By JOEL GREENBERG
Published: September 2, 1997
JERUSALEM, Sept. 1— For a few days last week, two ordinary Israeli women became an extraordinary news media sensation.
Tzila Levine, the daughter of a Yemenite Jewish woman, had been put up for adoption as an infant without her mother’s knowledge after they immigrated to Israel nearly 50 years ago. Last week Mrs. Levine traced and apparently found her biological parent, Margalit Umaysi. A DNA test confirmed their relationship with a certainty of 99.99 percent.
Their emotional reunion attracted wide attention because it nourished a persistent conspiracy theory that is part of an ethnic fault line running through Israeli society.
Those who believe the theory contend that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Yemenite babies who were reported to have died or to have disappeared after their parents came to Israel were actually kidnapped and given or sold for adoption to European-born Israelis and American Jews.
The controversy over the Israeli establishment’s treatment of the 50,000 Yemenite Jewish immigrants, most of whom were airlifted to Israel in 1949 and 1950, has festered for years. It has stoked deep-seated feelings of resentment among the country’s Sephardic Jews of Middle Eastern and North African origin.
A generation of young Israelis of Yemenite descent has demanded explanations for the disappearance of their lost brothers and sisters from crowded tent camps where the Yemenite Jews were housed when they arrived. Babies were often taken from their parents to be put in nurseries and hospitals, and their parents were often told that the babies had died or were simply no longer there.
”I am living proof that things like that happened,” said Mrs. Levine, 49, as she sat with Mrs. Umaysi in her simple stucco home in Ramat Gan, a suburb of Tel Aviv. ”It’s an inexcusable act, and it’s time to apologize and make restitution by uncovering it.” Mrs. Levine was brought up by her adoptive parents on an Israeli kibbutz and now lives in Sacramento, Calif.
The circumstances of Mrs. Levine’s adoption and even her link to Mrs. Umaysi remain unclear, reflecting the uncertainty surrounding the fate of the Yemenite babies. Her adoptive parents, both of whom have died, told her she came to them from a clinic where a doctor had children available for adoption.
Last week, at a hearing of a Government commission inquiring into the treatment of the Yemenite infants, Mrs. Levine’s adoption papers were produced by a lawyer for the commission. The papers indicate that the adoption procedures began in 1948, a year before the records say Mrs. Umaysi arrived in Israel. Mrs. Levine’s lawyer asserted that the papers were forged. The commission suggested a second DNA test.
Ami Hovav, an investigator who served on two earlier official commissions that examined the fate of the Yemenite babies, said that out of 650 cases of babies reported missing by their parents, 80 have still not been solved. Records showed that the rest of the babies died, except for a few dozen who were put up for adoption when their parents could not be traced, he said.
Conditions in the tent camps were chaotic, Mr. Hovav said. Records were sloppy and communication with the immigrants was poor because of language difficulties, leading to frequent mix-ups when babies were transferred to and from nurseries and hospitals. Many of the infants died because they were suffering from diseases and malnutrition that developed during their families’ trek through Yemen to a transit camp in Aden. Sometimes parents were not informed of a child’s death.
At a time when the new state of Israel was still fighting skirmishes on its borders and facing severe economic difficulties, the mass immigration strained the country’s resources, contributing to the disorganization, Mr. Hovav added. ”There was negligence, but you have to understand the conditions that contributed to it,” he said.
Dov Levitan of Bar-Ilan University, a leading authority on the Yemenite immigrants, cites similar statistics, adding that he has found no evidence of an organized conspiracy to spirit away Yemenite children for adoption. But there was a condescending attitude toward the new arrivals that led to carelessness in tracking down children and their parents, he said. The problem was compounded when successive Israeli Governments refused to order investigations, fearing damaging political fallout.
The two earlier inquiries about the Yemenite babies produced only limited findings. The latest commission was announced after a shootout in 1994 between a radical Yemenite group and the police that left one militant dead. The group, led by Uzi Meshulam, who is now serving an eight-year jail sentence, contends that more than 4,500 Yemenite babies were kidnapped for illegal adoption.
Other Yemenite Jewish advocates put the numbers at between 1,000 and more than 2,000. They assert that the European-born Ashkenazic Israeli establishment looked down at the new immigrants and their traditional ways and felt free to take their children for adoption by childless European Jewish couples, many of them Holocaust surivors.
Avner Farhi, an Israeli reporter of Yemenite descent who has been investigating the disappearances, contends that the children were deliberately separated from their parents and moved to nurseries or hospitals to pave the way for their adoption.
”There was a planned system to transfer children to adoption,” said Mr. Farhi, whose sister was reported to have died in a tent camp. ”Perfectly healthy children ended up with an adoptive family in Israel or abroad, and no one looked for their parents. It was criminal negligence.”
Mr. Hovav disputed Mr. Farhi’s arguments, asserting that many infants who seemed healthy to their parents were actually quite sick. And babies were kept in heated nursery buildings because the tents where their parents lived were exposed to the elements, he said.
Mr. Levitan agreed that there was a patronizing attitude toward the immgrants. In some cases the Yemenites’ religious studies were restricted and their traditional side-curls were cut to remake them into modern, secular Israelis.
”The concept was absorption through modernization, by inculcating the values of Western society,” Mr. Levitan said. ”The parents were treated like primitive people who didn’t know what was good for them, who aren’t capable of taking care of their own kids. There was disregard for the parents, an unwillingness to make the effort to investigate, but not a conspiracy.”
The disappearance of the children left a trail of grief that continues to haunt their parents nearly 50 years later. Several weeks ago, four families of missing children opened graves bearing their children’s names, but found no remains, deepening the mystery.
”I was looking for her for 50 years, dreaming about her,” said Mrs. Umaysi of her lost daughter. She had fed her one day at a hospital near her tent camp, and the next day the baby was gone, Mrs. Umaysi recalled. Mr. Hovav says the baby girl was mistakenly returned to a different tent camp and never traced to her mother.
Mrs. Levine, who knew she was adopted from the time she was 6, said that she began searching for her biological parents in the 1970’s. Two years ago, she said, she saw Sampson Giat, the chairman of the Yemenite Jewish Federation of America, on a television program, and began corresponding with him about her case.
Earlier this month she arrived in Israel, and a picture of her as a child appeared in an Israeli newspaper. Families who got in touch with her Israeli lawyer were screened, and a DNA test was given to Mrs. Umaysi and Mrs. Levine by a Hebrew University geneticist. The results left them in no doubt that they are mother and daughter.
”The circle has closed,” Mrs. Levine said. ”I feel that I’ve won a war — a lifelong war.”
Photo: Large numbers of Jewish babies from Yemen apparently disappeared in Israel years ago. In one case, Tzila Levine, standing, of Sacramento, Calif., and her mother, Margalit Umaysi, were reunited recently. (Rina Castelnuovo for The New York Times)