Advocates for children in international custody cases are warning that the unfolding Elian Gonzales saga could have drastic repercussions on efforts to retrieve kids from foreign countries, including Israel, where such cases have risen sharply in recent years.
“This gives those who want to justify the non-return of children another peg to hang their hats on,” said Nancy Hammer, international director of the Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Virginia.
Citing the 1980 Hague agreement signed by 53 nations requiring the extradition of children to their native lands from foreign soil, the advocates say the long delay in reuniting Gonzales with his Cuban father, and the growing politicization of the case, may lead other countries to balk at upholding the treaty.
“They will say it took five months to return the [Gonzales] kid, why should we just return the child so quickly?” said New York attorney Raoul Felder, who says he handles several complaints each year of parents seeking to regain custody of children taken to Israel by a spouse.
“Israel is not a good country for a woman,” said Felder. “It is a male-dominated society. Divorce law in Israel is a problem because the rabbinical courts get involved. My own experience is that a woman can’t get a fair shake.”
There are currently 21 U.S. reports under investigation in Israel related to child custody covered under the Hague agreement, according to the State Department. The number of cases reported has risen steadily in the past decade, from one in 1991 to 11 in 1999.
A source at the House Judiciary Committee, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said there was increasing concern that numerous cases that come before the committee for review could be hampered by the outcome of the Gonzales case.
“By delaying and playing political games, [the administration] is jeopardizing the outcome of all these other cases,” said the source.
Spokespeople at the White House and Department of Justice did not respond to requests for comment.
Five months after Elian Gonzalez arrived in Florida after escaping Cuba with his mother, who drowned during the journey when their boat capsized, federal immigration agents on Saturday stormed the Miami home of his American relatives. Insisting Elian should be granted asylum from Fidel Castro’s Marxist regime, the relatives had refused to turn the boy over to his father, who arrived in the United States two weeks ago.
Among the supporters gathered outside the home in Little Havana where Elian was seized were several Jewish emigres from Cuba holding Israeli flags. They told Israel Radio they considered the boy holy like Moses because he too was rescued from the water.
The United States is among the nations — Cuba is not — that signed the Hague agreement calling for efforts to reunite children with their parents if they are being held on foreign soil. But several political leaders, including Vice President and Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore, have joined Elian’s Miami relatives in calling for asylum for the boy.
According to a recent federal report by the U.S. General Accounting Office, about 1,000 children are abducted each year from the United States to foreign countries. But lawyers aiding their parents here say the U.S. government has not sent a clear signal to curb the snatchings.
“The Elian Gonzales case is significant to practitioners who have to deal with the precedents that will be established with regard to international child abduction matters,” said Michael Wildes, a former federal prosecutor who now represents parents seeking children in such countries as Syria and Saudi Arabia. “Clearly as a moral compass in the world, we should be sending out a message to our allies and to countries that have not signed the Hague convention.”
Wildes said that while Congress has taken measures to help its citizens retrieve children, such as allowing anyone linked to a child abductor to be banned from U.S. territory, parents or other abductors may still “shield themselves with religious courts or hide behind gaps in extradition and international laws.”
But a lawyer with offices in both Jerusalem and New York, Rakeffet Carmon, who specializes in child custody cases, said Israel has set an example for returning children.
While acknowledging that Israeli rabbinic courts allow spouses to unilaterally file for divorce and apply for temporary sole custody, Carmon said its Supreme Court has a solid track record of overturning such cases. She cited the recent case of Ben Dagan, a New Jersey toddler who returned to the United States last summer after the court denied his mother’s petition to keep him in Israel over the objections of his father.
“Israel routinely returns children who are taken by one parent against the wishes of the other parent,” she said, insisting pleas based on religion are given less deference of late. “The Supreme Court has established a precedent that [the] Hague [agreement] supercedes all these arguments.”
The Gonzales case has caused many to recall the notorious 1957 “Yossele affair” in which a Jewish refugee from Russia to Israel refused to hand over his 7-year-old grandson, Joseph Schumacher. The grandfather, Nachman Shtarkes, hid the boy from his parents because they were not religious, and raised the boy according to Orthodox strictures. The Yossele affair led to a sensational court trial, with Shtarkes sentenced to jail for contempt of court. In 1962, Israeli agents located the boy in New York and returned him to his parents.
In a more recent case closer to home, Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans of Brooklyn was charged with kidnapping teenaged Shai Fhima, also because his parents rejected the Orthodox lifestyle. Rabbi Helbrans was convicted and jailed.