Machlokes / Controversy

Jewish World Review Nov. 23, 1999 /14 Kislev, 5760


When lives are at stake, where's Israel?



By Jonathan Rosenblum

IF THE DUHLBERG SISTERS were backpackers injured in Nepal, the government would move heaven and earth to help them. But they are merely young girls in Italy being pressured to renounce their Judaism.

Six days before his passing, I had the privilege of talking to Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits, the former chief rabbi of Great Britain, for the first and only time. Our subject: the inexplicably harsh decree entered by a juvenile court in Genoa, Italy, which gave Moshe Duhlberg custody of his two daughters, and practically severed them from 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." 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, now 10 and 13, and in the face of the girls' clearly expressed desire to remain with their mother.


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Rabbi Jakobovits told me that just the previous evening he had urged Rabbi Eliyahu Toaff, the chief rabbi of Rome, to use all his connections on behalf of the Duhlberg sisters, and that Rabbi Toaff had undertaken to do so.

This week, Rabbi Toaff, together with Amos Luzzatto, head of the Organization of Italian Jewish Communities, issued a statement which received front-page coverage in Italian papers, in which they censured the "bizarre trial" that removed the children from their mother and forbids them to communicate with her in Hebrew. The court decision, the statement said, both violates the religious freedom protected by Italian law and "stigmatizes the lifestyle 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 the Duhlberg girls.

So far, Congressman Benjamin Gilman, chairman of the US 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 Prof. Moshe Kaveh, president of Bar-Ilan University, have all filed their protests with 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 UN 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 by creating the impression that Israel views them as better off in Italy.

Italy has good reason to be sensitive to public opinion: Its UN ambassador, Francesco Paolo Fulci, is chairman of the UN Commission on the Child. The UN 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 minimal 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 can communicate only with people approved by their father, and have been completely cut off from their past life in Israel.


Within Duhlberg's house, servants dog the girls' every step, even 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 generally kept separated from each other, and must lock themselves together in the bathroom to 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. 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 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.

Every word was a lie. Far from being a traditional Jew, Duhlberg has been a devout Catholic for over four years. Indeed, his commitment to the Church lies behind his efforts to bend the sisters to his will against their wishes.

Duhlberg has been baptized, 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 Momiliano, the rabbi of Genoa, to visit the sisters.

Duhlberg uses every possible means to break 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. 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.

Upon occasion, he has prevented the girls from receiving the kosher food sent to them, forcing them to go hungry for a prolonged period. And he has periodically tricked or forced them into violating commandments, which left them crying for days.

If the Duhlberg sisters were backpackers injured in Nepal, the State of Israel would move heaven and earth to help 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 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. He can be reached by clicking here.

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©1999, Jonathan Rosenblum