Bus, bomb, book

Bus, bomb, book

Local reporter investigates personal and political repercussions

Mike Kelly stands outside the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City.

According to Jewish tradition, every person is an entire world.

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.

Mr. 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 came from West Hartford, Connecticut. He also focuses on Steven Flatow of South Orange, whose daughter Alisa was killed in another bus bombing the year before, and who was instrumental in the story as it unfolded.

Mr. Kelly tells the story on two levels. On the personal level, 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 rose red city of Petra, newly opened to Jews.

Once the buses were blown up, politics took over. Steven Flatow, an extraordinary man driven by love and anguish and a sort of last-ditch idealism – a man who might have appeared ordinary until he no longer had the luxury of that disguise – fought civil suits in American courts because that was the only avenue open to him. The Dukers and the Eisenfelds, who are not lawyers, as Mr. Flatow is, and who did not have the same seemingly unstoppable drive that he did, 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 Mr. 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.

Mr. Kelly’s interest in terrorism began on September 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,” Mr. Kelly said – beating up or killing suspected collaborators, and went on to become a bomb maker for them.

It is up to convicts in Israeli prisons to decide if they wish to speak to visitors, who present themselves there without giving the prisoners advance notice, and then hope for the best. (Whatever the best might mean in those circumstances, of course.) That was how Mike Kelly met Salameh.

The convicted bomber agreed to talk to Mr. Kelly; in fact, Mr. Kelly said, he 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,” Mr. Kelly said. “Let’s be honest. He killed 46 people in three separate bombings. He built the bombs that killed innocent unarmed people” – and he recruited the suicide bombers whose stupidity or blind ideology led them to their own deaths as well. “I have interviewed my share of criminals before. Over the years, they start to have some remorse. They start to reflect. Sometimes they have an enormous amount of remorse – sometimes you just see a little crack.

“With Salameh, I saw no crack. Nothing. Zero. Nothing at all.”

When he was asked if he recognized Sara Duker’s name, he said he did; when he asked why he killed her, he said that 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,” Mr. 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.

“But when you break it down, it had nothing to do with politics, with religion, or with theology, unless you have a very perverted theology.

“It turns the stomach of any reasonable person.”

This says a great deal not only about Salameh but about Mr. Kelly as well. Mike Kelly is a seasoned journalist who has reported many tough and sad stories. He knows well how to distance himself. But he also is a person, and he knows how to filter human emotions through that dispassion. It leads to good writing, to intuitive thinking, and to good journalism. (It can also lead to nightmares.)

Mr. 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, to see what a bomb, packed with shrapnel and hate to create the most damage possible would do, as if straightforward death would not be enough. “It was one of the hardest things I ever did,” he said. As he already knew from reading but saw graphically at the morgue, the bomber’s head was detached entirely from the body, and found, intact, not particularly close to the shredded neck.

“You can’t walk into a story like this without feeling some personal attachment,” Mr. Kelly said. “I have pictures of Sara and Matt and Alisa on my desk, because I want to remind myself of who was at the center of this.

“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.

“We describe terrorist incidents now as body counts; 50 people were killed, such and such an obscure group claims responsibility for such and such a reason. But in the end, for the family of the victims it’s not about politics. It’s about ‘Who killed my daughter?'”

Salameh, meanwhile, had managed to construct some meaning for himself.

“I think that murder brought meaning to his life,” Mr. Kelly said. “He was a loser, and then he found meaning as an enforcer and a mass murderer.” Now, he added, Salameh has managed to redefine his murderous career to himself as a religious obligation, “but does he believe it in his heart when he’s alone with himself – which he is most of the time?” Although he doesn’t know the answer to that question, Mr. Kelly said, he doesn’t think so.

Until recently, suicide bombing had not been seen as acceptable, much less desirable, by most Muslim theology. “But right around the time of the Oslo peace accords,” in 1993, “which was a critical time, suicide bombings sort of jumped the tracks.

“Until then, it had been the work of Shia Muslims. But in the early 1990s, largely because a lot of Hamas operatives,” who are Sunni, “had spent time with Hezbollah,” who are Shia, Hamas took up the tactic as well.

“Hamas started to embrace suicide bombing as a military tactic in a big way,” he said. “It became pretty much their primary tactic through the 1990s until the mid 2000s.”

The terrifying ideology behind it “is a complete redefining of martyrdom in the Western world,” Mr. Kelly said. “For most major religions – Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism – this is a turning on its head of what martyrdom is.” For all these religions, martyrdom is a last resort; a person kills himself when there is no choice other than self-inflicted death or religion-specific dishonor. But for this new Islamic theology, martyrdom involves killing other people.

How widespread is this ideology among Palestinians? “I don’t think it’s widespread,” Mr. Kelly said. “But it is nuanced. I don’t think that most Palestinians would want to become suicide bombers. But there is a passive tacit approval of these kinds of attacks, not just by Palestinians but across the Muslim world. Many of the people who believe that would be regarded as good people, but they excuse this behavior in the name of politics or the oppressed. That’s where I think the issue of terrorism needs to be attacked.

“There has to be some sense that yes, you can disagree with people over the Israel/Palestinian issue, but at the same time don’t tacitly approve of mass murder, or of murder at all. That’s what I think is really driving so much of the Middle East; this overall issue of tacitly approving the beheading of innocent people, the execution of all these small religious sects.

“The question of whether this is inherent to Islam is the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Nobody really wants to examine it. But that examination cannot come from the Western world. It has to come from the Muslim world.

“If this kind of terrorism is going to stop, the Muslim world needs to really take a look at itself, and ask what it can do to stop this. Period. That’s what has to happen. There are plenty of people in the Muslim world who want to stop it, but they have to stand up and say we want it to stop.”

Meanwhile, there is Salameh, in prison.

“I asked Salameh why he didn’t do the bombing himself,” Mr. Kelly said. “He said ‘That was not my role.’ I said, ‘You are a coward,’ and he said, ‘Oh no, I am not a coward. My role is to be a bomb maker.’

“He is ultimately closer to Charles Manson than he probably thinks he is.”

Mr. Kelly also interviewed the father of the suicide bomber, 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,” Mr. Kelly said. “The father is still struggling with why did my son, who I thought was just a normal kid, suddenly switch gears and become a mass murderer? I don’t think his parents were among the ones who tacitly approved of suicide bombing, and I do know that they are still struggling with the fact that their son killed himself and 26 others. It is deeply unsettling to them. 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 Mr. Kelly’s book is an examination of what happened after the bombings. It is 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, for a set of complicated political reasons. Following the killers meant tracing the money and training to Iran and other Muslim countries, and 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, Steven Flatow began his fight in the civil court system, demanding damages for his daughter’s death from the countries that had funded it. Soon, Arline Duker and Vicki and Lenny Eisenfeld joined the fight. The politics that Mr. Kelly chronicles are Byzantine. They wind through Cuba, pair unlikely allies Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) with Senator Connie Mack (R-Fla), and eventually see Hilary Clinton, then running for her first term as a senator from New York, publicly disagreeing with her husband, the president, on the issue.

Not only are the murdered students characters in the book, so too is the passage of time. 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,” Mr. Kelly said. “I visited many of Sara and Matt’s friends. They were in their early 20s then. Now they are in their early 40s, and their lives are set. Many are working in high-end jobs as psychiatrists, lawyers, doctors – who have trained not just anywhere but at Harvard and then Mount Sinai. They have enormous amounts of talent and ambition. And yet no matter where I traced them to – one was in China – and no matter what religion they are, they were deeply affected at a vulnerable point in their lives by these young people who were killed.

“Tears would well up in their eyes as I talked to them.

“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. 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.”

Among the friends to whom Mr. Kelly talked was Rabbi Shai Held, who had been close to Matthew for years, and through him also came to know Sara well. Rabbi Held, who is now co-founder, dean, and chair in Jewish thought at Mechon Hadar on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, still feels their loss vividly. “They were both incredibly smart people who never forgot that their hearts were more important than their minds,” he said. “They were both incredibly special in that way. On the day after Matt died, a New York Times reporter asked me a very poignant question – why did you love Matt so much? And I said that Matt always loved books – but he always remembered to love people more.

“They were both like that in really moving ways.” As for Mike Kelly, “It’s pretty clear that this story touched him in some really profound ways,” Rabbi Held said.

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.

Part of that is due to Mike Kelly’s skill. “He’s a wonderful writer, and a genuinely kind, sensitive human being,” she said.

And part of it was because he 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. I kept a file – but things kept happening, and this would fall through or that senator would decide to do this or that or the other thing – but 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 they remain very close today. Arline Duker, who since has remarried, had been widowed very young, with three young daughters to raise. When Sara died, she, her daughters, Vicki and Lenny Eisenfeld, and their daughter melded into a new family.

The work that she had to do for the court case was to show her daughter as a real person, not a faceless victim. Putting that information together was both painful and healing, but it was necessary. “It was a shot at doing something,” Ms. Duker said. “Making some kind of statement. We never knew that our kids wouldn’t be coming home from Israel. You never know. But we wanted to do something that someone could build on. Doing nothing was not an option.”

Steven Flatow is constitutionally incapable of doing nothing.

“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,” Mr. Flatow said. “This was her 20th yarzheit, and she’ll be 40 next week.

“Mike is an excellent reporter,” he continued. “Coincidentally, I thought I’d get a copy of his book about Teaneck” – that was Mr. Kelly’s first book “Color Lines: The Troubled Dreams of Racial Harmony in an American Town,” about the shooting of Phillip Pannell, the case that shook Teaneck’s self-assurance about questions of race and class. “It was the same year that Alisa was murdered. I took it out of the library – it is a big, thick heavy book. I started reading the introduction, and I said to myself, ‘Boy, this will be a drag.’ And then I read about Loretta Weinberg standing in front of Town Hall in Teaneck, being hit in the head by a rock, and he had me.

“It was hard to put down, because of the chronological way that he approached things. It was not a flat story.” This is absolutely true of “The Bus On Jaffa Road” too.

“And the opportunity he had to interview Salameh brings something different to the table,” Mr. Flatow continued.

“It was a hard book for me to get through. 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.”

The legal fights around terrorists’ assets still are going on; in fact, with recent court wins for Mr. Flatow and then for another family fighting terrorists in court in Brooklyn, it has heated up.

It also echoes in odd and moving ways.

Last school year, Avinoam Sharon, an Israeli who had worked for years as a military prosecutor, and who had prosecuted Hassan Salameh, left the military, studied, and was ordained as a rabbi. Wanting still more engagement with the classical texts, he entered graduate school at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan. It was a surprising move, but Rabbi Sharon felt compelled to make it.

He went downstairs in the seminary, as Mike Kelly tells the story, and walked into the beit midrash, the study hall. The plaque over its entry reads, “Study is great for it leads to action,” and it was dedicated to the memories of Sara Duker and Matthew Eisenfeld.

Rabbi Sharon told his story to the students sitting there, who had been small children when Sara and Matt were murdered. “We’ve come full circle,” he said.

Mike Kelly will discuss his book, “The Bus On Jaffa Road,” in a number of local places.

On Saturday, November 8, at 1 p.m. he will talk about the book and sign copies at Bookends Bookstore, 211 E. Ridgewood Ave., in Ridgewood.

On Wednesday, November 12, at 2:30 p.m., he will talk about the book for a Pascack Valley/Northern Valley Hadassah meeting at the Bergen County YJCC in Washington Township. Refreshments will be available at 2:30; the meeting is at 3. (845)753-5025

Wednesday, November 19, at 7 p.m., he will talk about the book at the Jewish Theological Seminary, 3080 Broadway in Manhattan, at the corner of 122nd Street; the beit midrash there will be rededicated in memory of Matt Eisenfeld and Sara Duker. www.jtsa.edu

Sunday, November 23, at 2 p.m., he will talk about the book at the Teaneck library, 840 Teaneck Road. www.teaneck.org.

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