The Israeli Knesset has, after sixty years of cover-up, exposed one of the most lurid scandals in the history of Israeli medicine. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, inspired by Ben Gurion’s philosophy that Israel must populate itself via Jewish immigration to compete with the Arabs, Israel airlifted tens of thousands of Yemenite Jews and resettled them. It was celebrated as a great humanitarian operation in which the Yemenites were “saved” from a life of destitution and anti-Semitic victimhood in their native land.
Within months of their arrival, reports began circulating of babies who disappeared from hospitals and medical clinics. The final count amounted to hundreds, perhaps even thousands of babies who were purportedly kidnapped from their parents or even killed. The grieving parents received no word about what had happened; no death certificate; no explanation. Even decades later, after three separate boards of inquiry spanning thirty years, the results of the investigations were sealed and victims learned nothing. The State refused to accept responsibility nor did it compensate the victims for their personal losses. It is perhaps the greatest medical scandal in Israeli history, ranking right up there with the Tuskegee syphilis experiment in its deviousness and lethality.
In addition, the scandal also involved the U.S. National Institutes of Health, which paid Israeli hospitals nearly $1-million (in current value; then it was 160,000 Israeli lira) to provide fetuses of dead Yemenite babies and corpses of adults which were used in medical experiments to determine why Yemenites did not develop heart disease. One doctor sought to prove that Yemenites were of African descent. To do so, he tested the blood of dead Yemenites to determine if they had sickle-cell anemia. He even wrote a medical paper about his claims. In their testimony, the doctor who reported on this arrangement said they had called the Yemenites kushim, which is roughly equivalent to “darkie” or “N****r.”
Israel HaYom, which first broke the story, sought comment from an NIH spokesperson who responded that it could not release information without a FOIA request. I am exploring doing so now. It’s extremely important to expose whatever role U.S. doctors or researchers played in this disaster.
Living children were also used in anatomy demonstrations in which parts of their bodies were outlined in ink with the names of various organs. Presumably, this was meant to serve as a live demonstration for students who could see where the organs were located on a living body.
In none of these experiments were the parents of the children asked for permission. Researchers simply used the Yemenites, living or dead, for the benefit of medicine, which was deemed more critical than the feelings of the mourning parents.
The new report explains why so many Yemenite children died: since none of the Israeli medical staff spoke Yemenite and the patients didn’t speak Hebrew, staff could not learn the names of the children. Instead, they numbered them. The numbering system often broke down and patients’ numbers were often switched, misplaced or lost, which led to the wrong medicines being taken and wrong treatments offered. As a result many died. The medical staff decided that it should make the best of the opportunity by whisking the bodies off for autopsies or post-mortem experimentation.
”One of the most ghoulish reports concerns four babies who were hospitalized because they were malnourished. Though they were in stable condition, doctors decided to inject them with “dry protein.” In the ‘understated’ words of the chief of staff of the Rosh HaAyin hospital:
Mendel said, “I remember one or two cases in which Dr. Matot gave instructions to give an injection of dry protein that we would separate. Serum, dry plasma … and the results were not good.
The protocol includes a letter from Dr. Kalman Jacob Mann, deputy medical director of the hospital, to Mendel, dated Nov. 21, 1949, saying: “I visited our hospital in Rosh Haayin, and found that that morning four babies who had received active treatment had died. These babies were in more or less balanced condition according to their physio-pathological condition, but after they were injected with various solutions, the balance was upset and they died.”
The Likud MK leading the current investigation called such acts “murder.”
In further testimony, the lawyer on behalf of the board of inquiry questioned Dr. Mendel about the practice of using dead fetuses for experimentation:
When Nahmani-Roth [the lawyer] asked him whether the unapproved autopsies had caused problems with the parents who wanted to see their children’s bodies, Mendel replied, “I don’t think so, since after the autopsies we’d fix up the baby, so they [the parents] could see its face, so it looked undamaged … but it was completely legal. There were no problems.”
The lawyer shot back: “Not legally, but morally, and out of a sense of the parents’ feelings. Isn’t it possible that consistently, you would conduct autopsies on children and then not show the bodies to their parents?”
Mendel also told the committee that all the testing had been meticulously documented, but that he had heard rumors that “someone destroyed them [the records] seven years later.”
In a number of cases, medical staff simply adopted babies as their own. The parents, again, were never told a thing other than that the baby had died. The tragedy in this case is not just that of the parents, but of the children raised by Ashkenazi parents who could or would never tell them how they came to be their parents. Many of these children grew up to sense they were victims of this disastrous experiment. But the State offered them nothing, which made things even worse.
A corollary to this tragedy is the Ringworm Affair, in which Israeli doctors treated Yemenite children with radiation against ringworm. They did so without realizing at the time that the dosage they were giving the children was toxic, even lethal, and would later cause cancer in many of them. The State similarly denied any culpability for this disastrous medical treatment.
In this age of roaring hate, it’s important to put this story in proper perspective. There are those who will attempt to compare these experiments with Nazi medical experiments on Jewish children and adults. There will always be those who seek to prove that Israelis are no different from Nazis. That’s why it’s important to note that such outrageous medical practices happened around the world including here in the U.S. They were the result certainly of racism and heartlessness. But the Israeli experiments, while immoral, were not conducted within a framework of genocide as the Nazi ones were.
However, that in no way lessens the horror of what Israeli medicine did. It in no way lessens Israeli government culpability for these crimes. As the MK leading this inquiry noted: this was outright murder. The fact that Israel has suppressed this story for as long as it has is a dark stain on the nation. It is yet another reminder of the profound racism at the heart of the Zionist enterprise. At the very beginning of the State, Yemenite babies were treated as the equivalent of cannon fodder. Alive, they were meant to fill in the population gaps of Israeli Jews in the demographic battle against the Arabs. Dead, they were used for the “good” of medical science. Israel’s doctors and politicians treated the Yemenites as disposable, interchangeable objects to be manipulated for the good of the State.
Richard Silverstein is the creator of Tikun Olam, and describes himself as a”progressive (critical) Zionist” who supports an “Israeli withdrawal to pre-67 borders and an internationally guaranteed peace agreement with the Palestinians.
Top photo: Yemenite babies treated by Israeli nurses as mothers look on