We begin with a scene from 60 Minutes: footage of a young woman lying on the ground beside a scorched Israeli bus. This haunting scene is followed by Leslie Stahl interviewing “a big guy with a full head of hair that’s starting to turn gray.”
“The man is me, Stephen Flatow,” he writes more than 20 years later. “The young woman lying prone on the ground, being treated by medics, is my daughter Alisa.”
This October may have been the publication date for A Father’s Story: My Fight for Justice Against Iranian Terror(Devon Square Press), but the book has been in the works for 23 years, since that day in April 1995 when a 22-year-old Palestinian killed eight people and injured another 40.
Among the dead was an American college student whose father was destined to change the law of her native country, impacting all other American victims of foreign terror forever. But on that warm April day, in the shock and grief of a parent who’s lost a beloved child, nothing in this father’s past could have prepared him for what lay ahead.
In these pages, he takes us along on his harrowing battle to achieve some degree of justice for his daughter.
Not content with his tale of telling truth to power, Flatow also introduces us to Alisa, who, from childhood, knew her own mind. At 4, she asked her father which school she was going to attend for kindergarten. The local public school, he said.
“She looked at me and she looked at her mother. She told us — not angrily but calmly, as if simply stating a fact — ‘No, I’m not. I’m going to a Jewish school with my friend Becky, and Mommy has to call Becky’s mommy tonight to find out about it because I’m not going to the Pleasantdale School.’ And with that she walked out of the room.”
Two days later, her parents were touring the Jewish school. Not just Alisa, but all four of her siblings would go on to attend Jewish day schools.
Sixteen years later, after two-and-a-half years at Brandeis University, Alisa set out for Jerusalem to study at Nishmat, a women’s learning center. She was traveling on a bus with friends through Gaza when a terrorist detonated a bomb. Exploding shrapnel hit her in the head.
During their last phone conversation with Alisa, Flatow and his wife asked where she’d be traveling and with whom, the usual parental interrogation of a long-distance child. “Roz turned to me and she said, ‘You didn’t get the name of the hotel where she’ll be staying. What if something happens?’ For some reason I said, ‘Don’t worry. If something happens, we’ll know about it.’ Well, I was not wrong about that.”
Although Alisa wasn’t conscious when her father arrived at Soroka Hospital in Beersheva, he was in time to hold her hand, speak to her and kiss her. Hours after her death, in his hotel room, the phone rang, and Flatow heard the voice of President Bill Clinton.
“‘You are a brave man,’” he told me. I said, ‘Mr. President, you would do anything for your daughter, wouldn’t you?’ ‘Absolutely,’ he answered. I said, ‘Just because Alisa is no longer with me, I’m not going to stop being her father.’ ” Before signing off, Clinton said, “God bless you.”
Soon afterwards, Flatow began traveling the country speaking not only about his daughter’s murder, but about the never-ending Israeli-Palestinian peace process. How, he writes, “could there be a process without a dedication on both sides to peace? And where was that dedication when the Palestinian leaders could not, or would not, keep their people from taking the lives of innocent Jews?”
But, he continues, he was driven by the need for his government “to track down and punish the people responsible for Alisa’s murder. The process was deeply frustrating … The two groups that vied with each other for bragging rights about killing Jews were Islamic Jihad and Hamas; almost immediately after the attack that killed Alisa, Islamic Jihad sent out a fax taking credit for it. Taking credit for killing my daughter. You can imagine how I felt.”
Meeting with the president, Flatow said he urged him to “pressure Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to crack down on Islamic Jihad and Hamas. Clinton nodded, agreeing that Arafat would have to play a crucial part in stopping acts of terrorism. But … I was left with a hollow feeling. What would really be done?”
Clinton, it would turn out, was working behind the scenes to ensure the success of his Oslo Peace Accords.
Flatow refused to accept that any would-be martyr could take his child’s life and get away with it. He teamed up with attorney Steven Perles, an expert in international law, who would be his partner for the 10 years it would take to reach the end of a harrowing and all-consuming legal battle.
“It amazes me how much of what we could call Torah law has carried over into civil law,” writes Flatow. But the provision of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” was meant to insist on “compensation — not vengeance, but justice.”
And it was justice that Flatow was focused on. “That was what I wanted for my daughter. And the law was the way.”
In the end of the day, it is what he got. But it wouldn’t be easy. For starters, Flatow writes, the law Clinton had signed covering compensation for families of terror victims, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), to squeeze through administrative hoops, had been rendered toothless.
“The AEDPA needed to be strengthened, sure, but only Congress could do that — and only if we lobbied these powerful guys, hard. That realization was my welcome to Washington.”
For six months, Flatow logged thousands of miles on train, plane and automobile as he and Perles crisscrossed Capitol Hill. Their goal was the passage of the Flatow Amendment, designed to empower terrorism victims and their families to hold responsible parties responsible.
“I was the leverage. Who wants to turn away a grieving father?”
Eventually, they pulled together a bipartisan coalition, including Sens. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Connie Mack (R-Fla.), and Reps. Jim Saxton (R-NJ), Henry Hyde (R-Ala.) and Ben Gilman (R-NY), whose support made the amendment’s passage a reality.
“Perles was delighted and said to me, ‘I don’t know how that happened. ‘Alisa, Steve, it was Alisa,’ I replied.”
As he tells it, Flatow “encountered roadblock after frustration after setback.” At a hearing on the new bill, he told the committee: “Am I frustrated and discouraged? Absolutely. Am I going to quit? No, Mr. Chairman, I am not. A father’s responsibility to his child does not end with her murder.”
Support came from an unexpected source. Hillary Clinton announced her bid for a New York Senate seat and needed the Jewish vote, at risk after she had kissed Suha Arafat on the cheek.
At a meetup with the Orthodox community, Flatow asked her: “Do you support the administration’s efforts that are blocking victims of terror from obtaining Iranian assets in this country?”
“She was very direct … She looked at me when she gave her answer … ‘No, I do not.”
Contradicting her husband’s policies? It was an encouraging moment for Flatow.
And, despite repeated setbacks, there was fresh hope in Congress. Rather than reintroducing the weakened bill as a standalone the president could easily veto, supporters attached it to a protection against human trafficking bill that passed the Senate 95-0; the House vote was nearly unanimous.
When they finally got their day in court, the Flatow family was awarded $26 million.
After legal costs, Flatow’s share went to support causes that Alisa would have applauded. One investment: The Alisa Flatow Scholarship Fund, enabling young adults to study in Israel.
“I wonder, in telling this story, if I sometimes sound simply like a man who suffered a terrible misfortune and just won’t stop talking about it,” writes Flatow. “But what I hope I’ve made clear is that all of this is bigger than me — and as much as it hurts a father to say so, it’s bigger than Alisa, too.”
Twenty-three years later, the Flatows’ four surviving children in the United States and Israel are thriving and there are grandchildren galore — four named after the aunt they never met.
Steve has come through it all with a strengthened belief: “Jews, whether in Israel or America, we have the right — not only the right, but the duty — to stand up for ourselves, because if we do not, then who will?”
“As for me, I tried to hit one out of the ballpark using the bat and ball provided by Congress. I never expected that the Clinton administration would put its full weight against me and other terror victims. When it did happen, I didn’t scream or shout in rage. Instead, I let my lawyers speak for me in court, and I took my case to the public.
In the end, it may not have been a grand slam, but I believe I did a decent job for a father from New Jersey standing up for his daughter.”