Hot Docs: Traveling to Israel is not in child’s best interests, court rules

January 24, 2013

Israel travel family lawAs those of us who practice in the field can tell you, some of the most interesting stories come out of family law cases.

Such a case is Katz v. Katz, out of New York.

The dispute, like so many others in family law, is between two parents over which of them gets to make a decision for the child; this case has some particularly remarkable facts, though.

The parents are both Satmar Hasidic Jews, which is notable for its opposition to Zionism, a Jewish nationalist philosophy that advocates for a Jewish nation state in the territory now known as Israel.

The reason for this opposition is religious, as stated by the father’s rabbi via affidavit:

“Observers of Satmar Hasidism belive [sic] as the Holy Torah says that Jews are nation, that G-d, the G-d of Israel is the King and we are His servants, His chosen nation, He took us out of Egypt, He gave us the land of Israel and then He exiled us amongst the nations because of our sins, and only He shall redeem us and gather us back to Israel through the Messianic King. “

In other words, Satmar Hasidic Jews believe that only God has the authority to call the Jewish people back to the land of Israel (and they also believe that one should take great care when writing or saying “God,” thus the hyphen replacing the “o”).

Hot Doc: Katz v. Katz

Source: Thomson Reuters News & Insight – National Litigation

Only the father, Abraham Katz, belongs to a particularly conservative, “Ultra-Orthodox” division that more strictly adheres to these beliefs.

The dispute arose here because the mother, Miriam Katz, wanted to bring the parties’ seven-year-old son to her brother’s destination wedding in Israel.

The father opposed this because the “child [would be] at risk of having his religious beliefs undermined by the splendor of the State, the splendor of those communities that do not follow the Grand Rabbi’s approach,” and that “travel to Israel would confuse the child and ‘would be against [the child’s] best interests because he is too young to understand the differences that he will be exposed to in Israel, which oppose the foundations of his faith and the education that the Child has received until now’”

You would think a court judgment dealing with child custody would have been sufficiently detailed to resolve this kind of dispute…and it probably would have been, had there actually been one.

There were never any formal civil divorce filings between the Katzes, only a religious divorce accompanied by a separation agreement signed by both parties (this is likely because of Satmar Hasidism’s strongly isolationist tendencies).

This agreement had three clauses pertinent to this situation, but which seemed to be in conflict with one another, in that one holds that the child “will participate in every joyous occasion of the relatives,” including weddings, while others hold that he will be educated (including religious upbringing) according to the father’s wishes.

The court, however, held that the issues would not be decided based on the agreement, but on the best interests of the child standard – as should always be the case in legal disputes involving minor children.

As such, and is typical for judges to do, after a long and lengthy discussion of the parties’ arguments (and laying down the legal standards), the judge effectively rubberstamped the recommendations of the child’s attorney, who, after meeting with the child, concluded that traveling to Israel would not be in the child’s best interests, since “he was experiencing serious and significant confusion and concerns about a child of his community being in Israel.”

As stated above, judges usually side with the court-appointed advocate for the child or children (guardian ad litem, attorney at litem, etc) in legal disputes because it’s easiest to believe that this representative is the one most closely advocating for the best interests of the child.

And with that, I’ll end with a little practice tip to all you newer family lawyers out there: always stay on the good side of the child’s advocate, because whatever he or she recommends will likely be what the judge orders.