For nearly 40 years, everything about Gil Grunbaum’s life was a lie, including his name.
He was not, as he had always assumed, the only son of wealthy Holocaust survivors who owned a baby garments factory near Tel Aviv. Grunbaum had been stolen from his mother by doctors at a hospital in northern Israel in 1956, moments after she gave birth.
His biological parents – recent immigrants to Israel from Tunisia – were told their child had died during delivery. They were sent home without a death certificate and denied the chance to see their baby’s body or a grave.
Despite his darker looks, it never occurred to Grunbaum that the parents who raised him were not biologically related to him. Now aged 60, he says the discovery was “the most shocking moment imaginable. Everyone I loved – my parents, aunts, uncles and cousins – had been deceiving me for decades.”
And so had government officials
Even when I discovered by chance that I was adopted, the welfare services did everything they could to try to stop me finding my biological family,” Grunbaum told Al Jazeera. “No one wanted me to know the truth.”
After a three-year search in the late 1990s, he finally learned his family’s name – Maimon – and tracked down his birth mother to the suburbs of Haifa in northern Israel. Some 41 years after they were separated, the two met for the first time, in an emotional reunion.
Grunbaum’s story would be deeply disturbing if it was unique. But growing evidence suggests that there could be thousands of other children who were abducted in Israel’s first decade
Last weekend, Tzachi Hanegbi, a government minister tasked with studying the disappearances, conceded that at least “hundreds” of children had been taken without their parents’ consent. It is the first time a government official has ever made such a public admission.
After weeks of re-examining evidence presented to a commission of inquiry in the late 1990s, Hanegbi told Israeli TV: “They took the children and gave them away. I don’t know where.”
The Kedmi inquiry, which had issued its findings in 2001, found that as many as 5,000 children may have disappeared in the state’s first six years alone, although it examined only 1,000 of those cases. Jacob Kedmi, a former Supreme Court judge who died last month, concluded that in most cases, the children had died and been hurriedly buried.
Hanegbi’s admission appears to confirm allegations long made by the families – and supported by scholars and journalists – that the inquiry was little more than a whitewash by the Israeli establishment. Kedmi placed the hundreds of thousands of documents relating to testimonies and evidence under lock for 70 years. They will not be made publicly available until 2071
The first consequence is likely to be mounting pressure on the government to open the state’s adoption files so that the true extent of the disappearances can be gauged and families reunited.
But Hanegbi’s otherwise evasive comments will do little to end suspicions that officials are still actively trying to avoid confronting the most contentious questions: Why were the infants taken from their families? Did hospitals and welfare organisations traffic children in Israel’s early years? And were state bodies complicit in the mass abductions?
When asked by Israeli TV programme Meet the Press whether government officials were involved, Hanegbi would say only: “We may never know.”
His reluctance to be more forthcoming may be understandable. Shoshana Madmoni-Gerber, an Israel academic who has written a book on the disappearances titled Israeli Media and the Framing of Internal Conflict: The Yemenite Babies Affair, noted that the “forcible transfer” of children from one ethnic group to another satisfied the United Nations definition of “genocide”. The 1951 convention includes the crime of “complicity”.
“Ultimately, I don’t think it matters whether government officials actively planned what happened or they simply looked the other way while others carried out the kidnappings,” she told Al Jazeera. “Either way, this was a crime perpetrated against thousands of parents who still don’t know the truth about their children’s fate.”
Almost all of the missing children were from Jewish families that had arrived from Arab countries shortly after Israel’s creation during the Nakba of 1948, when hundreds of thousands of native Palestinians were expelled from their homes