Yemenite Children Affair: In First, Boy's Grave Opened for DNA Testing

The grave is being opened to investigate the circumstances surrounding the boy's reported death amid claims by families that their children were abducted by Israel in the 1950s

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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The opening of Uziel Khoury's grave, on Monday.
The opening of Uziel Khoury's grave, on Monday.Credit: Reuven Castro/Walla News
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

For the first time, the grave of a boy was opened for genetic testing Monday in accordance with a 2018 law relating to the "Yemenite children affair" – the disappearance of Jewish Yemenite babies and toddlers in Israel in the 1950s. Families believe their children were abducted by the state in order to adopt them out to Israeli families of European descent.

The boy, Uziel Khoury, was 14 months old when he was reported to have died during treatment for polio in 1953. His body then underwent an autopsy at Beilinson Hospital and was buried at Segula Cemetery, according to associated medical documents.

The case was investigated in the past by inquiry commissions that looked into the affair, and located the boy’s death certificate, alongside various medical data from his hospitalization. The Hevre Kadisha mortuary society uncovered a note in which the father undertook to bear the costs of burial.

In one of the associated documents, the family was quoted as saying that they didn't see the body being buried – that instead a "small package" was taken and buried.

The body was being exhumed pursuant to a court order in order to take a DNA sample and identify the body.

Protesters outside the Prime Minister's Residence demand recognition of the kidnapping of Yemenite children, 2018.Credit: Emil Salman
A woman taking part in a demonstration against the abduction of Yemenite children in the 1950s.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

As of Monday evening, the excavation had stopped for religious grounds as there's a fear it encroached a neighboring grave. A court approval is required to resume the exhumation.

Khoury's sister, Mazal Barko, in an interview with Reshet Bet radio Monday morning, said the family has been in a "campaign against the courts" for the past four years in an attempt to open the grave.

"It's been 69 years since he disappeared from us," she said. "We are asking the government for nothing more than the truth."

Judge Moshe Shalgi, who headed a committee to investigate the Yemenite children affair, signed a document that read, "There is clear data to determine that the missing person died and was brought for burial."

The Rosh Ha'ayin nursery in central Israel, where nurses and a doctor care for Yemenite babies and children in 1949.Credit: Teddy Brauner/GPO

Around the country are other graves where, according to the authorities, lie bodies of children from Yemen, other Arab countries and Europe who died in the first years after Israel’s establishment.

Last month, Israel's Health Ministry director-general said it refused to accept the findings of an internal ministry report detailing the involvement of the Israeli health system in the 1950s disappearance of children whose families came from Yemen and other countries, including helping give some of them up for illegal adoption.

In the report's conclusion, the authors recommend that the ministry “advance an apology on behalf of the healthcare community for the involvement of healthcare professionals in the affair.” They also urged other ministries to investigate their role in the affair.

Mass disappearances

In the years immediately following Israel’s establishment, primarily from 1948 to 1954, more than 1,000 babies born to Yemenite immigrant families disappeared. According to a large number of accounts, the children disappeared either immediately after birth or after being hospitalized due to illness. Some of the families were told that their children had died but they were not shown a body or receive a death certificate, nor information on a burial.

Eighteen years later, the families received draft notices for the children – prompting claims that the children had been abducted in a secret, organized, institutionalized plan to give them or to sell them to childless Holocaust survivors. The affair was investigated by three official committees – in the 1960s, 1980s and 1990s, the latter of which was a state commission of inquiry that finished its work in 2001.

A girl carries her brother as she walks through the mud at the Beit Lid transit camp, 1950. Credit: Zoltan Kluger, GPO
Yemenite Jewish children at a transit camp in Aden await transferred to Israel, December 1949.Credit: David Eldan/GPO

All three panels came to similar conclusions: that most of the children died of illness and that there was no evidence of their institutionalized abduction. The state commission of inquiry found that 1,053 children, most of them babies, had disappeared; that the vast majority of them clearly had died of illnesses; that it was probable that 48 of them had died; and that the fate of 69 children was unknown.

In 2017, the State Archives made hundreds of thousands of relevant documents accessible to the public. Although they contained damning accounts of official conduct, they did not find evidence of an institutionalized plan to abduct children. Following the disclosure of the documents, the Knesset convened a special committee to investigate the affair.

The committee found widespread negligence, racist and remiss conduct on the part of officials, and carelessness in recording the details of hospitalized children, which in some cases led to their adoption without the knowledge or consent of the biological parents. However, they also found no proof of a state-led plan to abduct children.

In recent years, Yemenite families filed lawsuits demanding that graves be reopened to determine whether their children were buried there. Some families managed to find the plots where it was claimed that their children were buried, despite incomplete details provided by the government over the years in connection to the date of death, the name of the cemetery and the plot number. But the families encountered bureaucratic hurdles and other obstacles on the part of the government, which objected to the reopening of the graves for various reasons. Three years ago, the government approved a plan permitting the graves to be opened.

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