Lawmakers on Tuesday advanced a bill that would allow families of children who went missing decades ago in the so-called Yemenite children affair to seek a court-ordered exhumation of remains for the purpose of genetic testing.
The bill by Likud MK Nurit Koren — which cleared its first reading in the Knesset plenum with 13 lawmakers in favor, none opposed — would allow the families of children who went missing in 1948-1970 and were later declared dead by the authorities to seek court approval to open the graves for DNA authentication.
The relatives will have to give the family courts evidence substantiating their doubts their relatives are buried in the various sites, the bill stipulates. The law, should it pass in its second and third reading, would remain in effect for two years.
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.
Disputed by scholars and seemingly refuted by three state commissions that examined the affair and concluded 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 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?”
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 iron-clad adoption laws.