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Faraway custody battle grips Israel

Varanasi, an Indian town along the banks of the Ganges River, is where a 2-year-old Israeli girl was separated from her parents. (Steve Evans/ flickr/ Creative Commons)

Varanasi, an Indian town along the banks of the Ganges River, is where a 2-year-old Israeli girl was separated from her parents. (Steve Evans/ flickr/ Creative Commons)

TEL AVIV (JTA) – A drug-addled custody battle on the other side of the world has been dubbed “Solomon’s choice” by Israelis.

It began last week when an Israeli backpacker, Zohar Matlon, found a Hebrew-speaking girl wandering the streets of the Indian town of Varanasi alone.

Two-year-old Bat-El, it emerged, had been separated from her parents, an Israeli-Finnish couple on a spiritual trip in the Asian subcontinent.

According to local reports, the pair had been forcibly hospitalized after suffering a psychotic episode brought on by hallucinogens. One witness said the Israeli father had tried to dump all of the family’s belongings into a river.

For Matlon, a 34-year-old kindergarten teacher, it seemed a clear-cut humanitarian case at first: Protect Bat-El until relatives came to get her.

“I am enjoying my new role of surrogate mother,” Matlon told the Express India newspaper after staying with the little girl in a hostel favored by Israelis.

As the days passed, it seemed that Bat-El’s parents, whose names were withheld from publication, would stay locked up under medical supervision for some time. Meanwhile, pictures of the wild-eyed, haven-headed couple, and their smiling blonde daughter, reached the media in Israel and Finland, the mother’s homeland.

The drama in Israel was heightened by the idea of a far-flung trek – a standard post-army rite of passage – gone awry, not to mention the exotic mixed marriage that produced Bat-El.

As the girl is a citizen of both countries, the Israeli and Finnish embassies began investigating custody options before the next of kin intervened: Bat-El’s paternal grandfather flew out from Israel to India.

“The objective was to assume responsibility for the girl properly,” Ilan Fanglai, a friend of the grandfather who joined him, told Israel’s Channel 10 television. “It was emotional, very emotional. Now we are trying to figure out what happened and waiting to bring the child back to her family, safe and sound.”

According to Israeli media reports, the handover has been held up by Bat-El’s maternal grandmother, who is coming out from Finland with a custody claim.

The Indian authorities may refer the dispute to a family court. Yediot Achronot reported that since Bat-El entered the country on her Finnish passport, this could work in favor of her maternal grandmother’s case.

Meanwhile, a Varanasi court ordered Bat-El’s parents discharged from the mental health facility and reunited with their daughter, according to reports. Where things go from here is unclear.

The spokesman for the Finnish Embassy in New Delhi said negotiations were under way to find “a fair solution that would be acceptable to all sides involved in the matter: the Finnish, the Israelis and the Indians.”

For Matalon, whom Bat-El refers to as “Mami,” the uncertainty may have grown unbearable.

“I’m exhausted,” she told Yediot. “I just want this whole thing to be over so I can leave Varanasi.”

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