Grave of alleged disappeared Yemenite baby to be exhumed Wednesday

Mother of Yosef Melamed, who according to records died in 1948, believes her son is alive since she received a military draft letter for him in 1963

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

Medical officials on Wednesday will exhume 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 grave of Yosef Melamed, who was pronounced dead in hospital after suffering an illness close to 75 years ago, is slated to be opened at 7 a.m. on Wednesday — the first of nine bodies slated to be DNA tested in the Yemenite Children Affair.

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 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.

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

Screen capture from video of the exhumation of Uziel Houri, the son of Yemenite immigrants, whose family rejects official records that he died of illness as a baby in 1952. The grave was opened in Petah Tikva, on May 23, 2022. (Twitter)

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 Hadassah Medical Center 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.

According to the Ynet news site, Shulamit, now in her 90s, believes that her son was kidnapped and adopted and is still alive today.

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-simmering 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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