Machlokes / Controversy

Jewish World Review Nov. 17, 1999 /8 Kislev, 5760

The Mortara Affair Revisited

By Jonathan Rosenblum

June 23, 1858, the papal police entered the home of Shlomo Mortara, a Jewish merchant living in Bologna, Italy, and removed the Mortara's six-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.


While the Church no longer has the political authority to seize children, an Italian court in Genoa and the Italian attorney general's office have recently applied a secularized version of the papal inquisitor's reasoning. Duty, they believe, requires them to "save" two Jewish girls from being raised as observant Jews.

In 1991, Tali and Moshe Dohlberg, native Israelis living in Genoa, were divorced. Custody of the couple's two children Nitzan, aged 6, and Danielle, 2, was awarded to Tali.

Four years later, Tali became observant and married a religious Jew. That change enraged her former husband and he challenged Tali's continued fitness to retain custody of their two daughters.

The court ordered a psychological examination of Tali to determine "the damage done to the minors as a result of the religious choices of the mother." In light of the court's evident hostility to Orthodox Judaism, Tali fled with her two daughters to Israel.

On April 29 of this year the Israeli Supreme Court ordered Nitzan and Danielle returned to Italy for a custody decision by the Italian courts. The Israeli Supreme Court expressed its confidence -- naively it would turn out -- that the Italian courts would consider the welfare of the girls and the damage that would be caused to them by being uprooted from familiar surroundings.

The subsequent custody proceedings in Italy, unfortunately, confirmed Tali's fears that adherence to an Orthodox Jewish life would be deemed prima facie proof of her parental incompetence. It was uncontested in the Italian court that the girls' strongly expressed preference was to remain with their mother, who had been their primary caregiver since birth.

Yet the very vehemence of the girls' wishes was used against them and cited by Mr. Dohlberg's psychologists as proof of the brainwashing to which they were subjected by the "cult" into whose clutches they had fallen. Those same psychologists informed the court that Orthodox Jews view "exploitation and abuse of children as legitimate'' and that Orthodox parents, like drug addicts, are incapable of expressing autonomous love. For good measure, they compared Orthodox Jews to everything from Serbian war criminals to cult members who kill their children.

The Genoa court apparently accepted these characterizations at face value. It refused the local rabbi and former Israeli Finance Minister Yaakov Neeman the right to testify about Jewish belief or practice. Many of the “findings’’ about Judaism of Dohlberg’s psychologist were incorporated verbatim by the court.

Upon the advice of the Itallian attorney-general, who intervened on the side of Dohlberg, the court entered a draconian decree virtually severing the girls from their mother and denying them any contact with their past life. Tali is allowed to speak to each daughter for no more than ten minutes twice a week, and only in Italian. Dohlberg tapes the conversations.

The girls are permitted to see their mother only three times a month, in a location designated by Dohlberg and in the presence of people chosen by him. Again all conversation must be in Italian. Tali and her daughters last met in room of six square meters, together with four "observers" sent by Dohlberg. The girls are denied the right to speak on the phone or write to anyone, besides their mother and maternal grandparents, without Dohlberg's explicit permission.

Dohlberg has separated Nitzan and Danielle from one another. He has forbidden them to talk in Hebrew or to have contact with anyone in Israel. He also prevented the rabbi of Genoa from speaking to the sisters or even to make kiddush for them. The girls are afraid to talk to anyone in the local Jewish community for fear that such contacts will be used as an excuse to cut-off their last ties with her mother.

In one surreptitiously written letter, Nitzan describes her father forcibly taking away her prayerbook. When she continued to pray, he yelled in her ear that her prayers were worthless. Finally, she writes, "he grabbed my nose and mouth in a frightening manner, slugged me and pinched my mouth and nose and this really hurt me."

Not surprisingly, Antoinietta Simi, a prominent Italian psychologist, who examined Nitzan's letters to her mother, found that despite the girl's "excellent intellectual capacity in analyzing and relating to the situation effectively . . . the danger to her mental balance or even her life, is real and imminent.''

Nothing can explain the absolute power the Genoa court has granted Dohlberg over Nitzan and Danielle other than its disdain for Jewish and Israeli life. The court even instructed the girls' maternal grandparents -- secular Israelis -- to converse with them in English, though they and the girls barely speak any English.

Remarkably, the court did not order an independent psychological examination of either parent. The only psychological exam was three years old, and its author herself had noted that it was incomplete and inadequate for reaching any conclusions on custody.

Nevertheless she termed the girls' relationship with their mother as excellent, and stressed the need for preserving an intensive connection with Tali, their primary parent. In the same preliminary report, she described Dohlberg as "immature," "narcissistic," prone to "uncontrolled bursts of aggression."

In addition to its failure to order a psychological evaluation of the girls and their parents, the court gave no weight to the universal presumption that girls at this crucial stage of development should be with their mother, especially when the mother has always been the primary parent. Nor did it take seriously both girls oft-reiterated desire to be returned to their mother and Israel.

Despite a worldwide outcry, by Jews and non-Jews alike, Edgargo Mortara never returned to his parents. Let us hope that Italy proves more responsive than the Church of those days.

Those interested in taking a position on this issue may call or write the following:

(1) Ambassador Francesco Paolo Fulci/ Permanent Representative of Italy to the United Nations, 2 U.N. Plaza, 24th Floor, N.Y., N.Y. 10017. Phone 212-486-9191, 212-486-1036 (Fax), or via e-mail.

(2) His Excellency Ambassador Ferninando Salleo, Permanent Representative of Italy to the United States, Embassy of Italy, 1601 Fuller St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20009. Fax: 202-483-2187.

(3) The Honorable Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, Preseident of Italy, Pallazo de Cuirinale, Rome, Italy 00187. Fax 3906-46992384.

(4) The Honorable Massimo D'Alema, Prime Minister of Italy, Palazzo Chigi, 370 Piazza Colonna, Rome, Italy 00187. Fax: 39066783998.

JWR contributor Jonathan Rosenblum is a columnist for the Jerusalem Post.


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©1999, Jonathan Rosenblum