by Andrew Friedman
The Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee agreed Tuesday to open protocols of a state commission of inquiry into accusations that up to 5,000 Yemenite and Sephardic children were abducted by the state during the early years of Israel’s independence and adopted by Ashkenazi (European) families. The material to be released includes previously classified hearing protocols and evidence that was given in closed-door hearings before the Kedmi Commission in 2001.
MK Nurit Koren, chairwoman of the Knesset committee, told Tazpit Press Service (TPS) that today’s decision would afford individuals and family members the opportunity to obtain details about family members they believe were stolen two generations ago and to make contact between long-lost relatives. She also acknowledged that the move was only one step in a long road towards healing one of Israel’s longest-standing open wounds.
“This is really just the first significant stage in dealing with the issue, but it’s a critical one,” Koren said. “The Kedmi Commission, in the late 1990s, sealed its findings and all the evidence presented to it for 70 years. But less than 20 years later, we’ve managed to open up those findings for the entire Israeli public to look at.
“Now, the real work begins. We expect the prime minister to sign the decision into law this week, and then we can begin studying more than 400,000 documents. I am also going to establish a special parliamentary commission of inquiry to continue dealing with the issue, perhaps as early as next week,” Koren said.
Koren also said she has tabled two legislative initiatives to streamline the investigative process: One to allow families to request access to adoption files in certain circumstances (current law permits access only to adopted children themselves), and one to grant immunity to any current or former official who comes forward to admit participation or cooperation with removing children from their biological families against the parents’ will.
Yemenite activists praised the decision, but also added that the move was not sufficient to put the bitter history behind them, if for no other reason than the sheer scale of the scandal: From Yemen alone, more than 950 of the 5824 children aged 0-4 who arrived in Israel from 1948-56 were taken – a ratio of more than one out of every six.
They also said that the decision to declassify information is an important move towards reconciliation efforts with the State, but also stressed that no move would be sufficient without a formal, official apology.
“First of all, we need recognition,” said Shlomi Hatuka, “Official, formal recognition, not something by-the-by. That would not only be the first step towards true reconciliation and healing for our community, but it would also greatly expand the possibilities to search for missing children by opening up adoption records, immigration records and more.”
It’s a story that touches Hatuka personally: He said his grandmother came from Yemen to Israel in 1949, gave birth in 1953 to two healthy twins. But as the family already had 8 children at home (his grandmother had given brith to three babies, in addition to her husband’s five children by previous marriage), hospital officials in Petah Tikva asked if she would be willing to give the kids up for adoption. She declined, but four days later she was told that the baby had died of a mysterious disease.
“What do you need 10 kids at home for?” Hatuka recalls his grandmother’s recounting of the story. “A little while later they came to me and said the baby had died. But they wouldn’t let us see the body. No body, no grave, nothing.
“She never got over it. Up until she died about 15 years ago, she spoke about her missing daughter, dreamt about her, wondered what her life had become. It’s a shame that she never lived to gain any closure on the issue, but it’s essential that we deal with this issue, for current and future generations,” Hatuka said.