Yemenite families of disappeared children file class-action lawsuit

Suit seeks to force the state to accept responsibility for at least 69 children who disappeared from state institutions in the 1950s

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)

Dozens of families of Yemenite Jews who say their children were taken from them by Israeli authorities in the 1950s are filing a class-action lawsuit demanding millions in reparations from the State of Israel and the Jewish Agency, Channel 10 reported Thursday.

The lawsuit seeks to force the state to accept responsibility for at least 69 infants known to have disappeared from public institutions such as hospitals and day care centers.

Some 49,000 Yemeni Jews were brought to the nascent State of Israel in Operation Magic Carpet in 1949-50. 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 their children were kidnapped from Israeli hospitals and put up for adoption, sometimes abroad, in what is known as the Yemenite children affair.

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.

The claims also come against a background of neglect and marginalization with which many Muslim-world Jewish immigrants were greeted when they arrived in an Israel controlled at the time by an Ashkenazi Jewish elite.

Families have also noted that many of the children’s death certificates were riddled with errors, and most of the missing children were sent army draft notices to their original families 18 years after their alleged deaths. There have also been sporadic cases of adopted children who were able to confirm, through DNA tests, that they were from Yemenite families who were told they had died.

Illustrative: Jews of Aden, Yemen, awaiting evacuation to Israel on November 1, 1949. (GPO/Public domain)

A 2001 report by the Cohen-Kedmi state commission on the issue concluded that there was no evidence of a systematic or state-sponsored effort to remove the children from their families, and that the large majority had died as the families were told — but also that 69 children disappeared without a trace from state hospitals and other institutions, whose representatives then lied to the families about their fate.

The class-action suit includes some of the 69 families whose children disappeared.

The suit argues that no statute of limitations applies despite the six decades that have passed since the disappearances, as the continued failure of the relevant institutions to explain the children’s disappearance, in part due to the lack of available documentation from the period, constitute ongoing complicity.

“You can’t talk about a statute of limitations,” attorney Evyatar Katzir told Channel 10, “when the defendant party continues to mislead the plaintiff. When archives are destroyed, medical records are destroyed, witnesses don’t show up, investigations aren’t undertaken, you can’t talk about a statute of limitations.”

A Yemenite Jewish family travels to a refugee camp set up by the Joint Distribution Committee near Aden. (GPO/Public domain)

“Our central argument is that this is an ongoing injustice,” said attorney Giora Even Tzur. “As long as the state or the [Jewish] Agency don’t tell the families where the child is, every day renews the grounds for the suit.”

In August, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked instructed the Israel State Archives to release some 300,000 unpublished files relating to the children of Yemenite immigrants.

The Knesset Committee for Archives, chaired by Shaked, heard last month in a hearing on the issue that the hundreds of thousands of Israel Police files have not been previously published and that their existence was apparently largely unknown.

View of the classified documents related to the Yemenite Children Affair, at the Israel State Archives offices in Jerusalem, December 22, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Shaked told the archives to conduct a review of the files and then release them. She also instructed the Israel Defense Forces to release any relevant statistics it has about the Yemenite children, on condition that they do not impact the privacy of individuals, Army Radio reported.

The Kan national broadcaster reported that Shaked also called on the Women’s International Zionist Organization and the Hadassah organization to release relevant archives they have on the matter. The WIZO and Hadassah volunteer organizations both played a major role in establishing welfare and health care services in Israel before and after the establishment of the state.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked speaks during a ceremony at the President’s residence in Jerusalem, on August 9, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

In July the Knesset passed a law to allow families who came to Israel from Yemen in the early days of the state to find out whether children they claim were kidnapped from them were in fact put up for adoption.

A February law allowed the opening of graves for the purpose of genetic testing which allows families of children who went missing to seek a court-ordered exhumation of remains to enable DNA comparisons.

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