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Were Yemenite Babies Really Stolen?

It has been called Israel’s most enduring mystery—the fate of some 1,500 babies born to Yemenite Jews who disappeared shortly after the nation’s founding. Some claimed they had died. Others said they were stolen and sold to Ashkenazic patients. Then a few months ago, a woman living in California announced that she had been one of those children sold and that she had found her mother after more than 45years. Her trip to Israel for the reunion kicked off a firestorm of press coverage, but the mystery was far from solved.

Members of the Yemenite Jewish community in Israel and the United States have been claiming for four decades that hundreds of Yemenite babies were sold for adoption in the chaos of the nation’s early days. Some 45,000 Yemenite Jews were airlifted to Israel in “Operation Margie Carpet” from 1948 to 1950 and placed in squalid refugee camps. Many were separated from their children, and some parents say they were told their children had died from malnutrition, malaria or other diseases. Eighteen years later, when draft notices for these children started arriving, these parents clamored for answers and the first of three government commissions was created.

The third of these commissions is currently meeting, interviewing witnesses about what happened in those early years, Yemenites, however, continue to claim a coverup. Babies were sold by doctors, nurses and relief officials, they say, because they believed dark-skinned Yemenite Jews had a better chance of becoming productive Zionists if they were adopted by Ashkenazic Jews.

Tzila Levine, a housewife and former Sunday school teacher living in America the past 18 years, always had wondered where she came from. She was the only dark-skinned girl where she grew up near Haifa, and her Polish parents told her they adopted her from a doctor’s house filled with babies. Adoption officials in Israel told her they had no records of her at all. She virtually gave up on finding her origins until she saw Sampson Giat, head of the Yemenite Jewish Federation of America, talking about the mystery on cable television.

She called Giat and a few months later went to Israel. A lawyer hired by Giat called a press conference, timed to hearings by the third government commission. Her face was splashed throughout the Israeli media. A few days later, a 67-year-old woman bearing a startling resemblance, showed up at the lawyer’s office. Margalit Umassi was there to claim her daughter.

DNA tests were ordered and indicated a 99.9% likelihood the women were mother and daughter The two women became the biggest story in a county saturated with news about bus bombings and political machinations.

When she testified before the commission, however, Levine was met with doubt. Investigators asked for new tests. “They are the same government who has been lying all these years,” Levine said. “I didn’t expect them to say, ‘Oh, we are glad you found your mother. Mazel tov.‘” But the women did agree to additional tests performed by the state forensic lab.

The women were united and spending time together when the new results came in. Leaked to the Israeli press before they were given to the families, they showed no relationship between the two. The women cried foul, threatened to sue over the public release of the results. The coverup allegations intensified.

The government, yet to issue a final report, stood by the tests. But outside DNA experts said it’s impossible to dismiss the first findings. “There is no question in our minds this is my mother,” an angry Levine told the Sacramento Bee, which covered the saga of its community member. “This is war we are in with the government and it is a war we will win.”