At first glance, the story of the divorce of Beth Alexander and Michael Schlesinger is all too familiar. Two young people meet. They get married. Children come along — in this case, twin boys. Then things start to go wrong (or perhaps they started to go wrong much earlier). The couple split up.
Who was to blame for this particular marriage breakdown? Although I can claim no professional expertise as a relationship counsellor, my wife and I have recently celebrated our 39th wedding anniversary, so I do know something about making a marriage work successfully. I generally hold to the view that it takes two make a marriage and two to break a marriage.
In the case of Schlesinger and Alexander, we seem to be in the familiar “she said — he said” situation. At all events, a get (religious divorce) has now been finalised, and an extremely protracted civil divorce is at least in train.
So far, so reasonable. Except for the fact that a court in Vienna — where Alexander and Schlesinger live — has granted temporary custody of the twins to the husband and father, leaving the wife and mother access-time to her sons averaging, by my reckoning, 10 hours a week. The seeming injustice of this has now attracted international media attention, and, as the JC has reported, was last month the occasion for a public demonstration in north-west London.
The arrangement sanctioned by the Austrian courts is unusual — to grant custody (albeit temporary) to the father and not the mother — but not unknown. Family courts in the UK do occasionally award custody to the father, especially where they feel that the mother is of unsound mind or leads a reprehensible lifestyle.
The Viennese courts must — one might suppose — have had a very sound reason for doing what they did. And it’s true that the Austrian authorities did conclude that they had good reason for recommending temporary custody of the twins to Schlesinger and not to Alexander, reportedly basing themselves in part upon a written opinion as to Alexander’s mental state.
Some have suggested to me that, for the sake of the twins, we should all shut up and leave matters to the Austrian courts. I’m not so sure. The drama that has been unfolding in Vienna has attracted media attention partly because it is perceived as typical of a particular approach taken by the country’s legal system in similar cases (one of which featured recently on Austrian television).
As to the Alexander-Schlesinger case, there are a number of allegations flying around.
We must also bear in mind that Michael Schlesinger is entitled to tell his side of the story. But there is one matter that I can put to rest. If I personally suspected that Beth Alexander might be in any sense mentally deficient, I assure you that I would not trouble myself — let alone you — any further with this sorry tale.
My difficulty is that I harbour no such thought — and neither does anyone I have spoken to, including, I might add, several individuals who would be distressed if I were to describe them as being in the Alexander “camp”. What’s more, we now have the written opinions of two well-qualified psychiatric professionals that she is in fact of very sound mind, and has never had a history of mental illness.
Something seems to me to have gone seriously wrong. At first, I thought the fault lay exclusively with the Austrian legal system. Now I am not so sure. The authorities that originally dealt with the custody issue might have taken greater care in the weighing of evidence. But I come to this affair without the necessarily narrow vision of the lawyer. Beth Alexander obtained her get only through the statesmanlike intervention of our own Dayan Chanoch Ehrentreu. And I am now convinced that a supreme duty lies with a small circle of philanthropists, whose generous support of Jewish communal institutions in Austria has been pivotal to the rebuilding of Jewish life there.
For the sake of everyone — but more especially the Schlesinger twins — I urge these benefactors to involve themselves in this case, so that the custody of the twins may be fully restored to the mother who bore them.