Twenty years later

Twenty years later

Stephen Flatow remembers his murdered daughter Alisa

Steve Flatow and his daughter Alisa.

When you ask attorney Stephen Flatow of West Orange how many children he has, his answer is immediate.

“I have five children,” he says.

Not surprising. What father doesn’t know how many children he has?

And how are they doing?

Four of them are flourishing; they are all married and all parents. Mr. Flatow and his wife, Rosalyn, have 13 grandchildren, and another one’s on the way. (And three of the Flatows’ children live in Bergen County.)

But the fifth, his oldest, Alisa, was murdered by terrorists when she was 20; her 20th yahrzeit was last week. She has been dead as long as she was alive.

“Just because she isn’t there now, that doesn’t mean I’m not her father,” he said. “I just don’t have any recent pictures of her to show.”

It is her death that galvanized Mr. Flatow, 66, a warm, rumpled, silver-haired, avuncular, direct man, to take on Islamic Jihad, its sponsor, Iran, and even his own government. As he made the kinds of friends and gained the kind of supporters he never would have known otherwise, he came to learn more and more about how terrorism works.

It’s all about the money, he said. Just as blood feeds a tumor, money feeds the cancer that is terrorism. Figure out a way to starve the flow of money, and you’ll begin to starve the terrorists as well.

That is very hard-earned knowledge.

Alisa was blown up on a bus in 1995. A graduate of the Frisch School in Paramus and a student at Brandeis University, she was spending a year in Israel, and had taken the bus to the beach in Gaza. Her parents had laid down some rules for her – no buses from place to place in the city, no traveling alone – and she had followed them. But her murderers didn’t care.

When Alisa was in the hospital, dying of her wounds, her parents flew to Israel and donated her organs, thus saving other people’s lives and also giving a huge boost to cadaveric organ donation in the Jewish community.

When they returned home, though, they had to resume their lives, with a huge smoldering sinkhole gaping at them. It wasn’t easy.

“I don’t subscribe to the theory that God only gives us things we can handle,” Mr. Flatow said. He had thought about that idea often, because it was so often offered to him in consolation. The mother of another victim had killed herself, he said, so that truism clearly was not true for her. But “one of the things that we were lucky with was the support we received from the community, both in the immediate aftermath and in the weeks and months thereafter.”

He and his wife also tried a group called Compassionate Friends; the meeting was at a synagogue, but the group was not Jewish. They found it both moving and useful. They listened to parents’ stories of losing their children “on the parkways, to cancer, to drug overdoses, to automobile accidents. And then they came to us, and I said, ‘Our daughter was murdered in a terrorist attack.’

“Everybody gasped.” Then the meeting became all about them, which he found helpful then but could not do more than once. It drained too much attention away from everyone else, and focused too much on them. “So that was our last meeting.”

Still, he found the group’s newsletter useful. Although the holidays about which it gave practical advice tended to be Christmas and Easter, still the advice was smart, practical, and easily transferable.

Once Alisa died, her father changed. First, he began a volunteer career as a public speaker, flying all over the country to talk to Jewish groups about Alisa. He and his family endowed the Alisa Flatow Memorial Scholarship, and they endowed a program in Alisa’s memory at Nishmat in Israel. He threw himself into fundraising for these programs, and for Israel.

He also pursued legal remedies. Senator Frank Lautenberg, the Democrat who represented New Jersey, sponsored legislation that allowed American citizens to receive punitive damages from foreign countries. At a trial in 1998, “we introduced evidence that established that Alisa’s murder was done by Islamic Jihad, and that Iran sponsored Islamic Jihad,” he said. Those financial connections, and the fact that Alisa and her family both suffered, resulted in the family’s being awarded $247.5 million in damages, most of them punitive. “These people are not heroes. They are not martyrs. They are traitors to the human race,” the New York Times quoted Mr. Flatow as saying after the judgment was announced. “We call upon the people of the world who, like us, refuse to be intimidated by what happened to Alisa. We call upon them to say ‘Enough blood shed such as this.'”

“We saw 10 percent of money,” Mr. Flatow said last week. “The other 90 percent of it is out there. We are still trying to hold the Iranians’ feet to the fire, but it doesn’t look like we’ll be successful.”

In 1999, he and his allies “identified an office building in New York City that was owned by a charity, and we said that it was actually a front for the Iranian government.

“But the federal government fought us tooth and nail.”

It wasn’t in the U.S. government’s interest to have private citizens, no matter how well intentioned and no matter how grotesquely aggrieved, fighting Iran in court. The government felt that such private fights would curtail its own options and disrupt necessary diplomacy. The Flatows lost that case; last year, though, a court in Brooklyn disagreed. In the BNP Bank Paribas case, ownership of the Manhattan building was traced to Iran, and the bank, which had scrubbed that connection from its books, was ordered to pay a $8.9 billion fine.

“For most of us, that’s an unbelievable amount of money,” Mr. Flatow said. For a bank, it’s not so much.

“The bank’s interest is not in terrorism,” he said. “It’s profit.”

He feels strongly that sanctions, such as the ones that have been levied against Iran, and will be lifted if President Obama’s deal with Iran is ratified – which he does not like – “work, but you have to be at it long enough.

“Sanctions work because they cut off the flow of cash. A country has to determine if it will improve its roads and its schools and make its citizens’ lives better, or if it will use it to kill innocent civilians to advance a different purpose.”

Mr. Flatow was born in Middle Village, Queens. “My father was a salesman,” he said. “He used to sell ice cream cones, paper cups, and supplies to Dairy Queens, in stores like that.” Gil Flatow’s territory was northern New York State, beginning in Westchester and Rockland counties, some 40 miles away, so it made sense for the family to move further north.

They ended up in Monsey.

He remembers the day that the family went to look at the Rockland County town. “It was 1959, I was 11, my parents were both smoking like chimneys. There was no ventilation in the car. My sister sat between my brother and me and put her head in her lap. She was feeling very sick.” The trip ended in a development, where “my father was driving very slowly, and my mother had her head out the window at a weird angle.

“She was looking for mezuzahs.”

There were many marked doorposts, so the family put down a five percent deposit on the house, which cost $21,000.

Then Fay Flatow had to learn to drive. Her car was a 1949 Oldsmobile, “with no power steering. She was short and thin, my mother, but she was an ox, and she had a cigarette in her mouth, with the ashes falling down, grasping at the wheel of the car.”

The family was Jewishly involved; once they moved, they joined Temple Beth El in Spring Valley, which had an “excellent rabbi, Louis Frishman,” who was influential in Mr. Flatow’s life. He also was the father of Rabbi Elyse Frishman, who leads Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes.

The family did not become Orthodox until Alisa prodded them into it. She always was strong-willed, her father remembered fondly, and she always felt a deep pull toward Judaism. When she was a small child, she demanded to be sent to a Jewish kindergarten rather than a public one, and her parents complied. As she became more and more immersed in the Jewish world, her family followed her there. Now, it is their home.

Mr. Flatow went to Long Island University in Southampton, and then to Brooklyn Law School. He got married in 1969 – Rosalyn Packett, his bride, grew up as a member of the Bergenfield Dumont Jewish Center in Bergenfield. After graduation – and after being designated as 4F – undraftable – by the Vietnam War-era draft board for a condition that caused him to develop infections in the nerve canals in the small of his back – Mr. Flatow went into the title insurance business. It turned out that he liked it. “I love what I do,” he said. “I am very lucky.

“I love the problem-solving part of it. You see a problem, you figure out how to solve the problem.” It was that approach, in fact, that helped him as he dug into the problem of how Islamic Jihad was financed, and how Iran finances other terrorist groups.

Although he is a lawyer, he said, he did not function as a lawyer during any of the trials. It’s not his expertise. But he did use his skills as a researcher to follow the money.

Mr. Flatow has used his strong understanding that he still has – that he always will have – five children to great rhetorical effect. “During the trial against the Iranian government, my attorney said, ‘You were the father of Alisa Flatow,’ and I said, ‘No.’

“They looked at me, startled.

“I said ‘I am her father.’

“The judge, Royce Lamberth, looked away, and my attorney, Stephen Perles – his eyes welled up.

“The day before, he had gone through questions he might ask me. Not answers, just questions.” But he hadn’t phrased the question in the same way that he did at the trial, and he assumed that he knew the answer.

“That got the trial off to a good start,” Mr. Flatow said.

In the 20 years since Alisa’s death, Mr. Flatow has learned to live with it. He smiles, he laughs, he is warm. He is deeply connected to the Jewish world, to Jews, and to Israel. He loves his work. He can be happy.

“Life goes on,” he said. “I still think about Alisa every day. I don’t say she is my driving force, but she plays a big role in my life, along with my other four kids, my 16 grandkids, my wife. She is present.

“It is as if she is here.”

He imagines her happy, wherever she is now. He remembers the smile that seemed to be her permanent expression. “I think that it is her job to accompany other souls, to make their transition easier,” he said. And he smiles too.

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