For first time, grave of alleged ‘disappeared’ Yemenite baby to be exhumed

At request of surviving family, authorities plan to take DNA sample next week in effort to determine if interred child really is Uziel Houri, who was said to have died in 1952

Yemenite Jewish children and their toys in the Hashed camp near Aden, Yemen. 1949. (David Eldan/GPO photo archive)
Yemenite Jewish children and their toys in the Hashed camp near Aden, Yemen. 1949. (David Eldan/GPO photo archive)

The Health Ministry said Sunday that it is preparing to open the grave of a baby who died in 1952 next week to confirm to the boy’s surviving family of Yemenite immigrants that he really is buried there, and was not spirited away from them 64 years ago.

The planned procedure will mark the first time that a grave is opened for DNA testing in the Yemenite children affair, the decades-old claim by immigrants who arrived from Yemen that their children and siblings were kidnapped from them as babies in the 1950s.

The child is Uziel Houri, and he is buried in the Segula cemetery in the central city of Petah Tikvah. Five families related to Houri asked for and received a court order permitting the exhumation.

According to state records, Houri was born in 1952 and died a year later of illness.

Authorities are scheduled to open the grave on Monday next week and take a DNA sample from the remains for the purpose of establishing family authentication, the ministry said in a statement.

The ministry said it was acting under a law passed four years ago that permits opening a grave in order to carry out genetic testing to determine family ties.

Israelis protest as they mark a memorial and awareness day of the Yemenite Children Affair in Jerusalem, on July 31, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The ministry said it had backed legislation enabling exhumations “out of a desire to reach the truth and to remove suspicions of the families regarding the identity of their loved ones.”

Under an agreement between the Houri family and state authorities, the DNA sampling will be done at the state-operated Abu Kabir Forensic Institute, though an expert on behalf of the families will also be present, the Walla news website reported.

Mazel Barako, Houri’s sister, welcomed the development, telling Walla it was “good news after years of upheaval from the state.”

But, Barako admitted that even under the agreed conditions, she does not trust the state because the families were not allowed to conduct their own DNA testing.

“I must admit that even if they say that it is my brother I won’t believe the results of the investigation,” she said.

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

The Houri family immigrated to Israel in 1948. Uziel and a brother were born four years later. After Uziel became ill, he was taken to the hospital by welfare services. Shortly afterward, the family was told that he had died. A past state commission of inquiry into the Yemenite children saga found that Houri did indeed die and that he is buried in the grave that bears his name.

The decades-long affair involves more than 1,000 families — mostly immigrants from Yemen, but also dozens from the Balkans, North Africa and other Middle Eastern countries — who have alleged their children were kidnapped from Israeli hospitals and put up for adoption, sometimes abroad, in Israel’s early years.

The official explanation is that the children died while under medical care, but many families do not believe this, insisting their children were taken away and given to childless couples of European backgrounds. Although previous inquiries have dismissed all claims of mass abductions, suspicions have lingered and contributed to a long-simmering fault line between Jews of European origin and those of Middle Eastern backgrounds.

Families claim the children were taken away from their parents by authorities, who never told them of their fate. They argue that the incidents were not an assortment of unconnected cases, but rather reflected state policy at the time.

Three high-profile commissions dismissed the claims and found that most children died of disease in immigration camps. The most recent inquiry, in 2001, said it was possible that some children were handed over for adoption by individual social workers, but not as part of a national conspiracy. However, citing privacy laws, it ordered the testimonies it collected be sealed for 70 years.

In February 2021, the previous government approved a NIS 162 million (almost $50 million) compensation program over the issue of the Yemenite children.

The proposal included a declaration that “the government of Israel regrets the events that happened in the early days of the state and recognizes the suffering of families whose children were part of this painful issue.”

However, a number of families involved demanded that the government reveal confidential documents relating to the matter, calling the compensation plan “hush money.”

Agencies contributed to this report.

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