Two weeks ago world Jewry lost one of its towering moral figures Lord Immanuel Jakobovits, the former Chief Rabbi of Britain. Six days before his passing, I had the the privilege of talking to Rabbi Jakobovits for the first and only time. Our subject: the inexplicably harsh custody decree entered by a juvenile court in Genoa, Italy, effectively severing the relationship of two sisters, ages 13 and 10, with their mother Tali.
The Conference of European Rabbis, which Rabbi Jakobovits headed, had already strongly protested the court’s characterization of Tali’s Orthodox Judaism as a "religious cult.’’ And he was particularly shocked that the Italian court denied Tali all rights of guardianship, without any psychological examination of either parent or of the girls and in the face of the girls’ clearly expressed desire to remain with their mother.
Rabbi Jakobovits told me that just the previous evening he had spoken to Rabbi Eliyahu Toaff, the Chief Rabbi of Rome, to strongly urge him to use all his connections on behalf of the Duhlberg sisters, and that Rabbi Toaff had undertaken to do so.
This week the widely respected Rabbi Toaff issued a statement that sent shock waves through Italy and received front-page coverage. He censured the "bizarre’’ court decision removing the sisters from their mother and forbidding them to communicate with her in Hebrew. The court decision, said Rabbi Toaff, creates the strong suspicion of "an intolerant attitude approach to Jews in general and not just Orthodox Jews’’ and "stigmatizes the life-style of the members of the Orthodox Jewish communities living around the world and particularly in Israel. . . .’’ Rabbi Toaff concluded by demanding the right to be heard in the court proceedings in Italy (where no expert testimony on Judaism was permitted) and to visit with the Duhlberg sisters.
So far Congressman Benjamin Gilman, Chairman of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, Senator Daniel Moynihan, Yaakov Neeman, Malcolm Hoenlein, executive director of the Conference of Major Jewish Organizations, Rabbi Raphael Butler, executive director of the Orthodox Union, and Professor Moshe Kaveh, president of Bar-Ilan University, have all protested in communications to top Italian officials.
Only one party has remained silent: the State of Israel.
A senior member of the State Attorney’s office sits on the U.N. Commission on the Rights of the Child, and yet no official protest has been heard of the blatant violations of those rights by Italy. The Israeli silence has severely hampered efforts to return the sisters to their mother in Israel by creating the impression that Israel views them as better off in Italy.
Italy has good reason to be particularly sensitive to public opinion: Her U.N. Ambassador, Francesco Paolo Fulci, is chairman of the U.N. Commission on the Child. The U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child provides that a child has "a right to maintain personal relations and direct contacts with both parents on a regular basis.’’ Tali, however, has been granted the most minimum visitation rights and all her conversations with her daughters must be in the presence of others and in Italian.
The Duhlberg sisters are also deprived of their rights "to freedom of association’’ and "privacy.’’ They are allowed only to communicate with those permitted by their father, and have been completely cut off from their past life in Israel. Within Duhlberg’s house, servants dog their every step, even to the point of standing outside the bathroom. Outside the house, they are accompanied everywhere by guards. The older sister is frequently confined by her father to the house for days on end. The sisters are separated from each other, and must lock themselves together in the bathroom to even exchange a few words in Hebrew.
The court order was explicitly designed to wean the girls’ from both their Israeli and Jewish identity, in contravention of the Convention’s protection of the child’s "religious freedom’’ and recognition of the importance of "the traditions and cultural values of each people.’’
There is another reason Israel should intervene forcefully. Duhlberg repeatedly lied to the Tel Aviv District Court and the Supreme Court. But for those lies the girls would not have been taken sobbing from their mother and sent to Italy.
Duhlberg told the Israeli Supreme Court that he would grant Tali the most liberal visitation rights, and that if the girls could not adjust to being uprooted from their home he would return them to Israel.
Most importantly, he told the Tel Aviv district court that he had no desire to prevent the girls from being Orthodox, and that he observed Jewish traditions and prayed every day. (The Italian court also described him as a "pure Jew, who observes the commandments.’’)
Every word a lie. Far from being a traditional Jew, Duhlberg has been a devout Catholic for over four years – around the same time he reopened custody proceedings against his former wife. Indeed his commitment to the Church lies behind his efforts to bend the sisters to his will against their wishes.
Duhlberg has been baptised and regularly attends mass and takes communion. The house in which the girls are imprisoned has crucifixes and madonnas prominently displayed. Duhlberg forces the girls to listen to readings from the New Testament and continually engages them in theological discussions, in which he denigrates Judaism. He has forbidden Rabbi Joseph Malmiliano, the rabbi of Genoa, to visit the sisters.
Duhlberg uses every possible means to break down the sisters’ psychological resistance. He repeatedly threatens the older sister that if she does not comply with his wishes, he will have her committed to an insane asylum. After one court hearing, he returned home and told her, "You have no more hope.’’
Duhlberg attempted to convince the girls that their mother offered to renounce all custody claims for $10,000, causing the younger sister to fear that her mother had sold her for money. He also gave Tali’s parents a copy of his will, in which he declares that his daughters have no share in his estate unless they comply with his wishes, and he has threatened the girls that they will be left destitute. Upon occasion, he has prevented the girls from receiving kosher food sent to them, as a consequence of which they went hungry for a prolonged period. And he has tricked or forced them other times into violating commandments, which left them crying for days.
If the Duhlberg sisters were backpackers injured climbing in Nepal, the State of Israel would move heaven and earth to make sure everything possible was done for them. Should it do anything less because they are imprisoned against their will in Italy and subjected on a daily basis to psychological pressure to give up their Judaism?
Those interested in helping the Duhlberg sisters should contact me at [email protected]