Do DNA samples hold key to Israel's missing children mystery?

As one Likud minister combs through long-classified documents, another Knesset member is advancing a DNA collection project that could shed light on the six-decades-old mystery of missing Yemenite children, but it's a race against time as their parents age.

al-monitor Frecha Amar, 84, of Moroccan descent, with a picture of her baby who she says was abducted in 1958, at her home in Kfar Chabad, near Tel Aviv, June 29, 2016.  Photo by MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images.

Topics covered

yemenite, kidnapping, dna, children, child abduction, ashkenazi, adoption

Oct 20, 2016

Shlomi Bahagli was buried Oct. 18 in Rosh Ha’ayin, having reached the age of 92. For more than 60 years he never stopped searching for his son Hayim, who disappeared as a baby. Bahagli died without knowing whether his son had been taken from him and given to another family, with the knowledge and involvement of the State of Israel. He was told that the baby died of illness at the hospital. There are many other families in Israel like his, mostly of Yemenite origins, who claim that their children were taken from them shortly after they immigrated to Israel in the early 1950s and given to Ashkenazi families for adoption.

The sadness that enveloped Bahagli’s family and friends at his death was compounded by an overwhelming sense of missed opportunity, because the day he died, he was scheduled to take a DNA test that could have shed light on the fate of his son.

“It makes me sad that Shlomo didn’t get to take the DNA test, and it just convinces me that we’re in a race against time to reach the truth, because the generation of parents of the disappeared children is dying off,” Knesset member Nurti Koren (Likud) told Al-Monitor. She is currently leading a private initiative to build a databank of DNA samples of those believed to have been involved.

Koren, born to parents of Yemenite background, has recently found herself fully committed to solving the mystery that has been roiling the State of Israel for more than six decades. The DNA databank is meant to be a breakthrough. Surprisingly, the state refused to sponsor it, and Koren had to turn to a private firm that volunteered to donate the funds for the project. In recent weeks, first-degree relations of the children who disappeared have started to give saliva samples, and the databank is growing. On the day of Bahagli's burial, Koren came to Rosh Ha’ayin to participate in a panel on the topic as part of the Teymana festival for Mediterranean culture and heritage. 

Many people of Yemenite background, from first- to third-generation immigrants, live in Rosh Ha’ayin. At the entrance to the festival grounds stood a booth set up by the MyHeritage company, which is building the database. From the stage, Koren called on relatives of the disappeared children, especially older people, to take the quick and easy test. In a few weeks, Koren is planning to travel to the United States to visit Jewish communities in Brooklyn and Los Angeles to complete the DNA database. 

“I believe that children were given for adoption and that some of them are not in Israel,” Koren said. “It’s very important to take DNA samples so that we won’t lose the parents. I won’t stop until we get to the bottom of it. We’re in a race against time because it’s important that we get as many samples while people are still alive.” According to her, there have already been some sensational discoveries, which will be announced soon. “At the moment we can reveal the first match, it would be a victory, because no one would then doubt that children were taken and adopted without the knowledge or agreement of their parents. We now need the proof. Our struggle is for the government to acknowledge the wrong that occurred, take responsibly for it and apologize to those parents who are still alive,” Koren said.

Although several commissions of inquiry have been established through the years, including a state body (Kedmi Commission in 1995), the disappearance of the children remains a mystery. The commissions didn’t find evidence of systematic abduction and adoption, and the families were rightly left feeling that the state had not acted to investigate the truth and that the establishment is still hiding the real story from them. The hundreds of disturbing accounts of children suddenly taken from their mothers at hospitals or immigrant transit camps and never returned remain an open and bleeding wound. The mystery surrounding the affair and the state’s directive that the protocols of the commission of inquiry remain classified until 2071 have only heightened the sense that someone has something to hide. 

But it now seems that after decades of struggle, the mystery of the Yemenite children is on a verge of a significant breakthrough. It started with revived media interest led by a journalist from Channel 2 news, Rina Mazliah, who brought the topic back into the public eye. Koren continued pressing the subject, and even turned to her fellow party member, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu expressed support for the publication of the protocols of the commission, and in June authorized Knesset member Tzachi Hanegbi to look into the issue — an appointment approved by the government. Hanegbi, whose mother is Yemenite, wasted no time and started combing through the classified documents, and in a July 30 interview on "Meet the Press" dropped a bombshell when he said that “hundreds of children were deliberately stolen.” He added, “Whether the establishment knew or didn’t know, organized it or didn’t organize it … it may be that we’ll never know. In the last few weeks and months the Israeli public has started to understand that it’s not a delusion.”

Hanegbi also came to the Rosh Ha’ayin festival and announced that he’s decided to advance presenting his recommendations for the publication of the materials to Oct. 31. 

For the first time, it seems as though the affair is close to a resolution — if only a partial one. The combination of media and political pressure, including the prime minister’s personal commitment to the issue, has created a new momentum that, along with recent technological innovations, could close the circle. 

These technological innovations are mostly the social networks, by means of which families of the abducted children — especially the third generation — have been successfully working together to gather information on the wrong done to their grandparents; as well as the DNA databank, which could be the key to solving the mystery. 

In the meantime, evidence is accumulating that the establishment sought to hide its wrongdoing. On Tuesday at the Teymana festival, Yigal Ben Shalom, a son of Yemenite parents who served as director of the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs and of the National Insurance Institute of Israel, revealed an astonishing detail. According to him, in the interview process with the National Insurance Institute, he was asked about his position on the Yemenite children affair. “At that moment I understood that the establishment knows and is hiding something,” he told the crowd.

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