Grave of alleged disappeared Yemenite baby exhumed: ‘Any answer won’t be sufficient’

Some immigrants from Middle Eastern and North African countries claim their babies were kidnapped in the 1940s and 1950s after authorities said they had died

Forensic team exhumes the grave of Yosef Melamed at the Nahalat Yitzhak Cemetery on July 27, 2022 (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Forensic team exhumes the grave of Yosef Melamed at the Nahalat Yitzhak Cemetery on July 27, 2022 (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Medical officials on Wednesday exhumed another body of a baby who is believed to have died in 1948 in Tel Aviv, in the latest effort to determine the fate of a child born to Yemenite immigrants whose family believes he was kidnapped.

The full exhumation of the grave by medical anthropologists was expected to take a number of hours.

The National Center of Forensic Medicine said that only after the body has been examined will it be decided whether eight further graves will be opened in the so-called Yemenite Children Affair.

The grave marked as belonging to Yosef Melamed, who was pronounced dead in the hospital after suffering an illness nearly 75 years ago, was opened on Wednesday morning in the Nahalat Yitzhak cemetery, close to Tel Aviv.

Melamed’s family does not believe the child died or is buried there.

His mother, Shulamit Melamed, now in her 90s, believes instead that her son was kidnapped and adopted and is still alive today.

She has not been told about the exhumation, due to concerns it could have a negative impact on her health.

Forensic team exhumes the grave of Yosef Melamed at the Nahalat Yitshak Cemetery on July 27, 2022 (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

“Mom didn’t feel that he was dead from the beginning. The fact that they buried him so quickly was suspicious to her,” Ruti Sharabi, Yosef’s sister, told the Ynet news site.

“My brother had green eyes and he was fair-skinned — he didn’t look like a Yemenite boy,” she said. “If the grave is empty we will start questioning where he is, but at least we’ll know he’s alive.”

Yosef’s sister, Vered Driham, told the Walla news site that no matter the outcome of the exhumation, there will still be unanswered questions.

“Any answer we get will feel insufficient — if there are no bones, then where is Yossi?” she said.

Family members watch as the forensic team opens the grave of Yosef Melamed at Nahalat Yitzhak Cemetery on July 27, 2022 (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The families of those whose graves are next to Melamed’s accepted a request by lawyers representing the Melamed family and agreed that if their relatives’ bodies are discovered in the same location as the baby, they will be DNA tested too.

Yosef was born to Shalom and Shulamit Melamed, who arrived in Israel from Yemen in 1943. Shalom fought in the Givati Brigade during the War of Independence and was killed in April 1948 while accompanying a military convoy to Jerusalem.

Shulamit, 17, took her 1-and-a-half-year-old son to the hospital in Tel Aviv later that year after he fell ill. She was told the next morning by hospital staff that the baby had died overnight and that they had buried him at the Nahalat Yitzhak cemetery to spare her additional grief.

Shulamit believed her son to be dead until 1963, when she received an army conscription notice for him. After requesting an explanation from the Interior Ministry, she received a document stating that her son “left” the country that year.

Immigrants who arrived from Yemen and other Middle Eastern and North African countries have claimed for decades that their children and siblings were kidnapped from them as babies in the 1940s and 1950s, after they were told that the children had died.

The exhumation of Uziel Houri in May from the first grave that was intended to be subject to DNA testing, was halted after a second body was found under the headstone. Houri’s family was forced to return to court to request permission to exhume the adjoining grave in order for the investigation to continue, and are still awaiting a response.

The so-called Yemenite Children 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 abducted from Israeli hospitals and put up for adoption, sometimes abroad, in the early years after the founding of the State of Israel.

Over the years, official state inquiries have dismissed all claims of mass abductions organized by medical staff or government workers. Nevertheless, suspicions have lingered and contributed to a long-standing fault line between Jews of European origin and those of Middle Eastern backgrounds.

Three high-profile investigative commissions dismissed the claims of a conspiracy and found that most children had died of diseases 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 that the testimonies it had collected remain sealed for 70 years.

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

In February 2021, the 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.”

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