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Adventures in Jewish Studies

The Association for Jewish Studies Podcast

Episode 3: The Yemenite Children Affair and the Story of the Mizrahi Jews in the Development of the State of Israel



Jeremy Shere: In May of 1957, Said and Miriam Ovadia  and their daughters, Simcha and baby Zahara, boarded an airplane bound for Israel. After five long months subsisting in squalid conditions in the Hashed transit camp in Yemen, they, along with thousands of their fellow Yemeni Jews, were finally embarking on the last leg of their journey to the Promised Land, the newly established state of Israel.

As the plane picked up speed down the runway and lifted off, Miriam Ovadia felt her stomach rise up into her throat. But it wasn't just the alien sensation of being borne aloft for the first time. A nurse from the Jewish Agency who had stayed with the Ovadias in the transit camp and was accompanying them to Israel had insisted on holding baby Zahara during the flight, and Miriam could hear her crying.

Shoshana Madmoni-Gerber: In the middle of the flight, she went to the nurse and she said,  ”Please I need to nurse her. I have milk for her, I need to nurse her. " And she wouldn't give it to her. And she said that she was crying and she heard the baby crying and described a very traumatic scene for her. 

Jeremy Shere: This is Shoshana Madmoni-Gerber, associate professor of communication and journalism at Suffolk University in Boston and author of the book Israeli Media and the Framing of Internal Conflict. In the book, she recounts that when the plane landed, the nurse, still carrying Zahara, got into a taxi and sped away. The director of the Rosh HaAyin absorption camp, where the Ovadias  and many other immigrants were taken, told the distraught family that Zahara was being taken to the hospital for a routine checkup. A few days later, when Miriam asked about her daughter, the director told her that Zahara had died. The Ovadias never saw a death certificate and were never told where their daughter had been buried.

Shoshana Madmoni-Gerber: Some time later, she said that she saw this nurse at some point in Tel Aviv and recognized her. She said, “You took my daughter,” and she confronted her. And she wrote to her something on a piece of paper. And she said, “She’s in this place in Tel Aviv,” and gave her a note. And they immediately went there and it was nothing. There was nothing there. She gave her something that was not…there was no baby, no hospital there, no nothing. 

Jeremy Shere: The Ovadias’ story, and many more like it, of babies being taken from Yemenite families and never returned, have collectively come to be known as the Yemenite Children Affair. According to the testimonies, thousands of Jewish immigrant families from the Middle East, North Africa, and the Balkans, known as Mizrahi Jews, lost children during the 1950s. The Yemenite Children Affair has been in the news a lot during the last few years, as activists and writers continue to investigate rumors that many of the children did not in fact die, but were given to other families in Israel and America, Ashkenazi families of European origin who could give them a better life. 

It's a disturbing and intriguing story, but the Yemenite children Affair is really only part of a much larger story — the story of Mizrahi Jews in Israel, and the widespread discrimination they faced at the hands of the Zionist establishment, as the young state struggled to find its footing and live up to its own ideal as a national home for all Jews.

Our story begins in Israel in the early 1950s, in the wake of the War of Independence in 1948. After the newly formed Jewish state warded off attacks by the surrounding Arab nations, hundreds of thousands of Jews from the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia poured into Israel, leaving behind nearly all of their possessions and the tight-knit, Jewish communities they had known all their lives. Upon arriving in Israel, most of the immigrants were housed in absorption camps, where the new arrivals lived in hastily erected canvas tents. 

Bryan Roby: The kind of conditions of the camps were pretty horrific. A lot of times there would be flooding. There was one winter in which it snowed and that kind of destroyed all of these camps.

Jeremy Shere: This is Bryan Roby, an Assistant Professor of Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan and author of the book The Mizrahi Era of Rebellion: Israel's Forgotten. Civil Rights Struggle, 1948-1966. He says that the rough conditions in the maabarot were especially difficult for these Mizrahi Jews, because in their countries of origin, many had enjoyed relatively comfortable lives as members of the middle, and even upper, class. But arguably even more difficult for Mizrahi immigrants was being seen by the Ashkenazi establishment as culturally backward outsiders.

Avi Shilon: They saw the Jews from the Middle Eastern state as people, while equal in principle because all of us are Jews, but you are suffering from a very problematic cultural attitude.

Jeremy Shere: This is Avi Shilon, a scholar at Hebrew University and the author of biographies of Ben Gurion and Menachem Begin. 

Avi Shilon: For them, the Jews from the Middle Eastern state brought with them the Arab culture and for the Zionist establishment, the Arab culture was something that was perceived as very inferior to the Western culture.

Shoshana Madmoni-Gerber: They saw them as brown people who could potentially replace the Arabs. And they said that in so many words.

Jeremy Shere: As scholar, Vincent Calvetti-Wolfe notes, this prejudice stemmed in part from the fact that most Mizrahi Jews were religious. 

Vincent Calvetti-Wolfe: Many of the the influential Labor Zionists that formed the first governments of Israel were of course secular, and they approached equally religious Jews as kind of primitive and under-developed, and that religious feeling was itself kind of a sign of that.

Jeremy Shere: Furthermore, the Ashkenazi establishment saw their Mizrahi brethren through the lens of the Zionist ideal of the “new Jew,” the modern secular polar opposite of the helpless diaspora Jews who had so recently been slaughtered in the concentration camps. Becoming a new Jew meant leaving behind Old World religious practices and customs and being reborn by working the land, an ideology that made little sense to traditional Mizrahi Jews.

Avi Shilon: For the Mizrahim, to do such thing, it was like deteriorating to a low status, because for them, the people who have made this kind of work while they were in the Middle Eastern state were the Arabs. So they could not understand how come they are sent to work the land, while it wasn't a Jewish profession in the diaspora. 

Jeremy Shere: Mizrahi Jews had other disadvantages too. For one, they hadn't played a significant role in the Zionist movement, and so they lacked connections among the Ashkenazi-dominated Zionist establishment in Israel. Plus, most Mizrahi Jews didn't speak Hebrew — they spoke a variety of Arabic dialects and other languages unfamiliar to Ashkenazim, whose mother tongue was primarily Yiddish. In short, beyond being Jews, Ashkenazim and Mizrahim had little in common, culturally, socially, and politically. 

This disconnect, combined with the openly derogatory and frankly bigoted attitudes of Ashkenazim towards Mizrahim, had long-lasting consequences. While Ashkenazi newcomers were soon relocated from the transit camps to permanent housing in choice locations, many Mizrahi immigrants remained in the maabarot for years. And as the absorption camps eventually became permanent development towns, the Mizrahim clustered there fell further behind in terms of education and employment. Within a decade, the vast majority of Mizrahim had been relegated to permanent second-class status.

Mizrahi Jews may have been relatively powerless, but they weren't submissive. Starting in the early ’50s, Mizrahim protested against the Zionist establishment, demanding equal treatment.

Bryan Roby: One of the main ones, or the more visible ones, were the almost daily “bread and work” protests, in which people would chant,”Lehem, avodah," — bread, work —demanding from the government or the municipality in which they lived to provide better living conditions in the maabarot. And these often would be brutally repressed by Israeli police. The general sense was that these were illegitimate protests because they were not in the interest of unity of the Jewish nation. 

Jeremy Shere: In one extraordinary incident, Jewish immigrants from India living in the town of Beersheva protested against their living conditions. 

Bryan Roby: They come from British India. And now it's India-Pakistan. And they felt as if living in Beersheva was not appropriate for them. You know, their children were not being educated properly, various other things. And so they hold a hunger strike as a result of that. The government at least let about 112 Jews from former British India return to India and Pakistan at the time. 

Jeremy Shere: Generally, though, Mizrahi protests were unable to gain much traction and ended up having little effect. But one July night in 1959, in the Wadi Salib neighborhood of Haifa, that began to change.

Wadi Salib was a poor neighborhood, a crime-ridden slum, really, where mostly Moroccan Jews lived in cramped debilitated houses that had belonged to Palestinians who fled during the war in 1948. With little opportunity for employment, many of the men spent their days aimless and their nights drinking. Unrest was in the air. And on the night of July 9th, it erupted into violence, when a drunk Moroccan Jew, Yaakov Elkarif, began causing a disturbance.

Avi Shilon: And someone complained that he's acting violently. So the police came…

Bryan Roby: …and these two  police officers of Askenazi origin, I believe, they claimed to have tried to fire a warning shot at him or towards him. But instead, they actually shot him. 

Jeremy Shere: Elkarif was taken to the hospital, and soon word spread that he'd been murdered. The next day, Mizrahi activist David ben Harush led a mass protest. Hundreds of protestors gathered outside the police station where the policemen from the night before were headquartered, shouting and accusing the police of murdering an innocent man.

Never mind that Elkarif had actually survived the shooting. The fuse had been lit, and soon the demonstration erupted into a riot. The mob marched toward Haifa's wealthier neighborhoods, where they set cars on fire and smashed shop windows. Soon, violent protests erupted in Mizrahi neighborhoods across Israel.

The Wadi Salib Riot, as it's come to be known, was the first large-scale, violent protest by Mizrahi Jews, and it shook the Zionist establishment to the core. As the protests continued throughout the summer of 1959, the government could no longer ignore Mizrahi  grievances. 

Bryan Roby: There was an accelerated move to take people out of the maabarot, which were now tent shacks. Beyond that, at least you do have public recognition and media attention towards the fact that maybe there is discrimination against Mizrahi Jews in the country. And what does that mean for Israeli society? What does that mean for the future of Israel in that case, or even the nature of the state? 

Jeremy Shere: To find out, the government established the Etzioni commission, named for its leader, Haifa magistrate court judge Moshe Etzioni. The commission's purpose was to investigate the Elkarif shooting and, more broadly, to determine if there was institutionalized discrimination against Mizrahi Jews in Israeli society. 

Bryan Roby: Their conclusion, very problematically, was that no, it's not something that's institutional. It's just a lot of different individuals throughout the country who are being discriminatory towards Mizrahi Jews. But to say that it's not institutional, it's kind of strange—if it's something that goes on in a number of different places, a number of different contexts, then where does this come from? It's something that must be in the air, or the way that the government  thinks about Mizrahi Jews may be affecting how they're treated either in the Labor offices or the labor market or in housing policies and various things like that.

Jeremy Shere: By the mid-1960s, the quality of life for Mizrahi Jews in Israel hadn't much improved. Most still languished in dusty development towns and in poor neglected neighborhoods in larger cities. Opportunities for better housing and employment were minimal. Mizrahi men and women were often relegated to menial labor and low-paying jobs. Their kids received substandard education. And the same demeaning stereotypes of Mizrahim as unsophisticated, indolent, and poor prevailed. 

But in 1967, the Ashkenazi establishment got another shock to the system, when some of the Yemenite families whose children had years before been taken away, began receiving notices that their supposedly dead children must report for army duty. Once again, rumors began to circulate that the children had been kidnapped and put up for adoption. Inspired by the Wadi Salib protests a few years before, the Yemenite community took action. 

Shoshana Madmoni-Gerber: They started the first Yemenite community organization that started to collect testimonies. And when they had several hundred testimonies, they were pressuring the government. 

Jeremy Shere: In response, the government created the Bahlul-Minkowski commission to examine the Yemenite families' stories. The commission collected testimonies and eyewitness accounts, and after examining 342 cases, concluded that in 316 of the cases, the children had indeed died. In only a handful of the cases where the parents couldn't be contacted, according to the commission, their children had been adopted by other families. And 24 cases were inconclusive. In other words, there had been no conspiracy, no government-led plan to steal babies away from Yemenite families in the maabarot

Avi Shilon: The outcome was that…okay, it is only rumors. There was no premeditated plan to kidnap, it wasn't like that. Israel was in a total mess, the registration was not really correct and as it should be. So this is why from time to time, you couldn't find the grave or the real name. It was really a mess, but generally speaking, there was no such thing as kidnap. And we can find the bones of the children in mass graves. But the story is that they came here very sick. We tried to save them, but they found a death at a very early age. We are sorry, we have nothing to do.

Jeremy Shere: The Yemenite families and the Mizrahi community generally were highly critical of the commission.

Vincent Calvetti-Wolfe: Because it was framed as an inquiry rather than an investigation, they had no subpoena power, no ability to command or force witnesses to appear. And it also was not transparent. It was conducted largely behind closed doors. These families felt that this is not a format that is going to give us justice. 

Jeremy Shere: Still, the commission brought renewed attention to the Yemenite children Affair and helped keep the issue of discrimination against Mizrahim in the public eye.

By the late 1960s, the Mizrahi community was becoming more organized. Its leaders paid close attention to and drew inspiration from the civil rights movement in the United States. Eliyahu Elyashar, a Mizrahi Intellectual and activist, used the American civil rights movement as a model. 

Bryan Roby: He starts writing a lot of different publications in English, as well as in Hebrew.

He starts writing these various different publications. And one in particular was kind of fascinating, in which he sent to members of the US Congress to ask them to look into what is going on in Israel, in a sense using a lot of the rhetoric that's used within our American society as well, referring to Mizrahi political leaders who are not really representative of the Mizrahi public as Uncle Toms, in this case, or, later in the ’60s. using the formula or the slogan that "We too shall overcome,” in reference to Mizrahim, at some point, being able to overcome the discriminatory practices used against them.

Jeremy Shere: Ironically Martin Luther King talked about Israel as a model of democracy and integration, where Jews from different backgrounds built a nation and live together in harmony. Other civil rights leaders though, such as James Nabrit Jr., then president of Howard University, who visited Israel in the mid-‘60s, had a different take. 

Bryan Roby: He says explicitly that this is a serious problem, the issue between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim, and that maybe they're not calling it racism or institutionalized discrimination at the time, but you can't hide from it for too long. If when you come to a country, you see that everyone in a high socioeconomic position is light or lighter skin, and everyone in a lower socioeconomic position is darker skin—you know, it's something that you can't really hide from after, when it's so apparent.

Jeremy Shere: By the early 1970s, a second generation of Mizrahi Jews were especially drawn to the far-left militant black power elements of the civil rights movement. In the desperately poor Musrara neighborhood of Jerusalem, mostly Moroccan Jewish teens and young adults who'd been rejected from the military due to having criminal records were inspired by the Black Panthers, a paramilitary movement founded in Oakland, California, in the mid-’60s to combat police brutality against African Americans. The Moroccan youth could relate—they, too, were often harassed by the police. And just like their parents, who were kept down in the maabarot and denied full and equal participation in Israeli society, these second-generation Mizrahim live life stained by crime and poverty, with little hope for the future. Inspired by the Black Panthers' swagger and militant rhetoric, they formed their own Israeli version of the Black Panthers.

Avi Shilon: And they looked at the entire issue of Zionism totally differently. They started to ask questions like, How come no one speaks about the legacy of the Mizrahi Jews in the curriculum for the high school? How come you perceived us as Arabs? Why did you send us to the IDF to fight against the Arabs? They were much more radical. They were much more aggressive.

Jeremy Shere: Following the example of the American Black Panthers’ “free breakfast for schoolchildren” program, the Israeli Panthers improvised a “free milk” program that involved stealing milk bottles left on the doorsteps of well-off families and redistributing them throughout Musrara and other poor neighborhoods. They protested what they saw as the injustice of new immigrants from the former Soviet Union receiving better housing and education than native-born Mizrahi Jews. And they posted leaflets around Jerusalem reading, "Enough! Enough of not having work. Enough of having to sleep ten to a room. Enough of looking at big apartments they are building for new immigrants. Enough of broken promises from the government.

How long are we going to keep silent? We are protesting for our right to be treated just as any other citizen in the country.”

These activities got the attention of the media, and, especially, of the government, who saw the Panthers as a direct threat, not only to basic law and order, but to the core Zionist principle of Jewish unity and to allegiance to the Zionist program. Establishment leaders were especially perturbed that the group had taken the name Black Panthers, particularly since the American Panthers were often accused of being antisemitic.

Vincent Calvetti-Wolfe: A lot of the Panthers would note specifically that they really kind of enjoyed the discomfort the name caused a state, especially Golda Meir, who in her one meeting with the group leadership, kept asking, “Why this name, why this name? Why not something else?” The fact that she had so much anxiety about it kind of brought home to them — this is why the name. Because it makes you makes you nervous. Wewant you to be nervous, because we have many bones to pick with you. 

Jeremy Shere: Things came to a head on the evening of May 18th, 1971, a date that became known infamously as the Night of the Panthers. The Panthers mobilized around 7,000 people to March toward Kikkar Tzion, or Zion Square, in the heart of Jerusalem, to protest against racial discrimination. Almost immediately, the police who had denied the protesters a permit advanced in force. 

Vincent Calvetti-Wolfe: Seven hours of clashes between protesters and the police. Police pulled out water cannons. They ran people down with horses. There were more than a hundred arrests and many, many photos of acts of police brutality, of police with their batons, beating even young girls and teenage girls. And it really put the Panthers on the state's radar, but also revealed that it's not just this small group of organizers. The fact that they can mobilize so many people on very short notice shows that there is a broader tension that needs to be dealt with. 

Jeremy Shere: Black Panther protests continued throughout the spring and summer, as did violent clashes with the police. In late August, the Panthers staged another Jerusalem rally, featuring hand-lettered signs with crude depictions of Golda Meir, telling the Prime Minister to get lost. Panther leaders made impassioned speeches, condemning Golda and the Ashkenazi-dominated government. When asked what she thought of the Panthers, the Prime Minister is said to have stated, “They're not very nice boys.”

Like their American counterparts, the Israeli Panthers ultimately failed to achieve political or social change on a large scale, but like the Wadi Salib protesters several years earlier, they did raise awareness of the plight of Mizrahi Jews.

Avi Shilon: There was nothing that really happened because of the Black Panthers. They had a lot of riots and demonstrations and some of them tried to establish a party and to run for the Knesset, but they didn't get enough support for even a having one seat in the Knesset. But later on, some of them found places in different kind of parties, like the Communist Party, and really helped to put the Mizrahi problems on the agenda.

Jeremy Shere: By the late 1970s, after decades of Labor Party rule, Israeli politics and society experienced a seismic shift when, for the first time the conservative Likud Party, led by Menachem Begin, took charge. Mizrahi Jews, who had voted in large numbers for Likud, felt newly empowered.

Although there were very few Mizrahi professors in the universities and there had never been a Mizrahi prime minister, as the ’70s rolled into the 1980s, the prospects for Mizrahi Jews were improving. 

Avi Shilon: Many of the Mizrahim started to open stores, to be small merchants and to be independent and to succeed in moving from the poorest neighborhood to the big cities. So in the 80s, it was a totally different situation for Mizrahim. 

Jeremy Shere: Yemenite Jews, meanwhile, had never stopped agitating for the government to come clean about the Yemenite Children Affair, organizing letter-writing campaigns and publishing accounts of lost children in Mizrahi publications.

In 1988, Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir appointed judge Moshe Shalgi to head a second commission to re-examine the testimonies gathered by the earlier commission. After four years, the Shalgi commission came to a similar conclusion: In most cases, the children had died, although as many as 65 cases remained a mystery. 

This time, though, a handful of Knesset members openly questioned the commission's findings, giving new life to the theory that more than just a few of the children had been kidnapped. Such rumors were still active in the Yemenite community and had especially captured the attention of Uzi Meshulam, a Yemenite rabbi who, since the late ’70s, had been conducting his own private investigation into the affair.

Shoshana Madmoni-Gerber: He was, in my eyes, like an early-day blogger, but using low- tech. So we don't have internet yet, but he's doing, we call them in Hebrew, it's leaflets, alonim. So he's sending these with stories and with all kinds of numbers and then he starts to publish. He has his own publication, which is again, kind of within the tradition of the Yemenite communities, people who like to write. So he's writing, he's a very smart guy, but a little eccentric, very, very charismatic and very smart. So he's starting to publish this Even Maasu Habonim, it's called, this publication. And in those publications, he details cases of families and he brings copies of the contradicting notices that they got from the government. 

Avi Shilon: He claimed for years that there was a huge conspiracy by the Ashkenazi establishment to kidnap Yemenite children from the Balkans in order to do experiments on them. In order, for example, to know what's going to be, if Israel would suffer from a biological attack. He blamed the Zionist establishment of kidnapping kids before, because they wanted to gain money from rich Holocaust survivors who had not been able to raise children by themselves. He really blamed the Zionist establishment in the most outrageous allegations.

Jeremy Shere: For most Israelis, including many Mizrachi Jews and many Yemenite Jews, Meshulam came across as a conspiracy theorist, not somebody to take entirely seriously. But the government kept a wary eye on Meshulam, especially once he began threatening to organize demonstrations at the Knesset. 

Shoshana Madmoni-Gerber: And he said that he was going to raise awareness and he was going to send ten publications with ten videotapes and he started to record.He was recording the stories. Again, think social media, that's what he was doing. It was on VHS tapes. He was recording these testimonies of parents and he was going to send that to the Knesset, to all the Knesset members, then public authors and leaders. And, he said, if they are not going to respond by the tenth one — and he told me I'm going to do ten of these for the ten plagues. So he was a religious man. He had a plan and he said, if they're not going to do this, I am going to mount a protest in the Knesset. 

Jeremy Shere: But Meshulam never got the chance to force the government's hand. He gathered weapons and disciples and hunkered down inside his house in the town of Yehud, hanging signs outside, calling out the government for its crimes against Yemenite children and their families.As word spread, a squadron of police arrived and surrounded the compound… 

Avi Shilon: …and they say, we are going to be here. And we can commit suicide or attack the police. We still haven't decided, until the state would be ready to establish a real inquiry about the story of the Yemenites. Ultimately, one of his students came outside and was shot by the police.

Vincent Calvetti-Wolfe: There was a raid. They were all arrested and sentenced to several years in prison. And the media framed Meshulam himself as kind of eccentric, crazy  figure.

Jeremy Shere: In the end, though, Meshulam did achieve his goal in the wake of the standoff. Then Labor Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin opened the files of the Shalgi Commission and authorized a third commission to once again investigate the fate of the Yemenite children. As former Israel state archivist Yaacov Lozowick notes, this commission had considerably more investigative power than the first two commissions. 

Yaacov Lozowick: The third was an official committee of national inquiry. There's no type of investigative committee in Israel with more authority and stature than that. It was headed by a judge of the Supreme Court. He became unhealthy, he was replaced by another judge of the Supreme court. The first one was Cohen and the second was Kedmi. 

Jeremy Shere: Nevertheless, the commission's conclusions published in 2001 were in line with those of prior committees. The Cohen-Kedmi commission examined 800 cases, and it found that in most of them, the Yemenite children had died. A very few were adopted, and several were still unaccounted for. Investigators found no evidence of a government conspiracy. But for Madmoni-Gerber, focusing on the question of conspiracy missed the point

Shoshana Madmoni-Gerber: Because what I am saying, and many other activists and scholars, is that if you read one of the most profound studies I think done by a legal scholar, which is a very thorough analysis of just the last commissioner's report, and he said that they're so focused on trying to defuse a claim of a conspiracy or of an organized, institutionalized scam to kidnap that they were not even seeing what they did find, which means that we're not believing the parents’ testimonies. 

Jeremy Shere: In other words, even if there was no organized conspiracy to kidnap Yemenite children, the abrupt ways in which the children were taken and then declared to have died, and the general lack of communication and transparency, suggests that at the very least, the families’ stories of kidnapping should be taken seriously. But former head archivist Lozowick has a different take. 

Yaacov Lozowick: There are more than a thousand cases where there is simple, clear documentation by name, saying, here's the child coming into the hospital. Here's what the child is being diagnosed with. Here is a registry of death from inside the hospital. Here is a a registry of burial by somebody else. It's a different staff — the chevra kadisha was burying people. That exists in more than 90% of the cases. And indeed there are 7 or 8  or 9% where it doesn't exist. And you regret the fact that things were not as systematic and things were not preserved as well then as they should have been. But still, you’re talking about more than 90%where the documentation does exist. 

And if the documentation does exist and you want to insist that the children nonetheless were kidnapped and handed over somewhere, of which there's no sign for that happening, you have to say, well, where does the documentation of their death come from? It doesn't come from one office churning out lots of death certificates. It comes out from different hospitals. It comes out from lots of different parts of the country. It comes out in lots of different handwritings. It comes out often within lists of people, the person on the list above the name of the child and below the name of the child undoubtedly exist, and there's nobody questioning the veracity of that list. Just that one line in it. It doesn't make any sense.

Jeremy Shere: For Lozowick, the real tragedy of the Yemenite Children Affair is the indifference and dismissiveness with which the Yemenite families have been treated.

Yaacov Lozowick: Indeed, there is no doubt in my mind that a large majority of these families were just brushed off, in way that, when you look at it nowadays, it's horrifying. They were treated as, as if they're a thorn in somebody's side and they're screaming and shouting, and they should just go away because we're busy and just accept that what we said is true. And that is indeed, to my mind, one of the worst parts of this story, this indifference, this callousness. It’s even more than that. It's in some cases it's downright cruelty towards these parents, who look different and don't speak Hebrew very well, if at all, and they dress oddly and they're so different from us. And how are we going to correspond, how are we going to talk to them? Let's just have them go away. We're doing our best. And sometimes we don't succeed.

Jeremy Shere: Today, by most accounts, the situation for Mizrahi Jews in Israel has vastly improved. Third and fourth-generation Mizrahim have made significant strides socially, economically, and politically. 

Avi Shilon: In a way, this problem has been solved in reality, because Israel is more about mixed families. Many Mizrahim married Ashkenazim, and vice versa. And you have other problems, for example, with the Ethiopian Jews or with the Russian Jews, and the Mizrahi issue is not, if you are examining the middle class of Israel, it's not the most burning issue

Jeremy Shere: To be sure, gaps in opportunity and social achievements still exist. Jews of Ashkenazi background still predominate in Israeli universities. The majority of judges on the higher courts and higher-ups in the security establishment are Ashkenazi. But as Madmoni-Gerber notes, technology has given Mizrahi Israelis more opportunities to chart their own course and tell their own stories. 

Shoshana Madmoni-Gerber: I think what has changed is something in the power imbalance shifted. If before that, it was people were at the mercy of the press, whatever the press wanted, however the press wanted to frame stories, which was the biggest issue — here, this is how it was framed. Now with, with the emergence of social media and a third generation of younger people who are activists and taking the power, using the technology, that's now available to them to tell the narratives, their own narratives in their own voice. That's a very powerful shift. 

Jeremy Shere: This is especially true concerning the Yemenite Children Affair, which is ongoing and in some ways more prominent than ever. In 2016, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declassified more than 400,000 documents related to the affair, most of which are now online. And the controversy hasn't dimmed. In 2017, several hundred protestors gathered in Tel Aviv, blocking  traffic and demanding that the government unseal what the protesters claimed are classified documents, showing proof of the Yemenite babies’ adoption.

Meanwhile, a Yemenite activist organization, the Amram Association,  carries on the work of Uzi Meshulam, collecting testimonies from Yemenite and other Mizrahi familie  and posting them online. Articles about the affair have recently appeared in major newspapers, including the New York Times. Several documentaries about the Yemenite babies have been produced over the past few years. And according to the Hollywood Reporter, a TV series about the affair is in the works.

The various articles and documentaries and online testimonies portray Israeli society in a pretty negative light. In fact, a lot of what you've heard in this episode paints a mostly unflattering portrait of how the Zionist establishment, from its earliest days, in many ways failed to live up to the ideal of creating a state equally welcome to all Jews, no matter their country of origin or the shade of their skin. And so I think it's important to be clear, at a time when pro-Palestinian anti-Zionists feel ever more empowered to condemn Israel as an illegitimate racist state, and when pro-Israel supporters too often reject legitimate criticism of Israeli policies as antisemitic, we need to recognize the legacy of ethnic strife between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews in Israel for what it is: a central, but hardly defining or damning characteristic of a complex, imperfect, evolving society. And if we really want to understand that society and how it's evolved, we have to be willing to take an honest look at its imperfections and true character.

Bryan Roby: On one hand, I think it changes how Anglophone Jews, both Zionists and non-Zionists, understand what Israeli society is like. There tends to be this very homogenous understanding of who Israelis are, what its society is like, which is very problematic. And so, everything ends up being condensed into the framework of the conflict.

People think about it as, “Oh, well, it's Israelis versus Palestinians,” without recognizing that, within both contexts, there's something going on between Israelis. There's something going on between Palestinians as well, that’s also informing what is going on between the two different parties in this kind of international conflict.


Episode Guests

Vincent Calvetti-Wolf

Vincent Calvetti-Wolf

Vincent Calvetti-Wolf is a PhD student in the Interdisciplinary Near and Middle Eastern Studies Program at the University of Washington. His research explores the histories and politics of social movements led by Mizrahi Jews in Israel. He is the 2018-2019 Mickey Sreebny Memorial Scholar at the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies and the 2018-2019 Bank of America Endowed GO-MAP Fellow at the University of Washington Graduate School. Vincent is graduate student coordinator of the Israel/Palestine Research Colloquium and a member of the Israel Studies Advisory Committee.

Shoshana Madmoni-Gerber

Shoshana Madmoni-Gerber, PhD

Shoshana Madmoni-Gerber, PhD, is an Associate Professor of communication and journalism at Suffolk University in Boston. She has a PhD in communication from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and a master’s degree in communication and journalism from Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Her book, Israeli Media and the Framing of Internal Conflict: The Yemenite Babies Affair was published in 2009.

Avi Shilon

Avi Shilon, PhD

Avi Shilon, PhD, is a historian who specializes in the field of Israel Studies. His dissertation focuses on The Revisionist Movement Leaders' Attitudes Toward Jewish Religion 1925-2005. His first book, Menachem Begin: A Life, was published in 2012. His second book, Ben Gurion: His Later Years in the Political Wilderness had been published in 2016. His new book, The Decline of the Left-Wing in Israel: Yossi Beilin and the Politics of the Peace Process will be later this year. Shilon teaches at NYU Tel Aviv Campus and at the Hebrew University. He also writes op-ed columns for Haaretz.

Brian K. Roby

Bryan K. Roby, PhD

Bryan K. Roby, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor. His expertise is on Middle Eastern and North African Jewish history in the modern era. His research interests include the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality in Israel/Palestine; 19th and 20th century North African history; and the legacy of French colonialism on Arab and Jewish identity. His first book, The Mizrahi Era of Rebellion: Israel’s Forgotten Civil Rights Struggle 1948-1966 (2015), provides an extensive history of social justice protests by Middle Eastern Jews in Israel. He is working on a second book project, Israel through a Colored Lens, that explores the how and why Mizrahim became “Black” in Israel through the shifting boundaries of racial constructs in Israel/Palestine as well as African-American intellectual contributions to Israeli sociology and theories on race and ethnicity.

Yaacov Lozowick

Yaacov Lozowick, PhD

Yaacov Lozowick, PhD, served as Director of Israel's National Archives from 2011 to 2018. Previously to that he ran the archives at Yad Vashem for 14 years. An historian by training, he is the author of Hitler's Bureaucrats, The Nazi Security Police and the Banality of Evil, and Right to Exist, A Moral Defense of Israel's Wars. He teaches information science at Bar Ilan University, and is writing a history of Israel's settlements.

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Jeremy Shere, PhD

Jeremy Shere, PhD, is a podcast producer based in Bloomington, Indiana. Jeremy earned his doctorate in English Literature and Jewish Studies from Indiana University. He is currently the producer of the Frankely Judaic podcast for the Jewish Studies program at the University of Michigan.

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Executive Producer: Warren Hoffman, PhD

Producers: Avishay Artsy and Erin Phillips