Israeli Court Blocks Family From Opening Infant’s 1950 Grave for Genetic Testing

Sister doubts brother is buried there as documented, but judge rules DNA test of remains won’t settle anything

Members of the Yemenite community and others protest in Jerusalem for the government to recognize what they call  the kidnapping of Yemenite children in the early years of Israel, June 21, 2017.
Emil Salman

A court has forbidden the opening of a grave by a family that suspects that its infant son was kidnapped from the hospital where he was sent in 1950. The family requested genetic testing of the bones in the grave to examine whether the person buried there is a family member. But the court ruled last week that the chance of the test’s success is too slim and doesn’t justify dishonoring the deceased.

“The State of Israel doesn’t want us to know the truth. The State of Israel apparently has something to hide. They’re afraid,” wrote one of the women in the family on her Facebook page, claiming that the court had decided not to carry out justice.

The lawsuit was filed by a resident of the south, the daughter of Holocaust survivors from Poland who immigrated right after the establishment of the state. In 1950 her baby brother, age one and a half, fell ill and was hospitalized. A few days later her parents were told that he was dead but they weren’t allowed to see the body, attend the funeral or know where he was buried.

A few years ago the sister wanted to place a tombstone on his grave and started looking for the gravesite. When she turned to the Interior Ministry and the hevra kadisha (burial society) she discovered contradictions among several official documents.

The Interior Minister sent her a death certificate with the date of death in January 1950. Another ministry document certified that in 1963 he “ceased to be a resident.” The hevra kadisha sent a document with a different date, with the exact site of his grave in the Kiryat Shaul cemetery in Tel Aviv. Another paper said that the dead infant had “emigrated” from the country.

Many other such cases of infants who fell ill, were hospitalized and disappeared from the hospitals without their parents being given the opportunity to bury them took place throughout the country during that period. In addition to the affair of the Yemenite children, which has been in the headlines in recent years because of parents trying to find out what happened to their children who disappeared, last year Haaretz discovered that hundreds of Ashkenazi children (of European descent) also disappeared during those years.

A few years ago the infant’s sister turned to the Health Ministry, the organization legally authorized to open graves. From there she was sent to the Family Court, where the procedure to open her brother’s grave has been going on for three and half years. “The petitioner has a right to know what happened to her brother, whether he really died in 1950 and was buried in Kiryat Shaul, in which case she can put up a tombstone; or whether something else happened to him,” she wrote in the petition.

The government opposed her request due to the slim chance of getting DNA from the bones. The court accepted the opinion of the Health Ministry, claiming that DNA testing is liable to encounter many difficulties, and that the chance of getting a genetic profile and comparing it to her profile and that of her sister for identifying the deceased is very low.

Expert calls DNA test in this case 'problematic'

An expert from Hebrew University, who testified in court, said the process is “problematic” and there’s no guarantee of success in the present instance, even though in the past researchers were able to produce ancient DNA from the bone of a body buried in Israel in the Roman period.

Judge Esther Zitnitski Rakover wrote that the petition demonstrates the clash between different interests, each of which is legitimate. She explained: “On the one hand, there’s the family’s right to settle its doubts so it won’t remain uncertain about the fate of its dear one, on the other, there’s the deceased’s right to maintain his dignity.”

But the judge said that based on the documents there is “no real suspicion” that the infant didn’t die or wasn’t buried in the place indicated – as the family claims, adding, “Were it not for the affair of the Yemenite children, it’s doubtful if the petitioner has met the required burden of proof.” She noted that the sister hadn’t explained why she didn’t try to find out the truth for 67 years.

The judge wrote: “This is an infant who died 67 years ago, at the age of only a year and a half. There is a well founded suspicion that nothing is left of his bones and if any remains are found it is very doubtful it if’s enough for DNA testing.” She added that the body of a different person may be found due to soil erosion that causes the bodies to move. She added, “In a situation where no body is found, the petitioner will remain with her doubts about her brother’s fate, and opening the grave, which involves an invasive and damaging activity, won’t help her at all.”