A new exhibition opening at the Brunei Gallery will share stories of how the children of Jewish migrants in Israel were systematically removed from their parents in the 1940s and 50s.
On display from Friday 23 September to Saturday 10 December, Empty Cradles: Israel’s Disappeared Children brings together documents and photographs exposing the Israeli State policy of systematically separating Yemenite children from their parents and explains the role of so-called “baby homes” in housing these “lost” children and putting them up for adoption. The exhibition will also feature moving testimonies by mothers whose children were taken away by force, detailing the racism and condescension they experienced from the authorities.
To mark the opening of this groundbreaking exhibition, we spoke to one of the curators of the exhibition, Dr James Eastwood. James’s research concentrates on Israeli politics and society. We asked him a few questions about the importance of sharing these stories and what he hopes visitors will take away from the exhibition.
When did you first learn of the disappearances of children in Israel? What were your aims when you started this research?
I first learned of the disappearances from the work of the Amram Association, an Israeli organisation that campaigns for justice and recognition. They have done vital work in collecting testimonies from the affected families and raising awareness.
My aim with the research was initially to find out why this happened and what it could tell us about the nature of Israeli society. I’m still very interested in those questions. But as I worked more closely with Amram, they made me appreciate that we still need to investigate something much more fundamental: what actually happened to these children? Thousands of families have never received a satisfactory answer to this question, and there is much that we still do not know. The exhibition is an attempt to raise public awareness, but it is also an attempt to gather information. There are people and organisations, including some potentially based in the UK and around the world, who might know something – however small – which could help us uncover more of the truth.
What do you think were the reasons behind the widespread removal of children?
The immediate reason was a widespread belief among the Israeli medical and welfare authorities that these children would be better off away from their parents and placed in somebody else’s care. Their parents were seen as unfit to look after their own children, and even as a danger to them. The narrative of needing to “rescue” the children was very strong. But I think this immediate rationale also needs to be put in a wider political context, not only of racism towards the families but of the project of trying to build a new state and populate it with the “right kind” of people. There are strong parallels with comparable colonial projects – in the United States, Canada, or Australia, for example.
The new Israeli state was trying to establish its control over territory that it had recently conquered in war, and it was also absorbing a huge number of new Jewish immigrants – many of them from the Middle East and North Africa. These immigrants brought with them ways of life that the founders of the state viewed with suspicion and condescension. While the parents were often seen as beyond redemption, their children were seen as a malleable new generation who could make more of a contribution to the state – if they could be wrestled from their families.
How did racism play into the narrative of ‘unfit’ parents?
Racism is really crucial for understanding how this narrative operated. Modern hygiene was seen as a crucial component of European and Western identity, and this is the kind of society that the Zionist movement believed it was trying to build in Israel. Women’s organisations, in particular, believed in pursuing Western standards of cleanliness, infant care, and nutrition as a means of “civilising” new immigrants to the state. In addition, they stigmatised parents – and especially mothers – from the Middle East and North Africa as ignorant, unhygienic, neglectful, superstitious, and also often abusive.
The research of Dafna Hirsch in particular has been crucial for helping me understand this. The authorities also believed that centuries of living in Islamic societies had bred problematic attitudes towards infant welfare and had led to racial degeneration, which even manifested itself in the physical weakness of the children. When they removed the children from their parents, they believed they were rescuing them from racial deterioration and raising them in a modern setting. You can see this clearly in the literature they produced about their work, some of which we show in the exhibition. They emphasised the cleanliness and order of the “baby homes” they ran, highlighted the deficiencies of the mothers, and contrasted the babies’ brown skin with the whiteness of the linen and nurses’ aprons.
Have there been instances in other historical contexts of this happening? What makes this case particularly unique?
Yes, such instances were unfortunately common in the history of the twentieth century. Canada, the United States, and Australia systematically removed Indigenous families from their parents and placed them in boarding schools or gave them up for adoption. Britain removed working class children from their parents and sent them to the colonies to work as farm labourers. Many Latin American regimes also removed children from political dissidents, Indigenous communities, and the working classes. There are many more cases besides this – Spain, Ireland, Switzerland, the list is sadly long.
Israel is not the only country with a difficult past to confront. But there are a few unusual features of the Israeli case which make it distinctive. The first is the prominent role of medical institutions, including hospitals, in the removals – this is not something we commonly see elsewhere, where churches, schools, and prisons were the usual settings. The second is the fact that, unlike similar colonial contexts, the principal target for the removals was not the existing Palestinian population, but a racialised group of new Jewish arrivals to the state. We don’t often see this pattern elsewhere. And finally, Israel is also unusual because a full reckoning with the past has yet to take place. Thorough investigations, truth and reconciliation, apologies, and compensation have generally taken place elsewhere. While this has not always been to the fullest extent needed, in Israel, the process has been particularly lagging and inadequate. The problem is still commonly denied.
What do you think justice looks like for the families and children involved?
This is not really for me to say. But the demands which have been put forward by the Amram Association and others representing the families have included: a call for official recognition of the affair and its racist background; a public investigation of the medical aspects and scientific evidence, including DNA; adding the affair to school curricula in Israel; transparency in releasing relevant archival material; establishing a professional body to locate the children; compensation; and clearing the name of campaigners who struggled for recognition in the past who were vilified, including the late Rabbi Uzi Meshulam. Above all, whatever steps are taken need to be agreed with the families and satisfy their demand for answers.
Why did you feel it was important to tell/show people this story through an exhibition?
Exhibitions allow people to imagine and empathise with situations that they have not encountered themselves, but also to make connections with their own knowledge or experiences. For this exhibition, we wanted to connect people with a very unusual and difficult set of circumstances in a place and time quite far removed from them. But also to encourage them to see how this could relate to attitudes or practices, and perhaps even institutions and people they might recognise. Even though the events depicted took place in Israel, some of the organisations involved were founded and funded worldwide, including in the UK. One of the things that surprised us when researching the exhibition was how much material about these children was available in English and produced for English-speaking audiences and how much access people from Europe and North America had to the spaces to which the children were taken. And one theory that we wanted to explore and seek information about is the possibility that some of these children may have ended up abroad, as many people suspect.
What do you hope people take away from this exhibition?
Most fundamentally I hope the exhibition will raise awareness and persuade people of the injustice that took place. I want people to hear the voices of the families affected, and to understand the experiences and evidence which give weight to their concerns. I hope that people will leave the exhibition better informed about this story, with a sense that serious and legitimate questions still need to be answered about what happened to these children.
Do you hope that some of the children and families involved in this come forward after seeing the exhibition?
This is exactly what we are hoping for, even though we recognise this could be very difficult to achieve. More stories of disappearances and more accounts from people with questions about their childhood are coming to light all the time. With each person that comes forward to share their experience, we learn something new and important. But adoption and family reunion are complex processes. Some will wish these matters to remain private, and that is their right. We do not pretend that coming forward would be easy for those affected, and we want to be as respectful as possible of the pain and trauma this can involve, as well as of the positive experiences people have with their adoptive families.
Beyond the families and children directly affected, there may also be those with information or knowledge which could help others to answer their burning questions. A growing number of people who worked in the organisations where the disappearances took place have also given testimonies. Coming forward does not necessarily mean making a public disclosure. We encourage anyone who has a story or information to share to contact the Amram Association.