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In Israel, the Birth of a Scandal

Reunion: Californian learns she was taken from Yemenite mother in 1949. Case may be one of many.

August 27, 1997|REBECCA TROUNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TEL AVIV — In a discovery that gives sudden credence to one of Israel's most persistent conspiracy theories, a California woman has been proved to be the daughter of a Yemenite Jewish immigrant whose baby was taken from her almost half a century ago.

Tzila Levine, now of Sacramento, was 1 year old in 1949 when she was taken from her mother, Margalit Umassi, in a chaotic immigrant transit camp and given a short time later to apparently unsuspecting adoptive parents elsewhere in Israel.

On Tuesday, after receiving the results of genetic tests that prove their relationship, Levine, 49, and her mother, 67, spent the day exulting in a long-awaited reunion and exclaiming over such physical similarities as their short, wide fingers.

They also asked searching questions about why the state of Israel, in its early days and in the years since, had all but dismissed the claims of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of immigrants from Yemen that their babies had disappeared.

In her case alone, Levine said Tuesday, there are four victims: "a wounded mother, a daughter who had to go on living without her, and adoptive parents who were dragged into this tragedy not knowing they were taking part in a conspiracy."

Leaders of the Yemenite Jewish community here and in the U.S. have long suspected that the missing children did not die, as most parents were told, but were kidnapped and given or sold to childless Jewish couples of American or European descent. Most Israelis have long dismissed the stories as the fantasies of an uneducated group caught up in the chaos of a mass immigration, but they were paying new attention Tuesday.

The sensational case, which sparked hundreds of calls to radio talk shows, is expected to spur new demands for investigations into the decades-old claims--and to intensify simmering racial tensions between Sephardic Jews, of Middle Eastern or North African origin, and Ashkenazim, of Eastern European backgrounds. The latter are politically, economically and socially dominant in Israel.

The mystery of the missing children has long inflamed the passions of many Yemenite Jews. Two government commissions over the years have failed to lay the kidnapping rumors to rest; a third, armed with greater legal powers, is making yet another attempt.

Soon after Israel's creation in 1948, its government embarked on an ambitious program to evacuate the Jews in Yemen and other Middle Eastern countries and bring them to Israel to help establish a Jewish homeland. In 1949 and 1950, about 35,000 Yemenite Jews were airlifted to Israel in an operation called "Magic Carpet." About 14,000 more followed in the early 1950s.

The fledgling state was overwhelmed by the number of refugees. Tent camps were thrown up but provided far from adequate shelter, especially during the harsh winters of 1949 and 1950.

The story of Tzila Levine and her mother begins in the fall of 1949. Accompanied by other relatives, the 18-year-old mother and her young child walked for three days from the northern Yemenite town of Sada to a camp that served as a staging area for the airlifts.

"I had this dream to move to Israel, my homeland," said Margalit Umassi, a sturdy woman who sat beside her daughter in the cafeteria of a Tel Aviv television studio. "But here I lost my child."

The exact circumstances of Levine's disappearance remain hazy, but Umassi said the baby, then called Saada, was taken away almost as soon as they arrived in the chaotic transit camp known as Rosh Haayn. Umassi said the nurses would not allow her or other mothers to take their children out of a building they called the "children's house" but did allow them to visit and nurse the babies.

Then one night, "I fed her in the evening, and the next day she wasn't there," Umassi said. Frantic, the young mother asked nurses, doctors, police officers and other officials where her baby was. All said they did not know.

For two years, Umassi searched continuously, visiting government ministries, charitable institutions and immigrant aid groups in hopes of finding some word of Saada. Most of those she turned to had little time for her; one, a police officer, suggested that she return to Yemen if she was not happy in Israel.

Her life moved on. She married and had other children, including a daughter, Yehudit, who looks strikingly like Tzila. Still, Umassi said, "I never lost hope; I never forgot about her."

Meanwhile, Saada, who had been renamed Tzila, was living on a kibbutz in northern Israel with her new parents, Polish immigrants Mordechai and Anda Rosen. When she was 6, the Rosens told her she was adopted, but they appeared to know little of her history. Eventually, she learned that they had obtained her through a pediatrician in Haifa, who had a number of babies in his home for prospective parents to visit. The doctor, who has not been named, and her adoptive parents have since died.

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