The death of any one person is the disappearance of that world, and all the other touching, interlocking worlds are left infinitely poorer.
Mike Kelly of Teaneck, a columnist for the Bergen Record, has been in a small room with a man who killed 46 people in three separate bombings. A man who obliterated 46 separate worlds. And who seems to be proud of it.
Kelly has written a book, The Bus on Jaffa Road, that focuses on one of those bombings, the one on the Jaffa Road in Jerusalem in 1996 that killed 26 people, including Sara Duker, also of Teaneck, and Matthew Eisenfeld, her boyfriend, who was from West Hartford, Conn.
He also focuses on Stephen Flatow of West Orange, whose daughter Alisa was killed in another bus bombing the year before, and who was instrumental in the story as it unfolded.
Kelly tells the story on two levels. On the personal, he acquaints his readers with the young people who should have gone on to lives of joy, love, work, and accomplishment and who were both gifted and entirely normal. Alisa was on the bus that morning because she was going to the beach; a young Orthodox woman spending her gap year in Israel, she wanted both a Jewish life in her spiritual homeland and a tan.
Sara, who was going to be a research scientist, and Matt, a Conservative rabbinical student, had serious academic and professional ambitions but were spending a vacation day together, going to Jordan to see the romantic red city of Petra, newly opened to Jews.
Once the buses were blown up, politics took over. Stephen Flatow, driven by love and anguish and a sort of last-ditch idealism, waged civil suits in American courts because that was the only avenue open to him. (See page 26.) Sara’s mother, Arline Duker, and Matt’s parents, Vicki and Leonard Eisenfeld, who are not lawyers, as Flatow is, followed his lead.
Just as the story changes from the direct and personal to the politically complicated and legally arcane and then back again, so does Kelly’s book. He manages to weave all these threads together, going from the emotionally intense to the more distanced sections as if to provide readers with a bit of space, and perhaps the time to sniffle quietly to themselves.
Kelly’s interest in terrorism began on Sept. 11, 2001, and continued through many assignments to the Middle East, including both Israel and Gaza. It led him to interview Hassan Salameh, the man who began as an enforcer for Hamas — “like a Mafia thug,” Kelly said — beating up or killing suspected collaborators, and went on to become a bomb maker for them.
Convicted in Israel for a series of attacks, including the one that killed Sara and Matt, the bomber appeared to welcome the chance to tell his story. “I think that I was hoping to see some remorse, or at least some reflection on what he had done,” Kelly said. “Let’s be honest. He killed 46 people in three separate bombings. He built the bombs that killed innocent unarmed people.” Other criminals Kelly had interviewed tended to show some regret. “With Salameh, I saw no crack. Nothing. Zero. Nothing at all,” he said.
When asked if he recognized Sara Duker’s name, Salameh said he did; when asked why he killed her, he said she had been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“It was almost as if he was proud of the fact that he had killed those people,” Kelly said. “He had absolutely no remorse. He was a stone cold killer; in fact, I think there was a certain joy he felt in killing. And then he turned around and justified it, all in the name of God, as if this was God’s work.”
Kelly decided that to write the story accurately, he would have to go to the morgue and look at the pictures of the bombing victims.
“My book is an attempt to break down terrorism to see how it affects ordinary people,” he continued. “You can’t get away from the fact that it is really nothing more than wanton murder. I don’t care how you feel about Israel or the Palestinians. I have an enormous amount of sympathy for some of the Palestinian causes. But I draw the line at murder.”
Kelly also interviewed the father of the suicide bomber dispatched by Salameh, who was one of nine children. The father grieved his son’s death without being able to understand the choices that led him to embrace it. “Here’s the great mystery,” Kelly said. “On the one hand, they are devoted Muslims, who believe that their son is in heaven, but on the other hand, they know what he did was terribly wrong.”
Most of Kelly’s book is an examination of what happened after the bombings, a convoluted legal and political saga. Salameh was not tried in the United States — part of the problem is that Israel’s much-vaunted quick cleanup of crime scenes destroys much of the evidence that would lead to convictions.
But there also was little political will in this country to pursue the murderers of American citizens. Following the killers meant tracing the money and training to Iran and other Muslim countries. Bill Clinton, who was president then, was reluctant to set the kind of diplomatic precedent that could boomerang and harm American diplomats. Peace talks were still going on then, although not very actively, and politicians did not want to disrupt them.
Meanwhile, Stephen Flatow began his fight in the civil court system, demanding damages for his daughter’s death from the countries that had funded the attack that killed her. Soon, Arline Duker and Vicki and Leonard Eisenfeld joined the fight. The politics Kelly chronicles wind through Cuba, pair two unlikely Senate allies — Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Connie Mack (R-Fla.) — and eventually find Hillary Clinton, then running for her first term as a senator from New York, publicly disagreeing with her husband, the president, on the issue.
Alisa, Matt, and Sara were young when they were killed; they would be nearing middle age now. “It is a story that in some ways is frozen in time, but takes place over two decades,” Kelly said.
He visited many of Sara and Matt’s friends, now in their early 40s and working in high-end jobs as psychiatrists, lawyers, doctors. “Tears would well up in their eyes as I talked to them,” he said. “They knew that Matt and Sara were going to be married, and they knew that they would be immensely successful. Sara would be a research scientist, and Matt would be a highly acclaimed rabbi, thinker, and talmudic scholar.
“And they wouldn’t only be highly successful,” said Kelly. “The two of them both had such a generosity of heart that their friends looked up to them. They would have had children, and eventually grandchildren. It is still deeply sorrowful to their friends that these two people, who both had so much potential — not just professionally but personally — were cut down, simply because they wanted to take a bus trip.”
Arline Duker found it hard to read The Bus on Jaffa Road — “I would read 30, 40, 50 pages at a time, and then say okay, that’s enough” — but she did. “I found things in it that I hadn’t known,” she said. “He’s a wonderful writer, and a genuinely kind, sensitive human being.”
Kelly was able to organize information to which she had no access or that she was in no emotional condition to process, she said. “We decided to learn from Steve Flatow and see what was possible, but there were so many twists and turns, and honestly I was in no shape to take notes,” she said. “Mike found all the details for every hearing, all the papers, all the things that we might have seen or heard about, and also the things that I really didn’t know about or understand then.”
One of the strange effects of their children’s murders was that the Eisenfelds and Dukers, who had not known each other well, became very close and remain so today. Arline Duker had been widowed very young, with three small daughters to raise (she has since has remarried). When Sara died, she and her daughters and the Eisenfelds and their daughter melded into a new family.
The legal fights around terrorists’ assets still are going on; in fact, with recent court wins for Flatow and then for another family fighting terrorists in court in Brooklyn, they have heated up.
“I’ve been doing things incrementally, but now that this book has forced me to look back, I look at Alisa’s picture, and I think that this kid really accomplished a lot,” Flatow said. “This was her 20th yahrtzeit.” She would have been 40 on Oct. 5.
“It was a hard book for me to get through,” said Flatow. “I have it on my desk; I have picked it up and put it down, read a page here and there. I have to steel myself to read the book from beginning to the end.”
This article was adapted from a longer version that appeared in the Jewish Standard and appears with permission.