2016-06-30

On February 25, 1996, Matthew Eisenfeld and his girlfriend, Sara Duker, were among 26 victims of a suicide bus bombing in Jerusalem. Eisenfeld, 25, a rabbinical student from Connecticut, was spending the year in Israel as part of his rabbinical training, and Duker, 22, was working as a research technician in a microbiology lab at Hebrew University.

The day Eisenfeld died, a Sunday, I was in the newsroom of the small paper I worked for. I was the only reporter on duty and the only person in the building when CNN reported the names of the bombing victims--and when I realized that I knew one of those names.

Matt Eisenfeld and I weren't close, but we were friends. In college, our paths crossed often, and our social circles were similar and overlapping. We'd see each other at the Shabbat services he led, at the kosher dining hall on campus, at parties. After hearing about his death, I spent the afternoon reading wire reports, staring in disbelief, watching pictures move over the wires, and calling friends. Days later, I was among the 1,000 people at the funeral.

Two years later, Eisenfeld's and Duker's parents--Vicki and Leonard Eisenfeld and Arline Duker--filed a federal lawsuit against the Islamic Republic of Iran, accusing that nation of sponsoring and encouraging Hamas, the terrorist group that had carried out the bus bombing. In recent years, an increasing number of terrorist victims and their families have turned to the courts. In most cases, the countries or organizations being sued don't respond at all, thereby defaulting on the suits and paving the way for enormous monetary judgments against them--which are, predictably, ignored. In the Eisenfeld-Duker case, the families are seeking a total of $600 million from Iran, hoping that the suit--and others like it--will deter Iran from sponsoring other terrorist activities.

At a press conference last month, the Eisenfelds spoke out in favor of pending legislation that would make it easier for plaintiffs in such lawsuits to collect on the judgments. They also criticized the omission of Eisenfeld and Duker from a State Department website, www.heroes.net, which lists instances of terrorism and offers a reward for the terrorists' capture.

In fact, no references to terrorism in Israel appear on heroes.net. The Eisenfelds can only guess at why. When asked about the absence of Israeli victims, Andy Laine, a State Department spokesman, said, "All that I can say is that the issue is currently under active discussion by the department. We hope to have a decision on that in the near future."

Recently, Leonard Eisenfeld spoke with me about the lawsuit, the State Department website, and coping with a grief that will never go away:


Michael Kress: Where does the lawsuit stand, and what's the next step?

Leonard Eisenfeld: On May 1, there's a trial in Washington, in federal district court. Our complaint was that Iran had sponsored Hamas financially, logistically, and through the training of personnel, and had actually given the order for this particular incident.

Iran has defaulted on the case, and we're expecting the result to be fairly similar to other cases where there have been defaults. The problem is that once the judgments are rendered, there's no way of having them satisfied. So that's where the challenge is politically.

MK: You're advocating the passage of a bill that will help you in those efforts. How will this federal legislation work?

LE: If the bills pass, then when a judgment occurs in an anti-terrorism suit, property belonging to the defendant may be seized and sold in order to satisfy the judgment. For example, there have been attempts to seize Iranian property to satisfy monetary judgments.

What we're trying to do is make some kind of deterrent, to prevent such incidents from happening again to other families or victims themselves, because we know how devastating it has been for our family to go through this. So we're going to be appearing in front of a judge and discussing the facts of the case. It's going to be a two-day trial.

MK: Are you expecting Iran to send a representative?

LE: No. The key thing for us is that it's an opportunity for us to direct a response to Matthew and Sara's murder. How do you respond to something like this? The lawsuit is only one way.

We're still mourning. It's something that just doesn't go away. People talk about closure. This doesn't close. You wake up in the morning with it, and you go to sleep with it. We're trying to support each other emotionally.

And then we try to do concrete things, so we've become active in issues of preventing terrorism, discouraging it, through both international police action and financial deterrents.

And then there's the question of how to seek peace, so that differences will be settled in a more civilized manner, rather than having bodies blown up. I'm just getting wind of the Israeli police report of what this bombing was like--body parts scattered, victims dead in their seats. Things have to be handled in a much more civilized way. That's what this has been all about.

MK: You talk of seeking peace, and Matt was a vocal supporter of the Mideast peace process. How do you maintain your support for peace when so many others have turned against the peace talks?

LE: What are the alternatives? What's your best shot at being able to have life's benefits instead of life's tragedies?

On the other hand, protection is important. It's been a difficult millennium for the Jewish people, and a difficult century. So the State of Israel is crucial for both the emotional and the physical health of the Jewish people. The defensive posture of the Jewish people has to be strong. But one way of bringing security is by creating as much peace as you can.

As a doctor, I take care of people all the time. I take care of all people, and I don't ask them what their political or religious views are. You sit in a room or you take care of them at their bedsides, and you realize their pains and sufferings. On a one-to-one basis, it's much easier to try to understand the similarities rather than the differences, and that's what makes you want to work toward peace.

MK: When seeking to deter terrorists, why take the financial route, why bring a lawsuit?

LE: You make terrorism unattractive. If there are penalties--physical or financial--these incidents are less likely to happen. The access that was given to us by the anti-terrorist bill, signed in April 1996, allowed us to take a route toward deterrence, and so we've taken that route, as well as others. We go to Washington from time to time and want to know how the case involving Matt and Sara is progressing in terms of the capture and punishment of those who were involved in its prosecution. There's an FBI team that's involved in this case--it's illegal to kill an American abroad.

MK: Why do you think Matt and Sara were omitted from heroes.net?

LE: Wow, it's very striking, isn't it? I have no idea. It kind of hurts. You have all these terrorist activities listed, and what's conspicuously absent is what occurred in Israel. Is that a political statement or an oversight? It doesn't seem like that can be an oversight. To me, it raises a lot of questions. It's not a comforting feeling.

MK: Do you sense that American officials are sincerely interested in pursuing the investigation?

LE: I think people are interested. They feel a certain amount of horror, because it's very easy for them to see themselves in the same situation. Reality was knocking on our door the day we got that telephone call that Matt was killed and later that day that Sara was also. And I think people in the government are truly concerned. The issue for them becomes how best to deal with this in the realm of the peace process.

Different people see it in different ways. We see it as a horror, a terror that needs to be answered. There needs to be justice. Peace has to occur on the groundwork of justice. That's why we pursue it.



more from beliefnet and our partners