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)

Sport
Club legend Paul Scholes is scared United could disappear into 'the wilderness'
footballExclusive: Former Man United star writes for 'The Independent'
News
A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
science
News
Dawkins: 'There’s a very interesting reason why a prince could not turn into a frog – it's statistically too improbable'
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Travel
Dinosaurs Unleashed at the Eden Project
travel
Arts and Entertainment
music
Sport
football
Life and Style
This month marks the 20th anniversary of the first online sale
techDespite a host of other online auction sites and fierce competition from Amazon, eBay is still the most popular e-commerce site in the UK
News
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

HR Advisor - East Anglia - Field-based

£35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: To be considered for this position you will n...

Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, Graduate, SQL, VBA)

£45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, ...

Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Perl, Bash, SQL)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Per...

C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB6, WinForms)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB...

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home