Remembering Terrorism’s Victims

On this bright September afternoon, Zion Square, at the bottom of Jerusalem’s downtown Ben Yehuda outdoor mall, is the usual confusion of pedestrian traffic — shoppers, students, soldiers, tourists, all hurrying about their business in every direction. A few minutes after 1 p.m., a small group of men and women joins the throng, bringing a little flock of children and strollers into the middle of the square. One of the men somewhat uncertainly unrolls a hand-lettered sign that says, in Hebrew, “Prayer Vigil,” and the group stands in a tight circle, reading psalms from prayer books in low voices.

This prayer vigil marks the second anniversary of the 1997 Ben Yehuda suicide bombing, in which four people were killed and some 100 injured. Its special aim is to memorialize Yael Botwin, 14, who had immigrated to Israel with her family from Claremont, and who was killed in the blast.

The vigil’s organizer (with some help from the Zionist Organization of America) is another Angeleno, 18-year-old Yael Fischer, a recent graduate of Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles. Before recently coming to Israel for a year of seminary study, Fischer, a tall, studious-looking girl in glasses, launched a rabbinic petition drive, which upward of 50 Southern California rabbis of all denominations have now signed. The petition urges President Clinton to demand that Yasser Arafat surrender two Palestinian Arabs (identified by the Israeli government as Bashir Daher and Mahmoud Abu-Hanudeh) who helped prepare the Ben Yehuda attack.

The vigil is so low-key that most of the pedestrians crossing Zion Square rush by without a glance, unaware that an event is underway. But the small turnout and the shyness of the participants don’t distress Fischer. The main thing, she explains, is to make a statement, to increase public awareness both in Israel and in America.

“[The bombing] was an atrocity,” she says. “If you let it pass, you’re basically saying it’s OK.” Fischer adds that she was also motivated by the fact that, by coming to Israel this year, she is putting herself in the same “potential danger” as Yael Botwin.

By 1:30, the vigil is over. Among the participants who remain behind to talk are two women who lost their children in previous terrorist attacks. New York native Joyce Boim’s 17-year-old son, David, was shot to death while waiting for a bus outside the settlement of Bet El, north of Jerusalem, in 1996. Yehudit Dassberg’s daughter and American-born son-in-law, Yaron and Effie Ungar, were killed while driving near Bet Shemesh, “safely” inside the Green Line, also in 1996. Visibly holding back tears, both women demand that those responsible be “brought to justice.”

What are the chances for such “justice”? Not too high, probably. Individuals don’t count for much in the reckoning among nations, and anyway, the grief of individuals becomes an annoyance after a while, especially when, like these mothers’, it is inconsolable. The victims of terrorism — whom we so profoundly recognized as innocents when the gruesome pictures of violence were splashed across our newspapers and TV screens — have by now been partly redefined as obstacles to peace. The bereaved, women like Boim and Dassberg, insisting that the murderers of their children be apprehended and punished, sound obsessed with their private pain, not quite rational when compared to government leaders working on “national reconciliation” with the Palestinians. Aren’t they, and the remembrance of the dead, a bit in the way right now?

A few days after the prayer vigil in Zion Square, the Israeli government released from prison hundreds of Palestinian criminals, many of them involved in murders or attempted murders of both Arabs and Jews. Government spokespeople and media commentators made distasteful distinctions between the murderers of Arab “collaborators” and the murderers of Jews, between attempted murder and murder, and reassured that the baddest of the bad guys were kept in jail, all as a sop to Jewish public opinion here.

One senses, however, that the prisoners not released — murderers with “Jewish blood on their hands,” in the theatrical phrase — may represent a negotiating card rather than a definition of principle. Not surprisingly, many victims and their families were anguished by the release of those who had harmed them.

Meanwhile, not a few terrorists, including those who planned the Ben Yehuda bombing and those involved in the Jerusalem bus bombings of 1995 and 1996, live free in Palestinian territory. An American statute long on the books, the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1986, permits prosecution in the United States of foreign nationals suspected of killing Americans abroad. Though 12 Americans have been killed by Palestinian terrorists since the Oslo accords were signed in 1993 (including three in the Jerusalem bus bombings), the prosecutions haven’t happened. This summer, the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives passed legislation that required the State Department to provide Congress with semiannual reports on investigations into Palestinian killings of Americans.

So the necessary legal mechanisms are in place to identify the terrorists, locate them, extradite them, try them. Why should it interfere with the peace process for those who murdered innocents to be brought to the bar? Isn’t that, in fact, precisely what a peace process should make possible?

At the prayer vigil in Zion Square, the person most noticeably missing was Julie Botwin, Yael Botwin’s mother, who still lives in Jerusalem. She did not object to the event, but she refused to participate. “What good will it do?” she asked bitterly when I called to find out why. “What does the U.S. government care about an American girl killed in Israel?”

That’s the question that the vigil was asking. Now it is time for Congress and the State Department to answer.

David Margolis writes from Israel.