Justice Minister Apologizes for Shabby Treatment of Yemenite Activist

Jewish Yemenite immigrants seen arriving at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, 2012. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

For the first time, an Israeli government official has publicly acknowledged what she called the “damage” that was done to Rabbi Uzi Meshulam, who for years spoke out about missing Yemenite children. Speaking Motzoei Shabbos, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said that “we now realize that evil was done to Rabbi Meshulam. Despite his urgings, the numerous study groups never investigated the matter in depth.”

Several months ago, the government opened its files on the missing Yemenite children, with revelations showing that the claims of activists like Meshulam – that the children were kidnapped and that their parents were lied to, with authorities claiming they died – were true. Going back to the 1970s, Meshulam held protests, sit-ins and marches on the claims, and was jailed numerous times for his activities.

The apex of the struggle between Meshulam and authorities came in 1994, when he and several followers barricaded themselves inside Meshulam’s Yehud home. A member of the group was killed in a subsequent police raid, and Meshulam and 11 of his followers were arrested. He was convicted of a number of crimes and sentenced to prison. The protest led to the first national committee to investigate the disappearance of the Yemenite children, but drew no conclusions. Meshulam was sentenced to eight years in prison but was released after five years after then-President Ezer Weizmann commuted his sentence. However, supporters claimed that Meshulam was mistreated and even tortured in prison, and he remained in ill health until he passed away in 2013 at the age of 60.

The scandal of the missing Yemenite children goes back to the early days of the state. In hundreds and even thousands of documented cases, Yemenite women who had given birth in state hospitals were told that their children had died in childbirth. The bodies were never recovered, however, leading many people to suspect that their babies had not died, but had been kidnapped.

The purpose of the alleged kidnapping has been the subject of many conspiracy theories, from supplying wealthy Israelis of European background who could not have their own children with babies to raise from birth, to allegations that the children were used as subjects in radiation experiments conducted by Israel at the behest of the U.S. government. Some parents claimed that they attempted to disinter the remains of their children to have them reburied at family plots, but were either told that the location of the graves had been “lost,” or that their child had been buried in mass graves and that it would be impossible to track down their child’s remains.

Governments throughout the years have either ignored or denied the allegations, claiming that the children died because of polio and other childhood diseases rife during the 1950s. At least four investigative committees have discussed the matter, but all ended their work without drawing specific conclusions.