood, responsible… but blaming the parents they did…”
What any citizen of Israel, including reporters, should ask him or herself is why as a society we sympathize with one pain, and not another? Why in the case of Yosale Schumer, the Haredi boy who was kidnapped by his grandparent in 1962, the entire state, government and the Mossad got involved until he was brought back to his parents. No effort was too big to get one boy, while hundreds of Yemenite parents were not worthy of a fraction of this sympathy or willingness to fight?
So “what’s between Shmita to Mount Sinai?”, you ask – compassion and humanity. A true fight against injustice should put on its agenda all systems of oppression, for they are interconnected. As Martin Luther King said in 1963: “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” When the Israeli Left will fight against intra-Jewish injustices and racism with the same enthusiasm and passion often used to protest the occupation, we might have a chance at a better future here.
Shoshana Madmoni-Gerber is an associate professor of communications and journalism at Suffolk University in Boston.
This article was first published in Hebrew on Haokets, a non-profit, independent, progressive Israeli web magazine that hosts critical discussion where hundreds of writers publish professional and original pieces on socioeconomic, cultural and philosophical issues, human rights activism, feminism, and Mizrahi politics. Visit their English-language blog.
The constant usage of the inaccurate phrase “three investigative commissions have investigated this affair…” only made the Yemenite look like nudniks who are standing in the way of closing this story, instead of criticizing the lack of investigation.
For detailed examples read Shoshi Zaid’s book And The Child id Gone, Geffen (2001) and Rfai Shubeli’s many articles in the journal Afikim, as well as my book.
“Revealing the past – Breaking with the Silence: The Yemenite Babies Affair and the Israeli Media”. In Holy Land Studies 10.2 (2011): 229-248.
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Yassin-Kassab versus Landis
Thanks to Joshua Landis for posting (at Syriacomment) this dispute, which originally took place on Sultan Saoud al-Qassimi’s facebook page. I earlier took issue with Syriacomment’s coverage here.
Sultan Sooud: Great read by Joshua Landis on Obama’s three options on Syria. The one, two and three state solutions.
Racan Alhoch: I love orientalist solutions. They are always a modified version of the Sykes-picot. The best solution would be for people like Landis to fuck off.
Joshua Landis: Rocan, I am not sure what is orientalist about these possible outcomes. If Assad hangs on to the south is Syria and the rebels hold the north it will not be because of the west. It will be a Syrian solution. If the rebels are able to conquer Damascus it will probably be thanks to help from the West.
Ruba Ali Al-Hassani: Joshua, a solution and an outcome are two different things. Not all outcomes are solutions to the problems which created them. The current civil war is not an outcome of deep divisions amongst Syrians. Rather, it is an outcome of external meddling in a conflict between the people and their dictator. Foreign militants have been brought in, recruiting a few Syrians, with the funding of external players, pitting them against each other on the basis of sectarianism. This is what escalated matters.
Borders in the Middle East have a long history with being drawn and redrawn by colonial powers, or in resistance to them. Therefore, it is Orientalist to come along and tell Syrians that they cannot solve their problems, and that the best way is to keep them apart from each other through another attempt to redraw their borders. Only when the Syrians ask for that kind of “solution” will it ever be okay…
Robin Yassin-Kassab: this is not at all a great read, for several reasons. the first is that it contains a plain untruth. the coastal region does not have an alawi majority. the mountains of the coastal region have an alawi majority, though there are also christian and sunni communities. the coastal cities have sunni majorities.
Joshua Landis: Robin, so do Lebanon’s coastal cities have a majority Sunni population. I am not sure what your point is. The Ottoman legacy is that there is a Sunni majority in the cities and the plains. In 1920 Alawites and Sunnis shared no town of over 200. Demographic segregation was very stark. There is much greater mixing today. It is hard to see where this bloodshed ends. That is the problem. There are no good solutions. Do you think the US should pump in the weapons until Sunni rebel militias have conquered Damascus and the coast?
Dick Gregory: “Do you think the US should pump in the weapons until Sunni rebel militias have conquered Damascus and the coast?” – I think not calling the FSA a Sunni rebel militia would be a start. I assume the point is that to create a mini-Alawite state would require the ethnic cleansing or cowing of the majority, and so is an even more impractical alternative to a revolution for all Syrians.
The suggestion that Obama could get the F̶S̶A̶ Sunni militias to fight one war against Assad and another against radical Islamists simultaneously is also highly questionable, and that they are likely to massacre non-Sunnis en masse in the event of victory re-writes the history of the conflict. Not a well written article
Robin Yassin-Kassab: i am not sure what landis’s point is. so what if lebanon’s cities have majority sunni populations? i never argued for the separation of lebanon from syria (I wasn’t here, obviously). lebanon is lebanon, with its own sectarian set up, and even with that set up, it isn’t supposed to be a shia or druze or maroni or sunni or alawi state. landis writes in his article that there is an alawi majority in the coastal region. i pointed out that this is not true. that’s my point: the truth. the importance of not twisting facts to fit our poor arguments. beyond that, i do not think that setting up an alawi state is a good idea or an acceptable outcome. it would involve a massive ethnic cleansing of sunnis from tartus, banyas and lattakia, and of alawis from homs and damascus. it would also leave syria without a port. it would also destabilise turkey. if it were under the control of this criminal family, it would be a threat to humanity. so far there has been no mass slaughter of alawi civilians, no ethnic cleansing of alawis to mirror the massacres and ethnic cleansings perpetrated by the regime. yet landis keeps on scaremongering. the revolution certainly has a sectarian aspect now, after the best efforts of assad and his allies, setting up sectarian death squads, attacking sunni heritage, etc. landis has been painting it as sectarian from the very start, however, ignoring the coordination committees in favour of salafists. thankyou, Dick, for your comment. it’s a slander to call the fsa a sunni militia. yes, it has a sunni majority (like syria) and a sunni character. i’ve just been in syria and turkey where i spent time with ismailis and christians amongst others. the ismaili was telling me in detail about the armed struggle (led by ismailis) around selemiyyeh. yes, i think the us, europe, the arabs, japan… should allow the syrian people to arm themselves to defend themselves from genocide and to end this child nmurdering regime. because the child murderers represent a tiny majority of the population, they lose as soon as the other side gets any sort of weapons supply. i don’t agree that it would take forever for the resistance to liberate damascus. or the coast for that matter – but the coast could be ‘won’ by negotiation once the people there see the regime has no future.
Robin Yassin-Kassab: you always say, ‘i don’t know what your point is.’ when you reported hussain harmoush’s tv post-torture ‘confession’ as if it meant something, and even discussed it… ‘hmm, harmoush says he was paid by the muslim brothers, and by the martians… very interesting’, and then i complained, your answer was something like…’everyone who reads syria comment is well educated and they understand that he was tortured and that his words don’t mean much.’ that’s a great response. so when you write that the coastal region has an alawi majority, it doesn’t matter that it isn’t true because you expect your audience to be intelligent enough to understand. you should write that the fsa is a communist organisation backed by nepal, just for fun, because your audience is clever enough….
Joshua Landis: Robin, lots of accusations. Let’s take the first one – the ethnic or religious population of the Coastal region. Can you tell me what the religious make up of the Coastal region is? Until 1960, when the last census was taken that listed Syrians by religion the Coastal region was predominately Alawite. Of course this depends on where you draw the line in the East, but your argument is that the Sunni majority in the coastal cities is larger than the Alawi majority in the Mountains. This has never been true so far as I know, but I welcome being corrected by any statistics you can provide. I quote the following from something I wrote in 1997. I highlight the sentence most important for our discussion:
“Although Alawites constituted roughly seventy percent of the region’s population [The Alawite state created by the French] of 350,000, they held sway over no town with more than 1000 inhabitants. “
“When the French arrived in the Alawite territory in 1920, the separation between the Alawite and Sunni communities could hardly have been more profound, a fact used to justify their policy of dividing the region from the rest of Syria. In the “Dawla al `Alawiyyin” (the State of the Alawites) established in 1922, not one Alawite was registered as a permanent resident of Latakia, the regional capital (26,000 inhabitants in 1935), or in the other Sunni dominated coastal cities: Jablah (6,300), Tartus (4,500), and Banyas (2,170). The only city that permitted Alawites to live within its walls was Safita, a Christian town high in the Alawite Mountains (total population 2,600, with 300 Alawites).
Although Alawites constituted roughly seventy percent of the region’s population of 350,000, they held sway over no town with more than 1000 inhabitants.
The division of urban and rural populations along sectarian lines in the Alawite region was almost absolute. The Sunni population was entrenched in the cities, where it exercised a monopoly on political power, education, and prestige. Sunnis, Weulersse writes, lived like “parasites” off the Alawites who were scattered in small hamlets throughout the countryside and mountains. Even in 1945, the year the muhafaza of Latakia was finally united with Syria, the number of Alawites who lived permanently in major Syria cities was minuscule. Latakia had a population of only 600 Alawites; Aleppo had 480, and Damascus only 40. These numbers indicate the extent to which the Alawite community remained a closed society, inward looking, and cut off from the main currents of Syrian intellectual and urban life right up to independence.
Today, most Alawites over the age of 45 can recount personal stories of Sunni school children throwing stones at Alawites as they walked to or from school. The alienation of Alawites from Sunni society and their bitter experience of persecution made creating a common sense of nationalism particularly difficult following independence. Even within the most progressive political parties which took shape during the 1940s, tension and mistrust between Alawites and Sunnis was never far below the surface and often threatened to rise to the surface.”
Robin Yassin-Kassab: i don’t know why you are telling me about the historical persecution of alawites. as you know, i have myself written about this on several occasions. I have often pointed to this as necessary historical context to the sectarianism of the assad regime. you don’t need to prove yet again your emotional ties to the alawi community. it’s perfectly obvious and always has been. yes, i would presume that an urban majority constitutes more people than a rural majority. that seems like plain logic to me. in any case, you yourself on previous occasions have described the coastal region as having a sunni majority. i’m sure that if you were to draw a line around the mountains you could find an alawi majority, but i don’t think that would be in the interests of alawis, sunnis or anyone else…..it’s always important to recognise past oppressions, but these do not justify present genocides or ethnic cleansings, nor carving up countries on ethno-sectarian lines. the holocaust does not excuse slaughter in sabra and shatila or gaza. the safavids do not excuse saddam hussain. saddam hussain does not excuse the exclusion of iraqi sunnis. ibn taymiyya does not excuse assad.
Robin Yassin-Kassab: in any case, in perfect orientalist style you are ignoring contemporary history in favour of the distant past. ‘alawis’ have been in charge for over 40 years.alawis have been living in the cities, making friends with sunnis, in some cases marrying sunnis. in this time the regime actually oppressed alawi ulama and community leaders and deliberately kept sectarian hatreds bubbling for divide and rule reasons. they had four decades to address the problem, to manage a public conversation and reconciliation. they chose to do the opposite. and when challenged by a democratic movement for secular rights, they deliberately lit the fuse of sectarian conflict by implicating alawis in their death squads and massacres, and by their propaganda.
Joshua Landis: Robin, I couldn’t agree with you more about oppression. I in no way wish to defend the Assad regime, which is guilty of brutal and indiscriminate killing of the worst kind. I have emotional ties to all Syrians. My point is about the demographic realities of Syria. If one draws a line down the Eastern side of the Alawite mountains, where the Alawite majority population gives way to a predominantly Sunni majority and counted the religious distribution of all those to the West of that line, the Alawites would be the majority. That is my simple contention. It does not mean that they deserve a state or could maintain one or that it would be fair for the Sunnis of the coastal cities. I am simply trying to establish some basis for understanding the region. Would you agree to that simple statistic?
Joshua Landis: Robin, You are absolutely correct about the deeply sectarian nature of this regime and its response to the uprising. In fact, my first article for the Economist, dated, Jun 14th 2011, was entitled “Deeply Sectarian.” We are in perfect agreement about the sectarian nature of the regime and ensuing mess it has created.
Robin Yassin-Kassab: joshua, i think of you as a well-meaning person, but i can’t help but think too that your skewed commentary on the revolution has helped assad confuse the issue in the west. no, i don’t think i would agree with your simple statistic. i think the sunni majority in the cities probably outweighs the alawi majority in the mountains – but of course i can’t prove it, and it may be that now, at this precise moment, there is a slight alawi majority because so many alawis from damascus and homs have moved to tartus to flee violence.
Robin Yassin-Kassab: ruth – i very nearly ‘liked’ your comment but didn’t for the simple reason that most alawis have not actually benefitted from the regime. some certainly have, but many more haven’t. they’ve been terrified by regime propaganda and implicated in the regime’s crimes. now they are losing thousands of young men fighting for this monster. most are victims of the regime. if over the last decades the community had been allowed to develop itself, to produce its own leaders, to initiate its own dialogue with sunnis, it (and all of us) would not be in this situation now
Joshua Landis: Why don’t we leave this on the happy note that you consider me “well meaning.” I, of course, do not think my analysis has been skewed. On the contrary, my warning that this struggle would end up much like Iraq or Lebanon — i.e. going sectarian — has proven to be the case. You have argued from the beginning that my commentary has caused this, but I would humbly suggest that is to give me much too much agency and importance. I have simply described what I believe to be the reality of the Syrian situation. I believe that I have been fairly accurate. Of course, I have made my share of mistakes, but not, for the most part, on the big things. I wrote early that this would go sectarian, that the regime was deeply sectarian, and would turn this into a sectarian struggle because Alawites feel persecuted and have a history of being persecuted, which they have not gotten over. I have tried to inject as much history into this as possible – and I think the history is important and not just some distant baggage that should be ignored. The Alawites should have gotten over their persecution and “minority complex” and Assad should have given up power in the first weeks of this uprising in favor of a constitutional convention, but he did not.
So we are where we are, which is very ugly. Sunnis now feel like a persecuted minority, and with good reason, they have been persecuted. I doubt there will be an “Alawite state” – even one with a big Sunni minority residing in it – established on the coast. Most probably the “status quo” will prevail for some time.
The status quo is the division of Syria into a revolutionary forces controlled North and North-East and government controlled South and Southwest. This will leave the Assad government ruling over a large Sunni majority and Damascus, which will be very unstable. I suspect the North will also be very unstable because the FSA and other militas agree on little beyond their desire to rid themselves of the oppression of the regime.
The US and the West wants to hurt Hizbullah and Iran, but I am not sure if it has “Syria’s” interests uppermost in its calculations. My essay about the three possible scenarios is meant to underline this. I try not to pick “a best scenario”, but simply point out the difficulties with each.
Maxwell Ryder: Robin, you are a sharp knife in a drawer full of dull knives. Thank you for each post. I couldn’t agree more, though I did not like the “dick” part.
Robin Yassin-Kassab: of course i don’t think your commentary caused this. i think (like you, it seems) that assad and his allies caused this. i think your commentary (indirectly) helped assad get his sectarian message across to the west from the earliest days. you didn’t so much bear witness to the ways in which assad lit the sectarian fuse as focus on the sectarianism of the opposition, even at the start when the remarkable thing was how a sectarian society was able to produce such a non-sectarian discourse. you focussed on obscure salafists rather than the central local coordination committees. you are probably right about the status quo, which is a disaster for syria and, increasingly, for the region and the wider muslim world. my contention is that the opposition has the vast majority on its side. it has been able to conquer vast swathes of the country for this reason, despite being so poorly armed. therefore i believe that a serious effort to arm the opposition would allow it a reasonably speedy victory. then syria could start the difficult process of picking up the pieces. because commentary like yours is dominant, however, there probably won’t be a serious effort to arm the opposition, and the status quo will continue. even now after hixbullah’s open involvement, the west and the arabs are only talking about ‘restoring the balance’. in other words, let syria bleed. let the wound expand.
Robin Yassin-Kassab: Maxwell – thanks. the ‘dick part’ was not the insult you think it was. i was referring to my friend Dick Gregory, who commented above.
Joshua Landis: I agree that Alawites, to the extent that we can generalize, are oppressed and have little if any freedom of choice. Assad treats Alawites as he treats the rest of Syrians, as his slaves. But I would caution that this does not mean that Alawites will turn against the regime any time soon. They feel like the knife is at their throat. At least that is what many say, now that this struggle has become very sectarian. Almost every Alawite i have talked to gives me a five minute soliloquy on how he or she is not an Assad supporter and how Assad has gotten them to this terrible situation, but then they go on to reproduce the Assad line about Sunni extremism and how they must defend themselves, etc. I think understanding their dilemma is important to any solution. One cannot just dismiss their fears or this war will drag on for a very long time.
Robin Yassin-Kassab: i agree with that. we must also remember the brave minority of alawites who, despite their well-founded fears, are working for the revolution in public or in private. during my recent trip i heard about alawis secretly providing food and medicine to the besieged areas.