Bill that allows exhuming lost Yemenite children okayed for final vote

Bill that allows exhuming lost Yemenite children okayed for final vote

Families reach agreement with government to have a doctor present on their behalf when graves are opened for genetic testing of remains

Likud MK Nurit Koren leads an event on the Yemenite Children Affair in the Knesset on June 21, 2016. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Likud MK Nurit Koren leads an event on the Yemenite Children Affair in the Knesset on June 21, 2016. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

A special committee overseeing efforts to uncover the facts behind the disappearance decades ago of Yemenite children in Israel approved Monday for its final readings a bill allowing the opening of graves for the purpose of genetic testing.

The move comes after representatives of the families involved reached an agreement with the government that a doctor would be present on behalf of the families when each grave is opened, committee chair MK Nurit Koren (Likud) reported in a statement.

“This is the biggest birthday present I could get on my birthday, which falls today,” Koren said.

The second and third Knesset readings of the bill are the final hurdles before it passes into law. It would allow families of children who went missing in the so-called Yemenite children affair in 1958-1970 to seek a court-ordered exhumation of remains to enable DNA comparisons.

Should it pass into law, it would remain in effect for two years.

In January the bill by Koren cleared its first reading in the Knesset plenum with 13 lawmakers in favor, none opposed.

The relatives will have to give evidence to the family courts substantiating their doubts that their relatives are buried in the various sites, the bill stipulates.

Since the 1950s, more than 1,000 families — mostly immigrants from Yemen, but also dozens from the Balkans, North Africa and other Middle Eastern countries — have alleged their children were systematically kidnapped from Israeli hospitals and put up for adoption, sometimes abroad.

Illustrative: Children being airlifted from Yemen in Operation Magic Carpet, in front of an Alaskan Airlines plane. (Courtesy AJM)

Some 49,000 Yemeni Jews were brought to the nascent State of Israel in Operation Magic Carpet in 1949-50.

Disputed by scholars and seemingly refuted by three state commissions that examined the affair and concluded that most of the children had died, the case has kept resurfacing, not least because most of the families were not given their children’s bodies or informed of their burial places. Furthermore, death certificates were riddled with errors, and most of the missing children were sent army draft notices 18 years after their alleged deaths. There have also been cases where adopted children were able to confirm, through DNA tests, that they were from Yemenite families who were told they had died.

Koren’s law would apply to families of children whose burial sites are known, including cases where the Israelis were informed of the grave location decades later, following the various state commissions. (In a large portion of the cases, however, the relatives still do not have information on where their children were buried.) Testimonials by family members who have located the graves of their loved ones have underlined that the burial sites were unmarked and often have multiple bodies listed as interred in a single plot, casting doubt on who was really buried there.

“The investigative commissions that in the past probed the case concluded that most of the missing children died,” the explanatory text of the bill said. “However, in some cases, they indeed pointed the family to the burial site where their relative was buried, but often the family was not present at the funeral and the question arises: How can a family be certain that their kin is really buried there?”

Yemenite immigrants in a camp near Ein Shemer in 1950. (Pinn Hans/GPO)

Exhuming the remains of the children for genetic testing would not be entirely unprecedented: In 1996, then-health minister Tzachi Hanegbi approved the exhumation of 10 graves in Petah Tikva as part of the investigation into the affair.

The proposal moved ahead after Koren reached understandings with the Chief Rabbinate and ultra-Orthodox lawmakers in the coalition on the exhumation process to ensure there will be no violation of Jewish law or religious desecration of the bodies.

The bill comes after the state archives declassified 400,000 documents on the affair in December 2016. Despite the revelations, the long-simmering controversy is far from resolved, as the families have rejected the findings of successive Knesset official commissions of inquiry, and advocacy groups representing the families continue to step up pressure for further probes. Information on adoptions remain under wraps in accordance with Israel’s ironclad adoption laws.

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