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MKs push to release report of Health Ministry’s action in Yemenite children affair

Unpublished report by former deputy director general Prof. Itamar Grotto is rejected by ministry’s legal adviser during turbulent Health Committee hearing

A memorial and awareness day for Yemenite children said to have disappeared in Israel's formative years, in Jerusalem on July 31, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
A memorial and awareness day for Yemenite children said to have disappeared in Israel's formative years, in Jerusalem on July 31, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A Knesset Health Committee meeting on Monday turned turbulent during a discussion over an unpublished Health Ministry report, which alluded to medical staff wrongdoing in the so-called Yemenite children affair, with calls to reveal its findings publicly.

During the committee meeting, a Health Ministry legal adviser rejected the unpublished report by former ministry deputy director general Prof. Itamar Grotto that indicated a history of medical staff involvement in the maltreatment of children from Yemen, North Africa and the Balkans during the early years of the State of Israel.

The legal adviser, Meir Broder, instead adopted the criticism of Prof. Shifra Schwartz, a history of medicine researcher, who denied Grotto’s findings of potential medical staff involvement. Broder’s denial of Grotto’s report created a storm at the meeting.

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 kidnapped from Israeli hospitals and put up for adoption, sometimes abroad, in Israel’s early years.

“The abduction of the children is still a bleeding wound that refuses to heal even after decades,” said committee chair MK Idit Silman. “A healthy and whole society is one that knows how to analyze itself and come to the root of the truth.”

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 claims of mass abductions, the suspicions have lingered and contributed to a long-simmering fault line between Jews of European origin and those of Middle Eastern backgrounds.

“We as health professionals need to think about how we approach dialogue and apologize to families and see how we can prevent this ridiculousness in the future,” Grotto said at the hearing. He said the same problems were repeated with immigrants from Ethiopia, and that the issue was not yet over.

“So it’s even more important to talk about it,” Grotto said. “In the end, there is a racist element here… The main recommendation of the report was an open discussion, to allow all stakeholders to come and join, so we can continue the discussion. We need to close this story.”

Health Ministry Deputy Director General Itamar Grotto at a press conference about the coronavirus, May 29, 2020. (Screen capture: Facebook)

The legal adviser said the report, written during the end of Grotto’s tenure in 2021 as deputy director general of the Health Ministry, was not published as it provoked questions from the ministry that required further investigation.

“Today, everyone knows the story of the affair,” said Likud MK Keren Barak during the hearing. “We will not give up until the truth comes to light. The time has come for the Health Ministry to assume full responsibility for its part in the affair, and for the State of Israel to acknowledge the horrible injustice done to thousands of families from Yemen, the East, and the Balkans.”

Former MK Nurit Koren, who headed a lobbying group for the Yemenite children affair, argued for the report to be published.

“It is time for families to accept the truth,” she said at the meeting. “As early as 2018 we revealed the involvement of medical staff — they used the children for research purposes and did not get parental permission, they became biological waste and there was nothing to bury…. The time has come, there exists a report from the Health Ministry and it is not published. This conduct is a shame to the State of Israel. The report should be released even if it does not present the doctors in a positive light.”

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 government last year approved a NIS 162 million (almost $50 million) compensation program over the issue.

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