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Sunday, June 23, 2013

Rabbi Uzi Meshulam, who campaigned to probe disappearance of Yemenite children, dies at 60

Rabbi Uzi Meshulam, the rabbi that fought to reveal the alleged kidnapping Jewish Yemenite children in Israel's early years, died this Friday at age 60.

Meshulam made the headlines in 1994 when he and his followers barricaded themselves in his home in the city of Yehud with an arsenal of weapons. Meshulam threatened bloodshed. Police broke into the house and overcame Meshulam's followers at the moment he left them to talk with the police commissioner. For his role in the affair, Meshulam served six years in prison.

A commission of inquiry established following his struggle didn't find evidence of the kidnapping of Yemenite babies by the establishment.

Meshulam, who was born in 1953, was a teacher in a religious Jewish school. During Passover of 1994, he began distributing pamphlets regarding the kidnapping of Yemenite Jewish children which he equated to the acts of the Nazis during the Holocaust. Thousands of children of Yemenite immigrants to Israel, he claimed, were sold to the United States to be used in experiments like those that were conducted by Dr. Joseph Mengele in Auschwitz. Meshulam demanded the establishment of a national commission of inquiry.

At the end of March 1994, Meshulam was involved in an argument with the driver of a cement mixer whose right of way was blocked by a tanker that stood beside Meshulam's house. Meshulam rejected the driver's request that he move the tanker and the driver called the police. In response, Meshulam summoned his followers and they blocked the road with their cars.

The following day, dozens of Meshulam's followers assembled next to his house in Yehud and clashed with the police.

With the involvement of several Knesset members, an agreement was concluded with Meshulam, in which he took it upon himself to ensure that his men would not act violently. In return, Meshulam was promised that the police would release some of his followers who had been arrested and that the investigation would be delayed until after Passover.

Additionally, he was promised that the Knesset would act to bring about the creation of a national committee of inquiry regarding the disappearance of children among Israel's community of Yemenite immigrants.

The police did in fact free Meshulam's arrested followers and delayed the opening of an investigation. However, when after Passover he was requested to report to the police for questioning, Meshulam refused.

The barricading of Meshulam's house continued and police forces remained close by. Additional attempts made by various figures to persuade Meshulam to disperse his men were in vain.

Comments made by Meshulam during phone conversations he conducted from his home raised fears that he intended to escalate the confrontations with the police. Fearing bloodshed, the police acted with restraint. At the end of April, when the barricaded group came out of the house to defiantly march in the street armed and led by Meshulam, it did not intervene.

After seven weeks since Meshulam and his men barricaded themselves in his house, on May 10, Meshulam was persuaded to meet with then Police Commissioner Assaf Hefetz.

Meshulam arrived at the meeting in disguise and strapped with two pistols. Hefetz asked Meshulam to instruct his followers to lay down their weapons and to turn themselves in to the police. When Meshulam rejected this demand and threatened bloodshed, he was arrested.

An hour after Meshulam's arrest, shots were fired from the roof of his house toward a police helicopter and toward police forces surrounding the house. The police returned fire and hit one off the men barricaded in the home, Shlomo Assulin, killing him. Later, the police burst into the house and arrested Meshulam's followers.

Meshulam was sentenced to eight years in prison, but his sentence was reduced and in the end he only served five years in prison, after President Ezer Weizman also further reduced his sentence. Meshulam's followers came back into the headlines later on when they shot a Prison Service employee.

Meshulam's goal eventually achieved, when in 1995 a committee was established to examine the case of the disappearance of Yemenite children who immigrated to Israel between 1948 and 1954. The committee was first led by Supreme Court Judge Emeritus Yehuda Cohen, who was subsequently replaced by his colleague Jacob Kedmi. This was the third commission that investigated this issue.

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