Please, don’t talk to me about democracy. Don’t talk to me about religious pluralism. Because Israel’s Supreme Court just ratified the most racist child welfare ruling I could ever imagine.
A short introduction is in order: the child welfare system in Israel is draconian, arbitrary, capricious and all-powerful. It marshalls state power to an antiquated notion of normative cultural and family values. If you do not fit the consensus definition of a fit parent you will lose your children. And there will be nothing you can do about it. Once the system makes a determination against you, there is literally nothing you can do. Parental rights are nothing compared to the state’s power.
In tonight’s case, a Palestinian man married a Jewish woman and they had twins in 2010. Because the woman was mentally ill, child welfare officials removed the children from her care and placed them into foster care. The foster parents were Orthodox Jews. This decision was, of course, a violation of child welfare regulations according to Hannah Beit Halachmi, which require children to be fostered by parents of their own ethnicity. But when you work for the state in such capacity, the rules don’t apply.
The foster parents initially consulted with the father about major decisions including education, health, etc. They then requested to adopt the children. The father objected and sought to retain guardianship.
In an earlier decision, the lower court ruled entirely in favor of the father’s claims, finding the authorities acted deceitfully and trampled on the father’s rights. That they never considered him as a suitable parent, never offered him any assistance or training to help him deal with being a single father, and misled him into believing the children would be taken away temporarily, when authorities intended all along to offer the children permanently to the foster couple. Child welfare officials made false statements about both parents in order to justify their illegal actions in removing the children from the father’s care.
The Orthodox Jewish adoptive parents appealed this decision to the Supreme Court. In a truly bizarre ruling, the Court came up with a new theory of parental rights that enabled it to rip the children from their father and award them to adoptive parents who would convert the children to Orthodox Judaism and reject every vestige of their father’s ethnic identity. The justices placed a fig leaf over the decision by declaring that the father would retain guardianship (in order to “preserve his dignity” according to the racist phrasing of the Ynet article), but just not be entitled to make any significant decision about their care or upbringing:
The Supreme Court ruled that the foster parents can decide on issues such as education, nutrition, health and other issues related to the lives of the girls, but they would have to consult with the biological parent on outstanding issues such as surgery. In other words, the biological father will remain the guardian “of honor” but the job of raising them will be almost completely in the foster care family’s purview.
“Honor” like this I’m sure he can do without. This is a totally invented judicial construct which is something like the Christian concept of “godfather.” An honor without substance. It is a sham ruling that usurps the father’s real and natural rights. Besides losing the rights enumerated above, the justices reduced his visitation rights to once every two weeks.
The justice who wrote the majority decision, Elyakim Rubinstein, is an Orthodox Jew. I have no doubt that he is offended by ‘miscegenation,’ the intermarriage of Jews and Muslims. The idea that a Muslim father would raise the child of a Jewish mother as Muslim, he must certainly have found objectionable. But he could not articulate a legal ruling in such a fashion since it would be rightfully derided as racist, so he created an artificial legal fig leaf and used it to conceal his underlying motivation.
Israeli family law expert, Yossi Nakar, adds that Israeli law specifies clearly that the religion of a child may only be determined by its parents and with their consent. In the absence of these children’s mother, this duty would fall to the father. Since the Court refused to grant the foster parents full custody of the twins, they should have no right under Israeli law to determine what religion these children should have.
Israelis who’ve supported the Court’s ruling have done so arguing the children are Jewish under Israeli law because the mother was Jewish. This is false. Israeli civil law does not adhere to halacha in this matter. But it is telling that pro-Israel advocates assume Israel is essentially a theocracy that strictly adheres to halacha.
In a nod to Jewish dietary law, which rules that the consumption of anything that crawls on the ground to be taboo, Nakar called Rubinstein’s decision “making a beetle kosher.” In this case, the attorney is speaking of the Israeli child welfare system, which the lower court judge criticized bitterly for its mismanagement of this case. It is the treif insect that is somehow transformed into a kosher morsel in Rubinstein’s decision.
This is the very same Supreme Court liberal Zionists celebrate as a champion of human rights and democratic values. Of course, they forget Justice Aharon Barak hasn’t been the chief justice for a decade or more. Now, there are even proud settlers sitting on the Court.
I do not believe that any child welfare authority of any western nation would make such a racist decision. They would first seek a Muslim family for foster parents for such children. They would never permit such an alienation of affection and identity between children and parent.
Beit Halachmi, in her own denunciation of the case in Facebook, called it “state-approved child-trafficking.” Other Israeli child welfare activists accuse social welfare officials of collusion with Jewish parents seeking to adopt children. They say that having a single agency charged both with removing children from parental custody and offering children up for adoption has a built in conflict of interest. Such an authority would be more inclined to remove children if they had adoptive Jewish parents ready to take such children.
This is indeed what happened in this instance. This activist website calls what happened to this Palestinian father “trafficking on behalf of the adoption industry.” There are even rumors that adoptive parents may pay off welfare authorities to find them children to adopt. Given the level of corruption in Israeli government agencies this is an entirely possible scenario.
When the Catholic Church Stole a Jewish Baby
The irony of this brutal decision is informed by an important precedent in European Jewish history. In the late 19th century, Italian Jewish parents gave birth to a child, Edgaro Mortara. The family employed a Christian woman as a maid. When the boy suffered a life-threatening illness, unbeknownst to the parent’s she performed an emergency baptism. Of course, she believed that this had saved his life. By rights of baptism, the Church recognized the baby as Catholic. The law stated that no Jew might raise a Christian baby. So the child was forcibly removed from his home by Italian police.
The Church permitted his parents to visit him in an orphanage. But they could have their son back only if they converted to Catholicism, which they refused. Eventually, the pope himself took Edgaro into his household and later became a priest. He spent much of his life traveling the world to convert Jews. Most of his efforts were a failure. When he came to New York and preached at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, asking for the local Cardinals support in his evangelizing efforts, the prelate refused. The Cardinal believed it would antagonize the local Jewish community, with whom he sought to remain on good terms.
In this case, the rights of the Jewish family were trampled. As a minority with few rights in Italy, the Jewish community could do little more than protest. Even such protest carried little weight in a state ruled by Catholic religious dogma. The Israeli decision isn’t dissimilar. Justices have taken it upon themselves to determine that Orthodox Jews may essentially steal a father’s children from him, from his religion, and from his ethnic community.
Returning to the absolute power of child welfare authorities, last year a Canadian woman, Hana Gan, who had made aliyah in 2014, decided to return home with her two-children while she was five months pregnant. Her parents, also living in Israel, refused to permit her to leave and tried to gain guardianship of the two boys. The mother claims her parents want her children to be raised Orthodox and object to her not being observant. When she tried to board a flight at Ben Gurion, she was denied the right to do so. She then turned to friends who hid her and her children in a safe house. The police discovered her whereabouts and brought a court order permitting them to forcibly remove the children from her care. Now she’s lost her children and lost her freedom, as she cannot leave Israel.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.