Ovadia Ben Shalom, President of the Association for Society and Culture:
Did the Yemenite Jews Forget Israel?
by Gad Nahshon
"Where are the Yemenite Jews in the U.S.A.? Why are they only bystanders? Where is the American Yemenite Federation? They are supposed to help us, their brothers and sisters in Israel. They know and are aware about our daily struggle and our financial problems. They do disappoint us. They are indifferent to our goals and mission, the ethnic struggle to preserve the Yemenite heritage and our unique work and contributions to Israel and to its culture. I am very upset because this American or New York Federation does not participate shoulder to shoulder with us. We live in a terrible era. Israel struggles daily for its survival and these Yemenite Jews in America do not care about our plight. As Jews they must be aware that they must guarantee our well-being," remarked Ovadia Ben-Shalom, the founder-president of the unique thirty year old organization, the guardian angel of the Yemenite legacy and heritage in Israel which offices and archive-museum are located in Netaniya, a city which recently suffered from many Palestinian terrorist attacks on its residents.
Mr. Ben-shalom himself told me that he and his own family almost were victims of this Palestinian non-stop attempt to commit one more genocide against the people of Israel. One must be aware that this 'association', a non-profit organization, an educational non-political entity, (Israel, PO Box 1515, Netaniya 42114, Tel: 09-8331325; Fax: 09-8614712), suffers from the bad economic reality of Israel. It is looking for international friends and donors. That is the main reason why Ovadia Ben-Shalom cried out so that his important 'association' will be able to survive into the 21st century.
"It is important to point out that we have a great support from a gentile organization which cares about us, when the Yemenite Jews do not, a Norwegian organization from Oslo! They love us and they come to visit. They are our righteous gentiles. Their chairman is Anne-Marie Gravdahe from Oslo. It is a great story. We are very excited that these gentiles do support our ethnic organization," said Ben-Shalom when I saw him in his office.
This year the 'association' was very very productive. Its achievements are unique. Ben-Shalom is a dynamo of activities. He is the true leader of this 'association' and let's hope that Israel does recognize his merits. Ben-Shalom is also a leader in the life of all the ethnic groups in Israel. He has been their pioneer and teacher since he believes that ethnicity should be a basis for integration (so you do not have to be a Yemenite in order to join the association or to enjoy the Yemenite heritage, culture or religious style and way of life!) and not a basis for isolation and extreme ways of ethnicity. He refused to let extremists take over the association and he fought for its non-political status as well.
Ben-Shalom told me that he planned a special event in Jerusalem, New York and Washington, D.C.: a multi-memorial for the victims of the Twin Towers and the Pentagon (Sept. 11, 2002). Ben-Shalom's dream is to build a new center for the association in Jerusalem. He also plans to build a new center in Hadera. He was upset that he lost his center in the old city of Jerusalem which had a library of books and an archive but on the other hand he told me that many people visited the Yemenite Museum, among them Bibi Netanyahu and his wife.
Indeed, the association was very creative in 2000-2001. Especially in the field of original publication:
1.Edot-Israel's Testimony (Edot, Hebrew, means the ethnic groups of Israel). This 728 page book was edited by Prof. Abshalom Mizrachy and Rabbi Dr. Aharon Ben-David. It is a new compilation of articles about 24 Edot in Israel Yemenite, Sephardic, and Ashkenazi, as well. It is an epitome of Mr. Ben-Shalom's belief and approach to ethnicity in Israel. Among the writers: Shimon Avi-Zemer, Yoseph Shaar, Prof. Morris Romani, Prof. Dov Levine, Dr. Haim Saadon, Akiva Nir and Mote Zakan;
2. Rabbi Dr. Ahron Ben-David published a great textbook called the Yemenite Jews. It is an illuminating survey of life, culture and the Yemenite Zionism and contribution to the creation and well-being of Israel. Today 300,000 Yemenite Jews are Israelis;
3. 'Tema' Journal of Judeo-Yemenite Studies (No 7, 2001) is with many new scholarly unique works. Prof. Yoseph Tobi is the editor. Among the writers: Renate Meissner on the Jewish-Muslim relations in East-South Yemen, Dr. Yoseph Tobi on 'The Yemenite Version of the Prayer book,' Shaul Regev on Islam and Judaism, Yitzhak Gluska on linguistic forms (Tiklal), Dani Bar Maoz on Kabbala in Yemen, Tudor Parfitt on British policy (Yemenite Jews), Azriel Kaman on the Labour movement and the Yemenites (1911-1950), and many other contributors;
4. The association also published Hebrew Language and Jewish Studies by Rabbi Dr. Aharon Ben-David and Dr. Isaac Gluska (2001). It is a compilation;
5. In progress: The Memorial Book of the Yemenite Jews in the whole world. A special project in Israel, a-la-roots: (Tel: Israel, 09-8331325 for more information.) Recently, Israeli Official Commission of Investigation published its final report on the issue of those Yemenite babies who disappeared between 1949 to 1953 and their fate becomes an Israeli public issue for many years. At least five commissions have tried to solve the mystery of these babies. It is clear that it was a terrible chapter of Israel's history. Was it a crime? Was it a case of criminal negligence? Who was responsible for this cruel behavior? The last commission headed by Justice Yaacov Kidmi concluded: most of these Yemenite Jewish babies who made aliyah then died. Probably no one notified the parents! Why? The commission argued that only 800 babies were part of their investigation. 711 our of 800 died, but the fate of 56 is still unknown. Mr. Kidmi, after three years of investigation, stated that no baby was secretly kidnapped for adoption. But he, of course, condemned the terrible behavior of the officials of the Jewish Agency, the ones who were in charge of absorption of these Yemenite Jews. But did they commit a crime? Should we prosecute the responsible officials? Some extremists, as expected, blasted the report as a new Ashkenazi cover-up. Gen. (Res.) David Maimon, a Yemenite Israeli, a member of this commission probably was called 'Uncle Tom.'
Indeed, other celebrities such as Avihu Medina, a popular composer-singer, even compare the report to the Holocaust Denial. Some promised to complain to the U.N. in order to get justice in a terrible human tragedy which took place almost 50 years ago. The mayor of the city of Rosh Haaine, Igal Yoseph, said: "I do reject this report. It is a shameful report. It is again a product of cover-up silence and escape from the responsibility of Israel to find justice, to expose the whole truth."
It looks like the Yemenites in Israel and abroad will not sleep until they find the truth. Who can solve the problem? Igal Yoseph himself is looking for his sister. She disappeared. Was she adopted? Who did adopt her? There were rumors that the American Jews came then to a young Israel and adopted these 56 babies? Where is the evidence? Why did no one tell their families about the babies? Why did they not ask for permission to adopt these babies? Was it a case of paternalism? Discrimination? By the way, some of these babies were not Yemenite but from... Romania! On the other hand, do not forget the anarchy in Israel in the post-1948 era. We should not read the past through the glasses of the present! What should we do in order to dismantle this historical tension? Ben-Shalom tries to stay away from politics. His goals are educational, his idea is that preserving ethnicity means to integrate yourself into the melting pot, to unite 'Edot Israel' not to separate-isolate them.
I am sure that he will support the following idea: Israel by law should establish a governmental authority for the Yemenite Israelis. We have two authorities who like this in Israel. One, for example, is the Ladino governmental authority whose chair is Yitzhak Navon. So let the ancient Yemenite Jewry have their own Israeli official agency. This idea aims to mitigate the pain and to diffuse the tension between the Yemenites and Israel, their own country.
Let's hope that my idea will be, by law of the Knesset, a dream come true, as soon as possible.
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