Immunity Shields Israeli Officials From Thorny Custody Battle

TRENTON, N.J. (CN) – Affirming dismissal of civil kidnapping claims, a New Jersey appeals court found Monday that immunity shields seven Israeli rabbinical court officials whom a man accuses of aiding his ex-wife.

The lawsuit is one of many filed over the years by Sharon Ben-Haim, whose wife filed to divorce him in early 2010 during a trip with their infant daughter to Israel.

Ben-Haim’s first custody suit in Israel was initially successful, but the Israeli Supreme Court later reversed an order that said Oshrat Abergel had to return Ben-Haim’s daughter to New Jersey.

Though the rabbinical court later awarded custody of the daughter to Oshrat, it could not grant a Jewish divorce because Ben-Haim has refused to grant what is known as a “get.” To compel Ben-Haim’s consent to the get, the rabbinical court issued a series of escalating sanctions, even going so far as to say that Jews must avoid dealing with him.

Meantime a family court in New Jersey issued a warrant for Oshrat’s arrest, and Ben-Haim accused the Rabbinical Courts of Israel of aiding and abetting.

The Israeli government eventually asked the State Department to intervene, and in 2015 the agency issued a suggestion of immunity regarding the seven rabinnical officials.

A trial judge in Bergen then dismissed Ben-Haim’s lawsuit, and the New Jersey Appellate Division affirmed Monday.

A suggestion of immunity “is binding on a court, and when the State Department finds that foreign officials are entitled to immunity, the court surrenders its jurisdiction to address civil claims against those foreign officials,” Judge Robert Gilson wrote for a three-person panel.

The 18-page opinion also notes that Ben-Haim’s claims do not prove any violations of jus cogens norms — principles of international law — because the rabbinical court officials were acting in their official duty.

Ben-Haim’s attorney Saul Roffe declined to comment on the ruling or any potential appeal until he speaks with his client.

Attorney Robert Reeves Anderson of Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer, who represented the rabinnical officials, did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

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