The Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice committee on Tuesday unanimously approved the release of hundreds of thousands of classified documents related to children who went missing in the 1950s Yemenite Children Affair.
During the early days after the establishment of the state, from 1948 to 1954, hundreds of babies and toddlers of families of Mizrahi descent, mostly from Yemen, mysteriously disappeared.
In the vast majority of cases, parents were told in the hospital that their newborn baby had died, though they never received any official confirmation.
Over the years, families have claimed that their children were in fact kidnapped and given away or sold off to Ashkenazi families.
In the past few decades, the government established a number of commissions to investigate the matter and expose the truth, though all had failed to do so, concluding that the majority of children had in fact died in the hospital.
However, in 2001, the state commission of inquiry into the affair decided to seal numerous documents until 2071, a move that was overturned with last month’s decision by the cabinet to declassify the documents and Tuesday’s final approval by the Constitution, Law and Justice committee to publish them online.
The secrecy surrounding the documents had raised suspicions about the motives behind it, leading Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to appoint Minister-without-Portfolio Tzachi Hanegbi to determine whether the government should open the sealed files. Following several months of collaboration with the State Archives and Justice Ministry, Hanegbi decided the documents must be opened to the public.
All materials from the state commission of inquiry will be published on the State Archives website, with the exception of information about adoption, which could reveal the identity of the adopted children, the adoptive parents or the biological parents, in adherence with adoption laws. Information required for individuals to help identify their relatives will be published, without their medical information. Sensitive welfare information of individuals or other instances where breach of privacy outweighs public interest will also not be published. Welfare information of those classified as “missing” or those who are known to have passed away will be published, unless relatives have objected. Postmortem documents will not be published.
MK Nurit Koren (Likud), who heads the Knesset Lobby on Yemenite Children, lauded the move, while noting that it was just the first step. She hopes to announce the establishment of a special committee which will examine all the materials next week.
“I’m meeting with parents who tell me that they want to know that their sons or daughters are still alive, and that the important thing for them is that their children will know they looked for them their whole lives,” she said.
Koren is also leading an effort to try to reunify families that were split in the affair by offering free DNA testing to people in Israel and abroad, both to those whose children disappeared and to those who were adopted and are interested in discovering their biological origins.
Acting committee chairman MK Uri Maklev (United Torah Judaism) also welcomed the move as a “defining moment,” and expressed hope that it would constitute a decisive step toward reaching the truth. He said it was important to advance the issue of DNA tests, “which can help reveal things that the protocols cannot.”
Members of the committee stressed that the decision was unprecedented and a difficult one to make, which required serious consideration regarding the issue of privacy protection versus the public interest.
“The state of Israel has never published documents connected to state commissions of inquiry, aside from the protocols,” Hanegbi said, stressing that in this case the protocols constitute only a small portion of the materials. He remarked that the way the authorities previously dealt with the affair “did not reflect the values of the Jewish state.”
Hanegbi also stated that the families involved in the affair have rights that go above and beyond what will be available to the public on the website, and where relevant, those people will also be given access to private files.
Noting that he found it hard to accept the bureaucratic explanations given to the mystery of the missing children, he said the decision to release the protocols should be used as a springboard for finding solutions. Lidar Gravé-Lazi contributed to this report.
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