A judgment more heartbreaking than that of Solomon: No impostors in the battle for Eitan

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It was not yet 8 a.m. on September 23, but Giancarlo Giojelli – the local correspondent for Italian public broadcaster RAI – was already recording live reports from the plaza in front of the Tel Aviv Family Court.

And he was not alone. Several Israeli television crews were also present, along with a dozen additional Italian journalists. The closed-door hearing – which neither of them could enter anyway – was still over an hour away. But with the fate of six-year-old Eitan Biran about to be discussed, the court was in turmoil.

The sole survivor of the May 23 cable car crash in Mottarone, Italy, which left 14 people dead, Eitan is at the center of an international custody battle for his loved ones living in Italy and Israel.

Eitan, who lost his parents, younger brother and two great-grandparents in the tragedy, has dual Israeli-Italian nationality. He was born in Israel but moved to Italy as a baby when his father, Amit, enrolled in medical school in Pavia, not far from Milan.

Shortly after the horrific accident, an Italian court placed the child – then fighting for his life in a Turin hospital – under the care of his paternal aunt, Aya Biran-Nirko, who also lives in Italy.

But on September 11, his maternal grandfather, Shmuel Peleg, drove Eitan to Switzerland and secretly took him to Israel on a private chartered plane.

Many, especially in Italy, saw this as kidnapping, and indeed Biran-Nirko quickly asked a Tel Aviv court to apply the Hague Convention on Abducted Minors and send Eitan back to Italy. The ensuing case involves judicial and police investigations in Italy and Israel.

But alongside its complex legal aspects, this family tragedy with its deep emotional foundations has captivated public opinion in both countries. And everyone – experts, lawyers, child psychologists and the general public – seems to be asking the same question: what constitutes the “best interests” of the child?

Aya Biran-Nirko, center-right, a paternal aunt of Eitan Biran, who survived a cable car crash in Italy that killed her immediate family, arrives at Tel Aviv court on Thursday, September 23, 2021, for a hearing in the alleged kidnapping of his nephew. (AP Photo / Sebastian Scheiner)

Heartbreaking tragedies are, sadly, a dime a dozen, but this one seems to have struck a particularly deep chord. Interestingly, however, its coverage highlights issues at the very heart of Italian and Israeli national interpretations and self-designs.

‘Il piccolo Eitan’

All major Italian media have been covering the story for months.

“This incident deeply shocked Italy, and the deep public interest in Eitan’s well-being stems from a collective realization that this child has lost everything in our country, ”said Alessandra Buzzetti, Jerusalem correspondent for TV2000, a channel belonging to the Episcopal Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Alessandra Buzzetti. (Courtesy)

This broad interest followed two paths: the first was a ceaseless reportage on the ins and outs of the criminal investigation into the accident, and the second was an almost national mothering of “il piccolo Eitan” (little Eitan), while the boy came to be known publicly. “The orphan Eitan is now everyone’s son”, wrote journalist Maurizio Crosetti in the daily The Republic, capturing Italian public sentiment.

Updates on his state of health, leading to his eventual discharge from hospital and return home, made headlines in Italy.

Shmulik Peleg, maternal grandfather of Eitan Biran, who survived a cable car crash in Italy that killed his immediate family, leaves the Tel Aviv court on Thursday, September 23, 2021, after a hearing on charges of kidnapping of his grandson. (AP Photo / Sebastian Scheiner)

Soon after, a new angle was added to the mix of this devastating saga – that of a bitter custody battle between relatives on his mother’s and father’s side.

In a way, it created a real-life soap opera, and in the Italian court of public opinion it was clear where the sympathies lay. Not only was Italy-based aunt Biran-Nirko able to communicate her position in fluent Italian, but she also made a compelling case regarding Eitan’s “natural” environment.

After all, stressed she and her husband, Or Nirko, the child had lived in Italy all her life and was already enrolled in the school her parents had chosen before their untimely death.

Staying with them in Pavia would offer, they said, the greatest promise of some semblance of stability at a time when everything he knew has been turned upside down.

Relocating him to Israel, on the other hand, would introduce another traumatic change and negatively impact his path to recovery. It all made sense to the countless Italians who were anxiously following the affair.

Gabriel Eschenazi. (Courtesy)

According to Gabriel Eschenazi, author and freelance journalist from Milan, what made Italians accept even more the call of the aunt and the uncle was their non-accusatory tone. “They never exhibited anti-Italian sentiment,” he said, “neither did they blame the Italian authorities for the accident or criticize the way the investigation was conducted. simply to be a grieving family that feels part and rooted in the Italian society in which they have chosen to live.

Moreover, Eschenazi added, many Italians feel responsible for Eitan’s future well-being. “It was we, all of us as a country, who caused this tragedy,” he said in a telephone interview. “Giving Eitan the best chance at living a good life can also be a way for us to redeem ourselves. “

Aya Biran-Nirko, a paternal aunt of Eitan Biran who was the only survivor of a fatal cable car accident in Italy, leaves the Tel Aviv court on September 23, 2021 (Jack Guez / AFP)

So when maternal grandfather Peleg took Eitan to Israel, media coverage and public outrage increased. Daily updates on the case filled the pages of Italian dailies, opened nightly news broadcasts and were the subject of debate on popular talk shows.

“This is a developing story with a child as the main character and – as far as Italians are concerned – a polarizing kind / villain dynamic,” said Giojelli, RAI correspondent.

Many Italians believe that the grandfather’s unilateral actions violate the Italian court’s decision to grant custody to the aunt, he explained, and as such constitute an attack on Italian legal sovereignty .

The clandestine nature of the operation, the crossing to Switzerland, the private plane, many recall a scene from a James Bond film, and have sparked unfounded and conspiratorial rumors regarding the secret involvement of officials or Israeli organizations.

Shmulik Peleg, Eitan Biran’s maternal grandfather, in an interview that aired September 17, 2021 (Screenshot / Channel 12)

“Eitan is at home”

But here in Israel, the story is very different. And these differences, according to Cesare Pavoncello, an Italian translator and freelance journalist who made his aliya from Rome thirty years ago, are significant.

“I have the feeling that the Italian public does not grasp the nuance of cultural and religious values ​​which are so important to a large part of the Israeli public,” he said.

Cesar Pavoncello. (Courtesy)

Giojelli agreed: “It is all summed up in these few words that Mr. Peleg sent to Aya Biran after he landed in Israel,” he noted, “Eitan is at home.

This notion of a Jewish homeland, and the sense of security it offers, is actually difficult for many Italians to grasp – home is understood not only as the place where you reside, but also as the only place you truly belong and where you can be sure to retain a full Jewish identity.

“It’s clear to the Israeli public,” said Giojelli, “but absolutely not obvious to an Italian reader.”

Giancarlo Giojelli. (Courtesy)

He continued, “The problem is, people want clarity, they want to understand who is right and who is wrong. Thus, the fact that it is difficult to understand Peleg’s reasoning only increases the Italian public’s support for Aya Biran.

It’s not that the Israeli press fully embraced Peleg’s insistence that he simply brought Eitan “home.” But many Israelis can, at the very least, sympathize with the grandfather, who is widely seen in Italy with a critical eye. After all, the fear of assimilation is real, and Peleg, who repeatedly insists Eitan would attend a Catholic school in Pavia, knows it.

Look for a wise solution

As often, members of the Italian Jewish community find themselves caught between their two identities.

Pavoncello, who knows the reactions to the case among Italian Jews, concluded that “in some ways the debate regarding this story reflects the dynamic that we can see here in Israel, where part of the population insists on the aspect. legal case and others. can understand – if not justify – the logic behind Shmuel Peleg’s actions. “

Nonetheless, the Jewish community in Milan, where the Biran family was known, issued a statement regarding Peleg’s action which expressed “a strong condemnation of this serious act in violation of Italian and international laws”. He said he hoped that “the event can be resolved as soon as possible and in accordance with the decision of the juvenile court”.

Milo Hasbani, the president of the Jewish community in Milan, nevertheless pointed out for this article that the community had been in contact with the two families from the start, and did not take sides in any official way.

There are two grieving sides, with equal family claims to Eitan, each operating on different guiding principles, leading them to diametrically opposed understandings of what is in his best interest.

As the saga progressed, references and comparisons were made to the biblical account of the “Judgment of Solomon” (I Kings 3: 16-28), in which the wise king of Israel discerned which of the two women standing in front of him was the real mother of a child suggesting that the boy be cut in half.

But unlike this story, there is no impostor here. Instead, there are two grieving sides, with equal family claims to Eitan, each operating on different guiding principles, leading them to diametrically opposed understandings of what is in his best interest.

In last week’s closed-door session, the Tel Aviv Family Court decided to resume hearings on October 8, and in a joint statement, lawyers for the two families did not release any information about the agreements. provisional contracts that they had concluded. Instead, they just asked to respect family privacy and leave some space for all involved.

This ongoing battle will undoubtedly continue to fascinate, make headlines and divide opinions. But, as lawyers have sought to remind spectators, at its center is a deprived and traumatized young boy, who, more than anything, needs to be allowed to heal.


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