On June 23, 1858, the papal police entered the home of Shlomo Mortara, a Jewish merchant living in Bologna, Italy, and removed the Mortaras' 6-year-old son Edgardo.
Six years earlier, a servant girl in the Mortara household, fearing that Edgardo was on the verge of death, had sprinkled water on him. When the local papal inquisitor subsequently learned of this, he declared Edgardo baptized and had him seized. He would never return to his parents, dying a Catholic priest.
In Italy today, a modern day version of the case is alive. Eight years ago, Moshe Dulberg and his wife Tali, Israelis then living in Genoa, Italy, were divorced. Their two children — Nitzan, now 14, and Danielle, now 10 — were in Tali's custody for four years.
In 1996, Tali became religious and remarried. Her former husband brought suit in Venice juvenile court to remove Tali's guardianship, saying her new lifestyle rendered her unfit to care for her daughters. The Venice court, where Tali was then living, ordered a psychological examination of the mother. It focused almost exclusively on traditional Jewish religious practices, the psychologist frequently expressing astonishment at such things as Tali's insistence on wearing stockings even in the heat of the summer. In a late 1996 visit with her daughters to Israel, Tali made a fateful decision to remain. She had detected an extreme prejudice against traditional Jewish practice from the court-appointed psychologist, and feared that her former husband would gain custody.
For the next 2 1/2 years, Tali hid with her daughters. When found, in April of 1999 the Israeli Supreme Court returned her daughters to Genoa, under the Hague Convention, for a custody determination.
The Genoa court refused Tali's repeated request for an impartial psychological examination of everyone involved and to hear witnesses on traditional Jewish practice. Indeed no witnesses at all were heard and there was no cross-examination of the parents.
Two psychologists hired by Mr. Dulberg submitted "findings" without interviewing Tali or her daughters. They charged Orthodox Judaism views "exploitation and cruelty to minors as legitimate ... and perverted behavior as normal." They compared Orthodox parents to drug addicts in their inability to serve as a "loving source of affection" for their children.
The court, guided by the assumption that the lifestyle of normal Italian children is self-evidently better, characterized the Lubavitch movement, through which Tali originally became religious, as a "totalitarian sect."
Thus, Mr. Dulberg won absolute authority over all educational decisions involving Nitzan and Danielle, with the explicit goal that they be exposed to the full range of Italian culture and a "normal life."
They were forbidden from contact with former friends and relatives in Israel, or from speaking Hebrew (their mother tongue); this violated the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. In further violations, the Genoa court did not take into account the desire of the girls to be reunited with their mother - one reiterated in letters and to the court.
Tali was granted the most minimal contact with her daughters. Every meeting must be in a place designated by Mr. Dulberg and in the presence of his designates. Some have been in the office of the psychologists who submitted the slanderous reports to the court. Conversation is restricted to Italian. No one can speak to Nitzan and Danielle about Judaism.
There are no parallel restrictions on Mr. Dulberg. He had represented himself to the Israeli Supreme Court as a traditional Jew; the Genoa court accepted at face value his characterization of himself as a "pure Jew, who keeps the commandments."
In fact, he never stepped in the Genoa synagogue in his first 12 years there. Several years ago, he converted to Catholicism; he regularly partakes in the Catholic sacraments, as confirmed in a taped conversation with the priest who converted him.
Worse, in December 1999, without notice to Tali or her attorneys, the Venice court (which still had some jurisdiction) took the virtually unprecedented step of removing guardianship from Tali. The court used a 4-year-old psychologist's report, described by the author herself as far too incomplete. The Venice court made its pre-conceptions explicit when it described Tali's lifestyle decision, i.e., to become a religious Jew, as "aberrant in her role as parent." Yet, every psychologist who has examined the children has commented on their extremely strong bond with their mother.
Unless world Jewry acts in concert, two young girls will be lost to the Jewish people, against their will, just as was Edgardo Mortara.