Purim and the curious case of M v F & Others

Relationships|March 21st 2011

This weekend marked the Jewish festival of Purim. It commemorates Queen Esther, who managed to save the lives of the Persian Jews who were to be massacred by the wicked noble Haman. By begging for their lives, the Queen put herself at great risk. The King, who didn’t know she was Jewish herself, was moved by her pleas. He ordered Haman to be executed and the Jews were saved.

Purim is a festival of joy. It is celebrated by dressing up in fancy dress, singing, dancing, eating (of course!) and, unusually, actually being encouraged to get tipsy! It’s one of the happiest occasions in the Jewish calendar.

This year I became quite nostalgic, thinking of Purim in the years gone by. I dug out some photos of my son Ben, a tiny tot, attending a Purim party with his nursery friends at our home. I have a picture of him dressed as a cowboy, holding hands with his friend Batman, their faces covered in cake and chocolate. They were having a wonderful time – as was I, surrounded by all those happy tots and cake. Who cared about the clearing up?

Looking at all those pictures of happy baby faces made me think:  how should we celebrate Purim this year, in the midst of all the disaster in the world? Japan, New Zealand and the Middle East: every which way there is tragedy, and young children and babies who are now orphans.

M v F & Others

Here in England and Wales our Court of Appeal was hearing a case called M v F & Others, which involved another tiny baby who has been born into tragic circumstances. The appellant was a woman whose husband had suffered torment at the hands of the Taliban in Afghanistan. After the family was given asylum in this country the 41-year-old wife became pregnant, she said, with her husband’s child. In law he is therefore regarded as the father of her child, and has automatic parental responsibility.  What father, especially one who has been to hell and back, could regard the birth of a son as anything but a joy, a gift, a treasure?

Because of his experiences with the Taliban, however, the husband suffered from severe depression. This had manifested itself in violent and abusive behaviour, but hadn’t interfered with the exercise of their normal marital relations. The wife said that she was afraid of what her husband would do when he learned that she had given birth to their son. She told only her two daughters about her pregnancy. She kept the news from her husband, “due to his mental health”, and her son.

The woman and her daughters decided that the baby should be given up for adoption, but learned that this was not possible without her husband’s knowledge and consent. The child was made a Ward of Court of the day of his birth. Three days later the wardship was discharged and an interim care order was made. The baby was immediately placed in foster care. The mother was asked to register his birth and suggest a name for him, but refused to do so. She made an application for the child to be adopted, and for leave for consent by the father to be dispensed with in the circumstances of the case.

The judgment

The Court of Appeal dismissed the wife’s appeal. Lord Justice Thorpe stated: “This is a hopeless appeal which should be dismissed”.

The Court concluded that as the wife was insistent that the husband was the father, the husband therefore had a reasonable expectation to enjoy family life with his son, once he learned of the child’s existence. Because he had parental responsibility, the husband’s consent to an adoption would not in these particular circumstances be dispensed with. There was no reason why it should.

So here we have one case where the much-criticised Human Rights Act has clearly worked. The husband’s rights were upheld by the Court of Appeal, even though he had no clue that his rights were being infringed.

Although the judgment was straightforward, this was a sad and strange case. Perhaps it is because I am a cynic, or perhaps it is because I am a mother with a husband whose son is the apple of his eye, but this case troubled me. I am unable to understand why the father could not be told, and perhaps there is rather more to it than meets the eye.

Mr Justice Mostyn had previously declared that having seen the wife in the witness box, he judged it “very improbable that she would have had an adulterous affair with a third party”. I noted in the case report that at 32 weeks’ gestation the wife was treated for syphilis. This was noted but never pursued. One of the daughters is recorded as saying that their community would ostracise the family if they knew that her mother, a grandparent, was pregnant. Again, this was noted but never pursued.

I agree with Mr Justice Thorpe, who said:

“The factual case presented to the court lacks plausibility and profundity. What were M’s real motives for her extraordinary course of action and her determination to abandon her new born? …It is hard not to suspect that the court below was presented with only the tip of an iceberg.

And what will become of the child? Rejected by his mother, and with no father as yet, that baby is utterly helpless. What will become of him? It seems to me that there has been far too much emphasis on the parents’ plights, and too little on that of the innocent baby.

Baby Hadas

That brings me to another baby: Hadas Fogel, pictured above, three months old. Some will have read about this baby last week, but I suspect that many did not. Hadas Fogel was curled up next to her father in bed, in an Israeli settlement in the disputed West Bank (known to the Israelis as Judea and Samaria) when she, her parents and two siblings were slaughtered in a bloody knife attack while they slept in their home. Baby Hadas was found like her father, with her throat slashed. Three children survive, including the eldest, aged 12, who discovered her dead family. She has promised to become a mother to her siblings. I found it difficult to get the baby’s picture and her murder out of my mind: a tiny helpless child, picked up and her throat savagely cut. Her death would have taken just seconds. The act is grotesque. It is impossible to understand.

The family’s murder, which shocked Israelis and inflamed tensions on the West Bank, has attracted relatively little coverage from the mainstream media in the UK. However plenty has been said online. I thought carefully about what, if anything, I could add. I could think of nothing. And I couldn’t see how, with all the tragedy in the world right now, I could take any joy from Purim this year.

Baby Jude

Then I read (online, of course!) of another event, which took place in the Palestinian village of Nabi Salah. Nabi Salah is close to the village of Neve Tzuf, where the remaining members of the Fogel family are in mourning.

In Nabi Salah last Wednesday, a 20-year-old Palestinian woman went into labour. However all did not proceed well. The baby was being strangled, because the cord was wrapped around its neck. The woman was bundled into a van and driven at breakneck speed… to Neve Tzuf, for urgent medical help.

A 19-year-old corporal in the Israel Defense Forces, Haim Levin, was the first medical team member at the scene. He has been a medical volunteer since he was 15. He safely resuscitated and delivered the baby, and also treated the mother. As he worked to save the baby, some other villagers arrived from Nabi Salah, one being the baby’s grandmother.

And so as one family mourned the death of a baby girl and other loved ones in the most abhorrent of circumstances, another baby girl was born surrounded by friends and family, with the help of an army. She has been named Jude. Look at the wonder on the face of young Corporal Levin. He has given life to a baby. There are many thoughts that cross my mind when I think of Baby Hadas, murdered and Baby Jude, saved. And also of the uncertain future of the baby here in the UK, who doesn’t even have a name and whose mother doesn’t want him. What do we make of it all?

Festivals don’t always come along at the right time. There are few in Neve Tzuf who will feel like celebrating. But… as it is Purim, we should be happy and we should have a drink. It is no coincidence that when Jewish people make a toast it isn’t “Cheers” or “Chin Chin!”

It is “L’Chaim.”

To life.

The founder of Stowe Family Law, Marilyn Stowe is one of Britain’s best known divorce lawyers. She retired from Stowe Family Law in 2017.

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  1. mjb says:

    lovely, Marilyn. Lovely.
    Kol hakavod for writing this in your blog; today, in my professional life, I came across a senior colleague – who knows my detailed background. he chose to tell me that the prime minister of israel is one step down, only, from Hitler [may his name be obliterated]
    we need to wear our hearts on our [designer] sleeves.
    our jewish hearts inform our professional lives. let it be said.purim sameach.

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