The future of the six-year-old orphan Eitan Biran is currently being weighed against the background of a dramatic and emotional set of moves, which do not necessarily have his welfare at their base.
Eitan’s parents, two-year-old brother, and his mother’s grandfather and wife, were all killed in a cable-car accident in the Italian Alps on May 23. Eitan himself – the only survivor of the tragic accident in which 14 were killed – was severely injured and spent several months in an Italian hospital in Turin, where his paternal aunt, Dr. Aya Biran-Nirko sat by his side. Some of Eitan’s maternal relatives from Israel also visited him in the hospital.
When Eitan left the hospital, he moved in with Aya – who was officially recognized in Italy as his custodian – her husband and their two daughters, and in the beginning of September started to attend a Catholic school in Pavia that Aya’s daughters attend. Before the accident, Eitan’s parents also lived in Pavia, while his father Amit studied medicine. Eitan had in fact lived in Italy from the age of one month, even though he frequently visited his relatives in Israel with his parents.
Several days after Rosh Hashanah, Eitan’s maternal grandfather – Shmuel Peleg – on a visit to Pavia from Israel, took Eitan out for the day and was supposed to return him to Aya toward evening. However, he never returned, and Eitan was next reported to have arrived in Israel with his grandfather, in a private plane that took off from a small airfield in Switzerland, to which Peleg had managed to smuggle Eitan with his Israeli passport (he couldn’t have taken him out of Italy with his Italian passport).
As soon as Aya discovered what had happened she complained of the kidnap, both to the Italian and Israeli authorities. Now a trial has opened in the family court in Tel Aviv, on the issue of the abduction. The court is not meant to deal with the issue of the custody over Eitan (in Israel Eitan’s maternal aunt – Gali Peleg-Peri – is seeking to adopt him), but with the question of whether he was illegally abducted, and whether or not he should be returned immediately to Italy.
On the face of it, according to international law, there seems no doubt that Eitan was abducted by his maternal grandfather. However, members of the Peleg family in Israel question whether the custody obtained by Aya from the Italian authorities is legal and permanent, claiming that they were told that it was only temporary. They also suggest that Aya had not acted in good faith, and have even implied that her interest involves financial issues – to lay hands on the compensation that Eitan is expected to receive from the Italian cable-car company.
They further argue that if he remains in Italy, Eitan will not grow up as a Jew and Israeli, and that only they can provide him with a traditional Jewish background and education. Finally, they claim that since Eitan’s parents were planning to return to Israel after Amit would finish his medical studies in a year or so, they would have wanted Eitan to live in Israel – not in Italy.
BUT THERE are also undercurrents to this story. Both the mother and sister of Eitan’s mother Tal, stated in interviews to the Israeli media that the Biran family had negative feelings about Tal on racial grounds, since they are Ashkenazim, and the Peleg family are right-wing Sephardim, suggesting that Tal had somehow been mistreated by the Birans.
So far neither Aya, nor anyone else from the Biran family, has reacted to these claims. They are less verbose than the Peleg family, much more reserved in their choice of words, and much less emotional in what they say. The Biran case is simple and straightforward: Eitan spent most of his life in Italy; his Italian is much better than his Hebrew; Aya – who moved to Italy over 17 years ago, when she started studying medicine – and her husband and their two daughters, have offered Eitan a loving, warm and stable home in an environment he is familiar with, and believe that they are best able to care for Eitan’s medical, mental and emotional needs.
Eitan’s paternal grandparents apparently live both in Israel and in Italy (they have a house in Moshav Aviel near Binyamina, but moved to Pavia three years ago, to be near their two children). Peleg, on the other hand, has argued that he is Eitan’s only grandfather – which is false. However, at least for the time being, since none of their remaining three children has any children, Eitan is Shmuel and Eti Peleg’s only grandchild.
After the current stage of the saga will be over, the question regarding who will end up raising Eitan – Aya in Italy, or Gali in Israel – will be taken. This will depend on whether Eitan will be returned immediately to Italy, in which case an Italian court will deal with the issue, or whether he will be left in Israel, in which case an Israeli court will deal with it. The Tel Aviv family court is to reconvene on October 8.
I MUST say that even though I prefer that Jewish children should be enabled to grow up as Jews in Israel if this is warranted by the circumstances, it is not always in their best interest as human beings, and under certain circumstances it might be preferable that they grow up elsewhere. From what I know – and I admit that I only know the details published in the Israeli media – I am inclined to believe that Eitan will be better off with Aya and her family.
The Peleg family has left me with very mixed feelings. Shmuel Peleg appears to be a manipulative person, not averse to bending the facts. His denial that he had abducted Eitan, claiming that he had “saved” him, is shaky at best, even though I am aware of the fact that there are many Israelis who believe that bringing a Jewish child to Israel cannot be considered abduction, under any circumstances, and to hell with what international law, and treaties that Israel has signed (such as the 1980 Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction), say.
Currently, Peleg has also published in the media several photographs of himself with Eitan in familial poses, in defiance of the request of the Israeli authorities that no photographs of Eitan be published for the time being, to preserve his privacy.
Another relevant fact about Shmuel Peleg, is that his divorce from Eti – the mother of his son and three daughters – many years ago, was accompanied by violence, for which he was charged. Eti, who has spoken most of the situation in recent months, seems to equate Eitan’s good with fulfilling all his whims, and traditional Friday night dinners. Gali, who would like to adopt Eitan, seems despondent and bitter.
But perhaps these impressions are misleading. In the final reckoning it is not the public’s sentiments that will decide, but judicial instances in either Israel or Italy. All we can do is pray that it will really and truly be what is best for Eitan that will determine the outcome.
The writer was a researcher in the Knesset Research and Information Center until her retirement, and recently published a book in Hebrew, The Job of the Knesset Member – An Undefined Job, soon to be published in English by Routledge.