Court: Lawsuit Over Missing Yemenite Children Can Go Forward

View of the classified documents related to the Yemenite Children Affair, at the Israel State Archives offices in Yerushalayim. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The High Court on Tuesday revived a joint lawsuit against the state brought by families from Yemen who came to Israel in the 1950s. The plaintiffs include surviving immigrants and family members, along with descendants. The plaintiffs are seeking damages for suffering they incurred from, among other things, the disappearance of children and siblings.

The plaintiffs include representatives of 11 families whose children went missing without a trace, but as the case is being brought as a joint suit, other families will be able to join and demand damages as well.

The scandal of the missing Yemenite children goes back to the early days of the state. In hundreds and even thousands of documented cases, Yemenite women who had given birth in state hospitals were told that their children had died in childbirth.

The bodies were never recovered, however, leading many people to suspect that their babies had not died, but had been kidnapped. Some parents claimed that they attempted to disinter the remains of their children to have them reburied at family plots, but were either told that the location of the graves had been “lost,” or that their child had been buried in a mass grave and that it would be impossible to track down their child’s remains.

Governments throughout the years have either ignored or denied the allegations, claiming that the children died because of polio and other childhood diseases rife during the 1950s. At least four investigative committees have discussed the matter, but all ended their work without drawing specific conclusions.

In December 2016 the state opened secret protocols on cases of missing Yemenite children, with testimonies before various Knesset committees on hundreds of children who went missing in the early days of the state. Some of those testimonies contain lurid descriptions of medical experiments and forced kidnappings.

According to various conspiracy theories over the years, the missing Yemenite children – an exact number has never been determined, but previous investigations have uncovered at least 1,060 cases, with as many as 3,430 files said to exist – the children were either farmed out to Ashkenazic families who could not have their own children, experimented on at hospitals, or even shipped to the United States for use as subjects in tests that measured the effects of radiation.

In addition to complaints on these matters, plaintiffs are also relating to allegations that the state literally stole large amounts of money, jewelry, and other valuable items from Yemenite Jews who were brought to Israel in the early days of the state.

Documents presented include manifests of passengers on at least two ships – the Lucha and the Luke – that transported Yemenite refugees to Israel in 1949. The manifests list the names of passengers and property they were bringing aboard. The property was brought to Israel and placed in the custody of the Jewish Agency – which, the plaintiffs claim, was never returned it to its rightful owners.

A lower court had ruled that the plaintiffs, while having valid complaints, did not have enough evidence for a joint lawsuit, which would require a “common pattern” of behavior against them, which it did not believe existed.

Ruling on the appeal Tuesday, the High Court said that it had determined that there was a common pattern that could be demonstrated in at least some aspects of the case.

“The incidents laid out in the plaintiffs’ complaint recall a painful and difficult time in Israeli history, the disappearance of Yemenite children in the early days of the state when many families immigrated to Israel. Without prejudicing any decision in the case, it appears that the experiences that many families underwent, from the disappearance of their children to the way Jewish Agency officials presented information to them and other factors indicate a single pattern that would appear to sustain the presentation of a case by the plaintiffs,” the court said explaining its decision.

While there were differences in the way families were treated, splitting the suit into individual suits would likely harm the interests of many of the families, who would be unlikely to pursue a case on their own, because of the difficulties and expense involved. “For these reasons and others, the court declares that there is enough to unite families whose experiences include the disappearance of their children.”

The next step will be for the Yerushalayim district court, where the lawsuit was presented, to determine which portions of the suit will be argued, and in what order, the High Court said in its ruling.