Israel on Wednesday made public for the first time some 400,000 pages of documents related to the fate of the missing Yemenite children of the 1950s, something Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said was meant to “correct the historical injustice” of hiding the fate of the children.
“It is difficult to believe that for almost 70 years, people did not know what happened to their children,” Netanyahu said. “And as difficult as the reality may be, we are not willing for this to continue.”
Netanyahu’s comments came at a ceremony in the Prime Minister’s Office, where a website was launched with the documentation about the children.
The documents are those that three inquiry committees had at their disposal over the years in investigating the case of the missing children – in 1967, 1988, and 1995.
From now on, Netanyahu said, “with one touch of the keyboard,” everyone will have access to the documents and can trace what happened to the children.
In June, Netanyahu appointed Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi to reexamine the evidence in the three previous inquiries, and in November the cabinet decided to release the classified documents. This decision overturned a 2001 decision to seal the documents until 2071.
During the early days of the state, from 1948 to 1954, hundreds of babies and toddlers of families of Mizrahi descent, mostly from Yemen, mysteriously disappeared during the massive wave of immigration at that time.
In the vast majority of cases, parents were told in the hospital that their children 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.
The archives opened some 3,500 case files which contained original background materials collected by the committees, including hospital records, death certificates, photos and personal testimonies.
As such, the collection includes some 1,248 documents regarding hospitalization of the missing children, 1,226 death certificates, 923 burial records, 202 records of surgery following their deaths and 358 birth certificates.
Despite the massive amount of documents released, the majority of families still did not receive closure or new information regarding the whereabouts of their lost family members. Still, the opening of the case files was hailed as a major win and a step forward toward acknowledgment of the affair.
At the ceremony on Wednesday, Hanegbi termed this a “big day to correct a big injustice.”
The reason this is happening now, he said, “is that we feel a moral need to reveal the truth.”
Hanegbi acknowledged that the matter was a trauma that haunted families for decades, and expressed hope that transparency on the matter will help people reach closure.
“Hopefully, this will give some relief to the families,” he said.
The public database will reduce “suspicion and distrust that the establishment is hiding information,” Hanegbi stated. “We’re not hiding information; there is transparency.
All the details are out there.”
As for the reasoning behind the decision to make the documents public, Hanegbi said that the prime minister asked him to review them, and that he found no justification for keeping them classified.
“Now, every citizen, journalist, family member or historian can look at all the details and choose the way he will perceive it,” he said.
Hanegbi denied that there was any organized effort by the government to take children away from their parents, but said that information does not make the matter any less painful for the families.
“The committee that tried to find a solution, for this issue came out with the understanding that most of the children did die in hospitals,” he pointed out. “But the fact is that 1,000 children disappeared without graves, a reason of death, a funeral or a body.”
As for those who lived, Hanegbi called for the establishment of a DNA bank. He posited that at this point, nearly 70 years since the children disappeared, people who think they may have been adopted no longer have to fear insulting their adoptive parents, since they are probably no longer alive, and may be more willing to give DNA samples and find their long-lost relatives.
Knesset Science and Technology Committee chairman Uri Maklev (United Torah Judaism) proposed a bill to create a genetic database to help solve more of the mystery.
“Without genetic information, we will not be able to take the next step and unite parents, children and siblings,” he said.
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said that the affair “symbolizes for whole generations of Israeli citizens a phenomena of neglect, discrimination and racism. It is an open wound for whole families.”
With the opening of the database, Israel is showing it can no longer hide the findings, she added.
Shaked said that the legal situation was complex, but that a solution was found to give maximum information to the public, while protecting individual privacy in the case of adoption.
MK Eitan Cabel (Zionist Union), who is of Yemenite descent, said: “Today is a great day of hope for many families in Israel, and I am full of hope that opening the archives will bring relief to the families and help them get answers to the many questions that remained open and were an open wound to this day.”
President Reuven Rivlin also commended the government on opening the State Archives: “This has been a heavy burden on Israeli society and it should have been dealt with years ago.”
He expressed the hope that families and the rest of the country would now be able to learn what happened to the missing children.Lahav Harkov, Greer Fay Cashman and Tamara Zieve contributed to this report.
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