Knesset okays law allowing for exhuming graves of Yemenite children

Teary Likud lawmaker hails passage, says will help families whose loved ones were ‘simply erased from their lives’

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

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

The Knesset passed a law on Monday that would permit families of children who disappeared decades ago, most of them of Yemenite extraction, to seek a court-ordered exhumation of the graves where their relatives have been believed to be buried, for purposes of genetic testing.

The proposal by Likud MK Nurit Koren, which will be in effect for two years, cleared the Knesset plenum in its second and third reading unanimously, with the backing of 50 lawmakers.

“Imagine growing up with a mother whose very life, whose most precious thing was taken away — isn’t dead, didn’t run away, simply vanished as if they never were,” said a tear-stricken Koren, who was born to a family of Yemenite Jewish immigrants.

“There are no documents, no documentation. Imagine yourself growing up in a home in which there is weeping from morning until night. Imagine yourselves, just as you are, growing up — only your brother or sister was simply erased from your life.”

“Hundreds of thousands don’t need to imagine, they lived it, they live it,” added Koren. “This law is our moral obligation. This law is our first step toward repairing [the damage].”

The law applies to families of children who went missing in the so-called Yemenite children affair in 1948-1970, permitting them to seek a court-ordered exhumation of remains to enable DNA comparisons. Families allege that newborn children were taken from immigrants from Yemen by state authorities and told they had died.

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

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

Under the new law, once approved by a court, the exhumation costs will be covered by the state. The treasury has earmarked funds to open up to 300 graves, in what Koren saw as a symbolic gesture to the families who believe the state is responsible for their children’s disappearance.

The law moved ahead 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.

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

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 that 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 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 had been told that their children had died.

A conference on the Yemenite Children Affair in the Knesset on June 21, 2016. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

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 once Koren reached an understanding with both 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 pertaining to the affair in December 2016. Despite the revelations, the long-simmering controversy is far from resolved, since the families 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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