After a terrorist attack, like the one in Israel that killed West Orange resident Alisa Flatow in 1995, the media “and the rest of the world move on,” said author Mike Kelly. “It’s sad because people who’ve lost anyone in a terror attack don’t move on at all.”
That recognition inspired Kelly to write The Bus on Jaffa Road, a book about Flatow and two other American victims of Palestinian terror, 23-year-old Sara Duker of Teaneck and 25-year-old Matthew Eisenfeld of West Hartford, Conn.
Kelly, a columnist for The Record, spoke April 30 at Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston.
Kelly was introduced at the event, a meeting of the NJ Hadassah Associates, by Alisa’s father, attorney Stephen Flatow, who has devoted much of the past two decades to legal and public awareness campaigns aimed at heightening awareness of terror victims and their families.
“Sadly you can find stories about terrorism every day. You can find it on the evening news,” Flatow said. “Yet reports of terrorist attacks after the immediate coverage get the ho-hum treatment in the media.”
Kelly said he was inspired to write his book by the World Trade Center towers’ collapse on 9/11, which he witnessed from a window at his Hackensack newsroom.
His research into the three young people’s murders took Kelly on multiple trips to Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank, with frequent visits to the crime scenes. He interviewed family members, Israeli police, Shin Bet agents, and the mastermind of the attacks — a Hamas member named Hassan Salameh who is serving 46 life sentences in an Israeli prison.
Alisa, a 20-year-old Brandeis University student, was en route to a beach in Gaza in 1995 when an Islamic Jihad suicide bomber drove a van loaded with explosives into the bus she was riding.
Nine months later, Duker and Eisenfeld were murdered aboard a bus on Jaffa Road in Jerusalem as they headed to an archaeological site in Jordan.
Kelly said Salameh was trained in and financed by Iran to build the bombs that blew up the buses.
“I have interviewed my share of criminals, and over time they have shown some remorse, some reflection, over what they have done. This guy had zero reflection, zero remorse, and did not regret anything. This guy didn’t crack at all, and believe me, I tried to crack him,” he said.
Kelly begins and ends his book with excerpts from his two-and-a-half hour conversation with Salameh. “I wanted to show the sheer sense of evil at work here when we are talking about terrorism,” Kelly said. “This is pure evil.”
One of the “strongest characters” appearing in his book is Stephen Flatow, who said, according to Kelly, “I’m not going to sit by and take this while others fall into despair.”
“Put yourselves in the shoes of Steve Flatow, a terrorist victim,” Kelly urged the 75 people in his audience. “Who do you call? It’s a crime. His daughter was murdered. But our country has not developed a clear process for dealing with terrorism, especially from the standpoint of victims.”
Kelly praised Flatow for being “the very first to file a lawsuit and set in motion so many very significant lawsuits in our war against terrorism.”
In 1998, a federal district judge ordered the government of Iran to pay $247.5 million in damages to Flatow’s family. Last year, his research led to findings that Credit Suisse, Lloyds, and the French bank BNP indirectly funneled money to the Iranian government that was used to finance terrorist attacks. BNP reached an agreement with federal prosecutors to pay nearly $9 billion in fines for circumventing laws against doing business with Iran.
Flatow’s “own government opposed his efforts to collect on his lawsuit,” said Kelly. Dating back to the Clinton administration, the State Department tends to oppose efforts by U.S. citizens to collect damages against foreign governments on the grounds that they may subvert U.S. foreign policy or result in similar suits against the United States.
“Our government just doesn’t want to get involved,” he said. “It is, in their minds, a complicated, politically messy business.”
Pointing again at Flatow, Kelly added: “And there are other families around this country who have never been given the time of day by our government, even though their children — or their husbands or their wives or mothers or fathers — have been killed in terrorist incidents. They have been left on their own.”
In honor of Alisa’s 20th yahrtzeit, the family has been sponsoring events, including a shiur, or rabbinic lecture, at Congregation Keter Torah in Teaneck. Alisa’s sister, Francine Mermelstein, and her husband Adam recently donated the Alisa Flatow Wing of the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge.
The Flatow family will be honored Sunday, May 17, at the 25th anniversary gala for Nishmat, a Jerusalem-based institution of Torah learning for women. The Alisa Flatow Memorial Scholarship Fund helps young people attend year-long Jewish studies programs in Israel.
“What I noticed was that she was still very much alive” in the memories of her friends and family and the various projects that bear Alisa’s name, said Kelly. “This is a t estament to the hope that Alisa’s life embodied — a life of energy, a life of vitality, a life of curiosity, and, ultimately, a life of love.”