Israeli Adoptees Launch Campaign to Repeal Obscure Law That Muzzles Them

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Gilad Jacobsen is one of a growing number of Israelis who have chosen to flout a law that prohibits them from revealing in public that they are adopted.
Gilad Jacobsen is one of a growing number of Israelis who have chosen to flout a law that prohibits them from revealing in public that they are adopted.Credit: Rami Shllush

As a member of an Israeli-based security firm, Gilad Jacobsen understands the need to keep certain things under wraps. But there is one piece of information that the 52-year-old resident of Pardes Hannah is not willing to keep to himself – even if it lands him in jail. That is the fact that he was adopted.

Jacobsen is one of a growing number of Israelis who, in the last few weeks, have chosen to flout an archaic and draconian law that prohibits them from revealing in public that they were adopted.

Clause 34 of Israel’s Adoption Law, enacted in the 1960s and revised in 1981, makes it a crime, punishable by up to six months in prison, for an adoptee or adoptive parent to expose this fact publicly.

“It is a law that makes no sense,” says Jacobsen.

A Facebook campaign, launched in February, aimed at changing that law has been gathering steam. In it, Jacobsen and dozens of other Israeli adults post video clips of themselves holding up signs stating their name, the fact that they were adopted and that this very act could land them in prison for up to six months.

The campaign leaders were hosted by the Knesset Committee on the Rights of the Child earlier this month. Committee head MK Yifat Shasha-Biton (Kulanu) is preparing a bill, expected to be introduced within weeks, which would repeal or revise the clause.

“Who are we as a society to impose this forced silence on adopted Israelis, and turn them into criminals for talking about their lives openly?” Shasha-Biton asked Haaretz, adding that she only learned that such a clause existed  when the Facebook campaign leaders told her about it at the Knesset meeting.

Social worker Ruthie Baruch. "Why do I need permission from the state to say I am adopted?"Credit: Rami Shllush

While no one can cite a case in which someone has actually been charged under this law, adoptees complain that the clause has been used to cajole them into silence on many occasions and to effectively “keep them in the closet,” as one campaign leader put it.

It was, in fact, one such case last month that triggered the campaign.

“We set up a meeting of adopted adults to discuss common issues,” recounts Jacobsen. “There was going to be media coverage to coincide with Family Day, and a TV crew filmed us.”

But when the reporter later asked the Child Welfare Service (the government body that oversees adoption in Israel) for a response to some of the issues raised, the service warned him that he was violating Clause 34, says Jacobsen. The piece was never aired. But several of those who were at the meeting decided to launch the campaign.

Shiran Ben David Ozeri. "We are an entire community living in the closet."Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

The Child Welfare Service, a unit within the Social Affairs Ministry, frequently invokes Clause 34 against the media, ostensibly to protect the privacy of adopted individuals. In a popular Israeli reality show in which celebs allow camera crews to document their daily lives, one star mentioned that he was adopted, and was promptly warned by the welfare service that he was breaking the law.

Blurred images and pseudonyms

The only way around this restriction is for individuals to get a court order allowing them to speak about being adopted in public.

Media outlets get around the law by blurring photographs of subjects and using only their initials or pseudonyms – or by not bothering to run the story at all. This has had a detrimental effect on the way society views adoption and adopted children, say many adoptees.

“When I was a girl, all the articles I saw about adopted people had blurred images and no real names. There was no one I could identify with,” recounts Shiran Ben David Ozeri, 36, of Be’er Yaacov in central Israel.

“When the law does not allow public identification, or conversation, it turns the fact of adoption into a secret, something to be ashamed of. We are an entire community living in the closet,” says Ozeri, a lawyer who got a court order allowing her to speak about it, but asks: “Why do I need to pay 540 shekels and appear in court to go on television to say I was adopted?”

Jacobsen is usually referred to as “G” when he is interviewed about adoption. He notes sardonically that the only other times he was called “G” by the media was when he served in Israel Defense Forces’ counter-terrorism and hostage rescue unit over two decades ago. “Then I accepted keeping my identity hidden, out of choice. Now it is being imposed upon me,” he says, adding: “There are only two reasons to hide one’s name – either out of danger or out of shame.”

“The law is a vestige of the ‘60s when there was shame associated with adoption, but attitudes have changed over the last 60 years,” says Ruthi Baruch, a social worker specializing in adoption issues, who was herself adopted.

The 72-year-old has wanted to change the law for decades. “Facebook made it possible to bring us adopted adults together and launch a campaign,” says Baruch, who has a court permit to talk about her adoption but resents “requiring the state’s permission to talk about my life.”

Adoptees have a number of gripes about the way adoption-related issues are handled by the Child Welfare Service, among them, the office’s reluctance to provide adoptees with medical and genetic information about their biological parents. Adoptees say this is the kind of topic they would like to discuss in public, but their efforts to do so are usually stymied.

“Today the law serves mainly as a tool of censorship in the hands of the Child Welfare Service,” charges Ozeri. “It enables the service to control the public discussion about adoption, because when we want to criticize aspects of the way they deal with adoption and with adoptees they can just invoke Clause 34 to silence the public discussion.”

Ironically, when the campaign leaders attended the recent Knesset committee meeting to tell lawmakers about their plight and publicize it, the session had to be closed to the media and minutes of the session withheld – because of Clause 34.

“There was strong support across the board from all the MKs at the session,” says committee chair Shasha-Biton. “I don’t anticipate opposition to revising this law, if it is done carefully, to give adoptees the right to speak freely but without violating the privacy of others involved.”

The Child Welfare Service responded that, “Given that the Adoption Law was passed in 1981, it is possible that in light of the media and social changes, and the desire to hold an open conversation on adoption, there is room to consider changing the wording of the clause However, any change must be implemented with caution and with attention to the fact that adoption is meant above all to protect minors in need of adoption. Clause 34 is intended to protect them and the right of their biological parents to privacy.”

Baruch believes there is room for a law that would keep minors from revealing that they are adopted, in the media or other large forums. As for adult adoptees, Baruch says: “No one has any desire to divulge the names of our biological parents,” adding that she would support a narrowly defined law that ensures that type of privacy.

“We just want to be able to tell our own story, in our own voices, without needing to get permission from the state to do so.”

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