The Israeli government on Monday approved a plan to offer $50 million in compensation to the families of hundreds of Yemenite children who disappeared in the early years of the country’s establishment.
But the announcement received a cool reception from advocacy groups that said the government had failed to apologise or accept responsibility for the affair.
Stories about the missing children have circulated in Israel for years. Hundreds of newborn babies and young children of Jewish immigrants from Arab and Balkan countries, most of them from Yemen, mysteriously disappeared shortly after arriving in the country.
Many families believe their children were taken away and given to childless couples of European backgrounds, both in Israel and abroad. Although previous inquiries have dismissed claims of mass abductions, the suspicions have lingered and contributed to a long-simmering fault line between Jews of European origin and those of Middle Eastern backgrounds.
“This is among the most painful affairs in the history of the state of Israel,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. “The time has come for the families whose infants were taken from them to receive recognition by the state and government of Israel, and financial compensation as well.”
Arriving from Arabic-speaking countries in the Middle East and North Africa after Israel’s establishment in 1948, many Mizrahi, or Middle Eastern, immigrants were sent to shantytown transit camps and largely sidelined by the European, or Ashkenazi, leaders of the founding Labor party. This painful experience contributed to widespread Mizrahi support for the Likud party, now led by Mr Netanyahu.
Among the immigrants were more than 50,000 Yemenite Jews, often poor and with large families. In the chaos that accompanied their influx, some children died while others were separated from their parents.
But many say the reality was far more sinister, that the establishment kidnapped these children to turn them over for adoption by Ashkenazi families in the belief that they could give them a better life.
In later years, families reported being mailed military induction notices and other documents for their supposedly “dead” children, raising more suspicions.
Three high-profile commissions dismissed the claims and found that most children died of disease in immigration camps. The final one, in 2001, said it was possible that some children were handed over for adoption by individual social workers, but not as part of a national conspiracy. However, citing privacy laws, it ordered the testimonies it collected be sealed for 70 years.
Under Monday’s decision, the government will pay 150,000 shekels, or about $45,000, to families in cases where it was determined a child had died but the family had not been properly notified or where the burial site was not found.
Families where the fate of the child is unknown will receive 200,000 shekels, or about $60,000.
In a statement, the government said it “expresses regret” and “recognises the suffering of the families.” But activist groups said the decision did not go far enough.
Amram, an advocacy group that has collected testimonies from some 800 affected families, said the decision failed to include an apology and was reached without proper dialogue with the families.
“Without this component, a process of correction and healing isn’t possible,” it said. “Amram repeatedly demands that the state of Israel take responsibility for the severe injustice.”
Rafi Shubeli of “Forum Achai,” an advocacy group that represented dozens of families, accused the government of imposing a solution on the families and failing to accept responsibility or say who caused their suffering.
He also said families who have not already filed claims would be unable to seek compensation and accused the government of refusing to disclose documents related to the affair.
“Our struggle will continue,” he said. “This affair isn’t going away.”