Israel has agreed to open graves believed to hold the remains of children who died shortly after the country’s founding, in the latest move in a long-running debate over whether the babies were stolen from their parents.
Families and activists believe that several thousand children, mostly from poor Yemeni Jewish communities, were systematically abducted by childless Jewish families of east European descent. Other Arab and Balkan Jews have also claimed infants were taken after they arrived in Israel.
It is alleged that the babies were stolen and given to Jewish families of western origin in Israel and even abroad, mainly those who could not have children themselves.
Three government investigations have found that most of the missing babies had died, pointing to poor conditions in reception camps. Yet families say that when they were told of their children’s deaths, doctors refused to hand over death certificates or even bodies. Some believe their children are still alive and suspect the graves to be empty.
The state prosecutor’s office has now agreed to a request from 17 families for the graves to be opened, allowing for DNA tests to be carried out.
“The decision was made in light of the public importance of getting to the truth regarding the death and burial of minors from Yemen, the east and the Balkans, whose deaths were reported to family members in the years after the founding of the state,” the office said in a statement. It was not clear when the process would begin.
Close to 50,000 Yemeni Jewish refugees were brought to Israel during 1949 and 1950 in a series of secret airlifts coordinated by the Jewish Agency, an organisation that brings Jews to Israel. Only around 50 Jews are believed to remain in Yemen. Many of the refugees arrived malnourished after spending months in transit camps in Yemen and Israel.
In 2016, Israel’s national archive announced the launch of an online database of 200,000 documents aimed at putting to rest the decades-old allegations.
The Achim Vekayamim association, representing dozens of Yemeni Jews, welcomed the decision to open the graves but warned of limitations.
“We demand the government of Israel take responsibility in the name of the state for the kidnapping of the children, and to pledge to take practical steps to reveal the truth in this frightening scandal,” the group said in a statement. “Only accepting responsibility and revealing the truth in full will bring healing to the families, to society and all of Israel.”