In his early years as a journalist, Amnon Levy reported on haredi affairs in secular newspapers. In 1988 he wrote a bestseller book on the haredim he had got to know through his journalistic work.
Levy, who is secular, does not hide the fact that he has a soft spot for the haredim, and that he feels that they are wrongly demonized in secular circles. Thus, in his occasional presentation of haredim in his current weekly program on Channel 10 – “Real Face” (Panim Amitiyot) – which focuses on personal stories of public interest, he appears to be trying to make amends, sometimes at the price of objectivity.
To a certain extent this is what he did in the two-part story he told last week and the previous week involving a divorced couple. Shai Shuruk started off as a secular actor who had never visited a synagogue, and turned into a devout and colorful Chabadnik who roams Tel-Aviv on rollerblades. Isabelle Neulinger, a Swiss Jewess with a traditional background, made aliya in 1999, and in 2005 abducted her and Shai’s son Noam to Switzerland, after feeling that her life in Israel had turned into a nightmare.
Father and son have not met since then.
Today Shuruk is married for the third time with three children. His second wife left him when she was pregnant and he never paid her alimony, as he also failed to do in the case of Isabelle.
Now that Noam is approaching his bar mitzva, Shai would like to reestablish contact with him. At the same time, Isabelle would like to return to Israel with her son, as long as charges against her for abduction are dropped, and she won’t face the possibility of having to serve a long prison sentence in Israel. At the moment no one is willing to give her such a guarantee, even though Shai is willing to drop all charges against her.
In his program Levy managed to arrange for a Skype conversation between father and son, which did not appear to have gone well, despite Shai’s visible efforts. At the end of the conversation Noam said that he was not interested in talking to his father again, and commented that Shai looks like a goat. Clearly no one had really prepared him before the conversation.
In 2009, and again in 2010, after the Swiss courts decided that despite the mother being undeniably guilty of abduction, the child’s good called for his remaining with her even if she refuses to return to Israel, the case came up in the European Court of Human Rights. This court concluded that under Article 34 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms there were no grounds for to send Noam back to Israel, even though under the terms of Isabelle’s divorce in Israel Shai was granted visiting rights with his son, which under the circumstances cannot be realized.
The final verdict of the European court in Strasbourg of July 6, 2010 makes fascinating reading. However, it merely provides a matter-of-fact, secular European legal analysis of the case. Amnon Levy provided a more emotional presentation of the facts, which seemed slightly tilted in Shai’s direction. Though Levy certainly let Isabelle tell her story in full, he asked her towards the end of the program what is wrong with living a religious life even if one is not religious. However, he didn’t ask Shai why he hadn’t been more forthcoming with Isabelle, whose life he had apparently turned into hell with his religious penitence.
The question which continues to bug me after having watched Levy’s program, and after having read the verdict of the European Court of Justice (which religious circles in Israel unjustifiably accused of being anti-Semitic) is how such human and legal messes can be avoided in the first place, especially since it is the children who frequently suffer the consequences.
There is, of course, no way to prepare in advance for one of the spouses in a secular marriage turning penitent, or for one of the spouses in a religious marriage turning away from religion. I do not know a single couple that has managed to survive such a situation without divorce, and most of the these divorces have been ugly and acrimonious.
Since it was Shai who originally changed the status quo in his marriage with Isabelle, it is first and foremost he who should have taken responsibility for the consequences.
However, at the time (and apparently remains to the present day) he was under the influence of the Chabad Rabbi David Aziza who had “converted” him, and Aziza apparently did not encourage him to place marital harmony as a priority as some other Rabbis do in similar circumstances. There was no way that Isabelle could have been pacified, though at first she cooperated by going, for example, to the mikve.
The result was that after the couple divorced, and Shai continued to badger her, Isabelle simply took the law into her own hands, and ended up committing a crime whose consequences might continue to haunt her for the rest of her life. Under the circumstances, could she have acted differently? Probably not, since she felt cornered, and probably was cornered.
Today only the State Attorney’s Office can release Isabelle from the tangle she got herself into. However, it is not certain whether it will decide to act in this way, since dropping charges against Isabelle would send out a message to estranged parents that one can get away with the abduction of one’s children.
Shai ended up fighting a legal battle, which he had no chance of winning in European courts. It took him ten years to realize that the only way he can reestablish any sort of contact with his son is by changing his attitude. It was he who approached Levy.
The question is whether this change of attitude is real, or just a ploy to catch Isabelle off guard. The truth is that at this stage it is not enough for him to state that he is dropping all charges against Isabelle. He must convince her that if she does return to Israel he will let her be, and at least until Noam is 18 he will not try to draw him away from his mother, and a basically secular way of life. Noam is his son and he certainly has the right to meet with him.
But Noam is Isabelle’s only child, while Shai has at least another four children.
Today Shai Shuruk himself bears the title of rabbi, and his life is devoted to converting secular Israelis in Tel-Aviv to a religious way of life. He appears to be a jolly, easy-going sort of man, as opposed to Isabelle, who seems rather bitter and solemn. One cannot help wondering what sort of advice Shai is giving his own disciples today – especially those who have not managed to sweep their current partners or spouses with them, and what sort of advice Isabelle would give women who find themselves in the situation she was in ten years ago.
I am sorry that Amnon Levy didn’t try to address this aspect of the story. Had he done so I think he would have a better chance of attaining the main goal he claims to have set out to attain, namely to enable a father to meet his son.
The writer is a political scientist and retired Knesset employee.