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Richard Silverstein discusses Israel’s silenced history of racially motivated medical malpractice

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SHIR HEVER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Shir Hever in Heidelberg German. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, hundreds of babies from families of Jewish Yemenite immigrants in Israel have disappeared. Other Jewish families, not of Yemenite origins have also reported missing children but although Jews of Yemenite origin were and still are a minority among the Jewish population of Israel, they comprise two-thirds of the families who lost babies under suspicious circumstances in those years. The families reported that their baby was born in a hospital or was brought in for a medical procedure and that they were told that the baby has died, but were not allowed to see a body or to visit a grave. Over the years these families collected evidence that the babies never died but were given up for adoption instead. This highly controversial story has been dismissed as a hoax by the Israeli government for decades, until 2016 in which the hospital archives were opened and scholars started finding evidence corroborating the suspicions of the families. In addition, evidence emerged from the archives that children and babies of Yemenite origins have not only been taken from their families and given up for adoption, but they were also subjected to illegal medical experiments. Richard Silverstein writes the blog Tikun Olam in which he breaks stories that are under gag in the Israeli media. He is a contributor to Mid-Press News and also writes for many other newspapers and media channels. Two book chapters by him were recently published in the books “Time to Speak Out,” by Verso [Books] and in “Israel and Palestine: Alternative Perspectives on Statehood” by Rowman & Littlefield [Publishers]. Thank you very much for joining us Richard. R. SILVERSTEIN: Thanks. It’s a pleasure to be here. SHIR HEVER: Well now the archives have been opened, or at least partially opened. There are thousands of documents in them. I guess none of us read through all of them, but we’re starting to get some excerpts, which are taken out by diligent journalists. Can you tell us a little bit about what new information exists in these archives? R. SILVERSTEIN: I think it’s worth it to go back to that period when these Yemenite Jews were brought to Israel from their homeland, just so that the audience has an idea of the historical context. Israel at the time was under David Ben Gurion, considered itself in sort of a demographic race between the Jewish population of Israel and the Arab population or Palestinian. He wanted to populate Israel to the greatest extent he could with Jews. One of the ways that he could do that was through encouraging or sort of arranging for Jews from Arab countries to be sent to Israel. There was some anti-Semitic outbursts in various countries, which encouraged Jews to leave, and other Jews left under other circumstances in other places. In Yemen, they organized something called Operation Magic Carpet, which is a macabre orientalist idea that Israel was going to whisk the Yemenite Jews to safety and was going to save them from their fate in Yemen and send them to a Western country and civilize them. A lot of the actions that the Israeli medical establishment took against the Yemenites can be seen in the sort of condescending and colonialist kind of perspective they took on these Yemenite Jews, and not just Yemenites by the way. All Jews from Mizrahi or Eastern origin were treated similarly as you mentioned. That was the impetus for doing this and also explains some of the reasons why these horrible medical experiments were done on them as well, in which they were treated more like guinea pigs than human beings. You asked about some of the particular activities that happened, and one of them, which was perhaps the most egregious was that there were four Yemenite children that were brought to the hospital who were malnourished. They were not in any serious danger. The medical staff at the hospital decided to inject them with a substance they called dry protein. All four children died and the doctors used an odd locution in order to describe this. They said that they came into the hospital balanced and the injections made them unbalanced. Instead of saying that they were killed, they used that strange term. The Likud member of Knesset who first released this information, she called this murder, and I think that’s an apt and important term that we should use. The Israeli government over the course of three different national commissions of inquiry has A, refused to release most of the information until as you mentioned just now and B, it’s refused to accept any responsibility as a national, as a government or as a nation for the crimes that were committed against these Yemenites, and C, the families where the children were taken away have had no accounting of what happened to their children. Some of the children were actually basically kidnapped from their families and sent off for adoption. Some of the children ended up in the United States. Some of them ended up being adopted by medical staff. In addition to this, the children themselves are victims because they grew up not knowing … You know they could probably physically see that they weren’t Ashkenazi Jews like most of the parents who adopted them, and they had no accounting of what happened to them and what their origin was. You just have this really, it’s a chamber of horrors in terms of a scandal and it’s one of the worst medical scandals perhaps in the history of the state of Israel. I want to put into context also that Israel, even though this is a really horrific example of medical malpractice, these kinds of medical experiments were done other places as well, including in the United States. You have the Tuskegee medical experiments in which Blacks who had syphilis were experimented on by refusing to give them any treatment and compared to Blacks who were given treatment, so they deliberately allowed these people to develop syphilis even though there was a cure for syphilis at the time. This is a, sort of a racist, colonialist approach that was taken in Israel and in other places unfortunately. SHIR HEVER: Yeah. One thing that needs to be added when you talk about the colonial history of Jewish immigration to Palestine, that actually Jews from Yemen were among the first Jews to immigrate to Palestine for political and religious reasons in the 19th and early 20th century, before there was a state of Israel. Those were not actually colonists because they were traveling in the same country. They didn’t need a passport to move from Yemen to Palestine. It was all part of the Ottoman empire but I think that most of the cases that are covered in this particular scandal are of Yemenites that were, that arrived later within this context of this Magic Carpet, so-called Magic Carpet Project of bringing the Yemenites. Now, one thing that I think may not be completely clear if, like you say, the purpose of the Zionist government under Ben Gurion in those years was to increase the Jewish population as much as possible, then why would babies be kidnapped from Jewish parents? Especially considering that this is not just a handful of cases. You describe these four cases of medical, illegal medical experimentation, but cases of kidnapping, we’re talking about hundreds of cases. R. SILVERSTEIN: Yes. SHIR HEVER: It was not just a few doctors. It was possibly government policy. So what kind of purpose would that government policy have? R. SILVERSTEIN: I think here we have to again go back to the notion of racism and colonialism and these Jews were viewed as being from a backward, primitive origin in Yemen and all of the Jews who came from eastern lands, from Arab countries and even from places like the Balkans in Europe, were viewed as being backward and primitive and the Ashkenazi, the Eastern European Jews who were the elite ruling Israel and its medical establishment, viewed themselves as doing a favor to these Jews by whisking them away from their parents, where it might be viewed as bringing them up in the same level of poverty and primitiveness and handing them over to Ashkenazi Jews where they would get a kind of Western upbringing. They would have more opportunities supposedly, and they would be assimilated into the Israeli ethos and raised as Israeli Jews rather than as Yemenites. This again is this sort of terrible condescension with which these immigrants were treated by the Israeli establishment. One other factor I didn’t mention, which is very important to raise in terms of a connection to the United States is that the National Institutes of Health, the NIH actually gave one million dollars in grant money to Israeli hospitals to engage in medical experiments on the corpses of some of these children and Yemenite adults who died in medical care. In some cases, doctors wanted to hopefully prove that the Yemenites had an African origin, so they tried to determine whether they had sickle cell anemia in their bodies after they died and they did experiments to determine that. Of course, the experiments failed. They never were able to prove that they were, and even if they had, there’s really very little medical value to that. No one has been able to get the National Institutes of Health to acknowledge what happened in any way, and I have approached NIH as well and asked them to comment and they haven’t. I’m exploring possibly filing a FOIA request to try to get this information, but unfortunately the United States has a hand in this tragedy as well. SHIR HEVER: Now finally, it’s very important to remember that the government administration in Israel in the fifties was a completely different party, very different ideological setting at the time. This was the iteration of the Labor Party by a different name. Today it’s the Likud Party and a different administration. Like you said it was a Likud member of the Knesset who broke the story and even the Minister of Justice from the Jewish Home Party, even more right wing, she mentioned that [Rabbi] Uzi Meshulam, one of the famous activists demanding that the truth be told about what happened to those disappeared babies, he said the government owes him an apology. He is passed away by now, but he meant that all of this, that all of this, that his arguments could not have been so easily dismissed. But the official position of the Israeli government continues to be to deny this story, to ignore it and like you say, not have it on the legislative agenda, not to offer any reparations. Why is the Israeli government not coming out with this story, which actually makes their position look bad? R. SILVERSTEIN: Well yes. I want to emphasize that the Likud, which is now responsible for this scandal since it’s in power, is a party that has largely attracted the votes of Mizrahi Jews and Yemenite Jews, not uniformly but the party made its, its constituency was based on disaffected Jews, not the Ashkenazi elite, which tended to favor the Labor Party for the longest period of time. Their natural constituency is some of these Yemenite Jews. It’s even more outrageous for the Likud to be responsible for this level of secrecy. It’s really mind-boggling that they would continue the policy of the Labor Party, which they claim to really despise and for the longest period of time they were rivals. The only way I can account for this is just this glacial kind of inertia in Israeli society that because a scandal was handled in a certain way, no one in society wants to change the approach and no one wants to rock the boat and no one wants to open a can of worms. So whether it be the Labor Party or the Likud, they’re afraid of the results. Israel also is a society that really has a lot of bottled up tension between ethnic groups and religious groups, between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi and between Arabs and Jews, so anything that might upset this balance internally is viewed as something that is frightening and they don’t know what the outcome might be, in terms of its impact in society. They would rather just keep things bottled up and continue along this same line that they have been going for the longest period of time. In the West, in western democracies, we have this notion of sunlight being the best disinfectant. That approach has not yet entered into Israeli society. I can only hope that that will happen in the future. I think that this is a slow opening that we’ve seen with the latest results of these commission being opened a little bit and the NGO collecting the testimony. Hopefully scholars will be pressuring the government to do further work on this. I can only hope that this will start a gradual process of opening this tragedy up to greater research and inquiry. SHIR HEVER: Yeah. Well, indeed I also hope that. We will know the facts, the full facts of this story soon. Thank you very much, Richard, for joining us. R. SILVERSTEIN: Thank you Shir. I appreciate the opportunity. SHIR HEVER: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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Richard Silverstein blogs at Tikun Olam, where he covers the the Israeli national security state. He has contributed to the essay collections, A Time to Speak Out: Independent Jewish Voices on Israel, Zionism and Jewish Identity and Israel and Palestine: Alternate Perspectives on Statehood.