Yemeni Jews describe their holocaust: Sarah Helm in Yehud reports on claims that Israelis stole 4,500 children from immigrants

AT THE END of a road in the Israeli town of Yehud sits a white house surrounded by a tall hedge. At the gate stand hefty men with jet-black beards. Pistols are strapped beneath their overhanging stomachs.

This is the house of Uzi Meshulam, the so-called rabbi who has brought 'the massacre of the Yemenite children' on to Israel's front pages by setting up an armed sect in his garden - the site on 23 March, a few weeks after the Hebron massacre, of a shoot-out with police that led to a Waco-style seige.

Meshulam, who, it is said, comes from a long line of Yemenite mystics, claims to have evidence of 4,500 babies taken away from new Yemenite immigrants by the Israeli authorities in the years immediately after the founding of the state. The families were told that the babies had died from disease or malnutrition. Then, says Meshulam, they were sold off for adoption to rich Ashkenazi Jews, inside Israel and abroad.

In the garden there are crowds of adults, as well as clusters of babies and children, with the olive skin, thick black hair, and pearly white teeth of Yemenites. All the young wear yellow stars on their starched dresses and shirts. 'The Yemenites feel this is their holocaust,' explains a young supporter.

Under a large awning slung between two lemon trees, mothers talk about missing babies, stolen babies, babies kidnapped and sold many years ago. Twins Yoessef and Shalom, stolen at nine months. Another Yoessef stolen at five months. Leah, who was 11 months. Davide, snatched at four months. And hundreds more.

The 'massacre', say Meshulam's supporters, was part of a plot by the Ashkenazi establishment, which used all the institutions of the state to subjugate the Sephardic Jews brought into Israel from Middle Eastern and North African countries to swell the population. Almost all the 50,000 Jews of Yemen were flown to Israel between 1949 and 1952, during which time the population of the state doubled. The Yemenites were the poorest of the new immigrants and suffered 50 per cent infant mortality rates, according to some reports.

The Israeli establishment maintains that the story is largely, though not wholly, a myth. It is true that in the wake of the Holocaust in Europe there was a massive demand for Jewish children for adoption, and Yemenites were renowned for their beauty. But the talk of such a mass trade is believed to have been spun out of the Yemenites' resentment of Israel's Ashkenazi elite. The Yemenites were flown 'straight from the Bible', as Tom Segev, the Israeli writer puts it, to the new Jewish state, where they felt abandoned and aggrieved as their culture was destroyed.

This is not the first time the story of the Yemenite babies has haunted Israel. The affair first came to light in the late Sixties, when hundreds of Yemenite families received call-up papers for their 'dead' children, ordering them to sign on for military service in the Israeli army. The children would all have been 18 when the papers arrived. It emerged that few of the families had ever been given death certificates.

By this time, the Yemenite lobby was powerful in Israel, and the ensuing outcry was temporarily quietened by a superficial investigation, which looked at 342 complaints. It found cause for concern in the case of 35 babies. A further 600 complaints in the Eighties brought new claims of a massive cover-up, and another investigation was launched in 1988 by the Shalgi Committee. It has still not reported.

In the meantime, families pour into Yehud to tell their stories. The government, the media, the police and the dreaded Shin Beit, Israel's internal security service, are all involved in the conspiracy to conceal the truth, says Meshulam. He claims to have seen a list of names of illegally adopted babies in a safe in the Israeli interior ministry.

Armed with his Uzi and Molotov cocktails, Meshulam has the air of a fanatic. The women in his garden, however, have compelling stories to tell.

Rachel Darshan's tale is typical. Sitting beside a make- shift bunker at the back of the house, she speaks with the calm of someone who has learnt to bear the burden of loss.

When she arrived in Israel in 1952, the family was sent to a camp and the babies taken away to nurseries. One day, when Rachel went to feed five-month-old Yoessef, he had disappeared. The nurse said he had been taken to hospital with a sore throat. 'A few days later they said he died.'

The family was not shown the body or given a death certificate, although a false certificate was issued eight years later which, she says, contained inaccurate information. Rachel has nothing to remember her child by, but says: 'All I know is he was beautiful.'

Sarah Gehassy speaks of her cousins, Yoessef and Shalom, who came with her to Israel in 1949. Their mother, she says, is now 90 and too old to travel.

The family had come from the village of Rejam, near Sanaa, the capital of Yemen. She was 10 and the twins were nine months when they settled in the immigrant camp. The child's mother, Margolit Ihyra Gehassy, used to go to the camp nursery each day to breast-feed the babies. One day the mother took one of the babies back to the family tent, and was reprimanded for doing so. The next time she went to the nursery, the baby was gone; two days later, the second twin had disappeared. The family was given no explanation and never saw the bodies.

In 1968 the family received call-up orders for Yoessef and Shalom. Their father, Davide Ihyra Gehassy, went to the call-up office and was told by officers to wait - Yoessef and Shalom might turn up. They never did. 'They were sold for money. Perhaps your article will help to find them,' says Sarah. 'Perhaps someone somewhere will remember.'

That some injustice was perpetrated against many Yemenite families seems clear. But on what scale and at what level remains a mystery.

Avishai Margalit, a philosophy professor who taught Hebrew in the immigrant camps, recalls the chaos. Families arrived with no documentation and with countless children; many very ill.

'It is possible that well- meaning social workers took some children away for adoption, believing it would be kinder,' he says. 'But I do not believe there was a policy of stealing the kids for adoption. There is a geuine sense among the Yemenites that something terrible happened to them, and this has now become a focal point for all their grudges against the state.

'It should be investigated, but I do not believe the conspiracy. If it happened on a wide scale, they would always be popping up. We would know of Yemenites in Ashkenazi families.'

Uri Avinieri, a left-wing radical who first wrote about the stolen babies in 1967, believes that there is more to the affair than this. In 1967 he cited cases of Yemenite children being brought up by rich Ashkenazi families in the US, and alleged that the babies had been sold for dollars 5,000 each by agents in Israel. He was never asked to hand over his evidence, and in 1971 his magazine's archives were destroyed in a fire.

Even in the early years, Israel was a highly ordered society, Avinieri says. Talk of lost documents, or babies going astray is nonsense.

'Why are they almost all Yemenites? It is not coincidence. They were very beautiful and docile with strong Jewish traditions. They were thought to be the least likely to complain or question.'

The Israeli police seem cowed by the siege. The sect is closely allied with the most militant Jewish settlers. It is probably no coincidence that the siege began just after the Hebron massacre, when the settlers looked for any cause to display their strength.

The Yehud sect is being nervously watched by Yitzhak Rabin, the Prime Minister, who cannot afford at this delicate time to alienate the Sephardi vote. The 'mad rabbi' is demanding a full independent investigation, but Mr Rabin is loath to accede. For the Yemenite families, however, such an investigation might finally exorcise this ghost.

(Photograph omitted)

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