You must meet Malki. She is a 15-year-old girl…still. She has been 15 for the last 12 years; she will always remain 15. In order to understand the situation in Israel today, we must meet Malki.
On August 9, 2001, Malka Chana Roth stopped by the Sbarro restaurant on the corner of King George Street and Jaffa Road in downtown Jerusalem. A suicide terrorist entered Sbarro, wearing an explosive belt packed with nails, nuts and bolts, and detonated his bomb. Fifteen souls were massacred and 107 were injured.
Amid the recent decision to release 104 Palestinian terrorists from Israeli prisons and during a time of negotiations, boycotts and Arab civil wars, I needed to meet Malki, so I spoke with her father, Arnold Roth.
David Nesenoff: Can you please share with me briefly, that tragic day of 12 years ago and its aftermath?
Arnold Roth: Malki was on her way to a planning meeting for the summer camp of Ezra, a religious Zionist youth movement here in Israel, where she was to be a madricha. She and her friend Michal decided to stop off for a drink and a slice of pizza in the center of Jerusalem. According to one report, there was a young man with a guitar case who placed himself almost right next to the two girls. We know that Malki was happily tapping out a text message on her cell phone at the moment when the guitarist destroyed our world.
As if to prove how truly different our values and perceptions are from theirs, the Arabs created a physical homage to the Sbarro massacre six weeks later in Nablus. Published photographs and reports show that they created a grotesque replica of the pizzeria, complete with a “kasher” sign above the entrance, as well as body parts and adulatory photographs of the killer. For them, this was a victory to savor.
DN: Twelve years later, it appears that the Israeli government has forgotten the preciousness and value of our Jewish daughters. Could you please share your personal experiences with regard to any changes you have seen with regard to Israeli public figures’ concerns and actions?
AR: In the days immediately after the act of calculated mass murder that stole Malki’s life from her and from the family who loved her so much, we were flooded with messages of sympathy and support. Some came from public figures. As things have worked out, we have tried to engage with some of those public figures in the years since then in order to defend the rights to justice and fairness, which, we thought, were the entitlement of families like ours. To say the least, it has been a dis-spiriting experience, particularly since 2011.
First, the woman who engineered the Sbarro massacre was let loose and given a triumphant welcome in the land of her birth, Jordan. This was an outcome we had fought to prevent for 6 or 7 years, as soon as we became aware of its possibility, so seeing her smiling and being cheered by those who appreciated her for what she had done to the Jews was painful for us in the extreme.
Then a year later, in June 2012, her fiancé was given permission that, in the explicit terms of his conditional release, should never have been given. He is also a convicted murderer who was serving a life sentence right up until the Gilad Shalit deal. When he was set free, his freedom was limited by Israel to the areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority. But he wanted to be with the fiancée he barely knew and whom he had met either once or never – the reports on this are vague. She is also his cousin.
We found out this was about to happen, and my wife and I immediately filed an application to the High Court of Justice in Jerusalem demanding that the government stand by their own refusal to permit him to cross over into Jordan to unite with the female murderer. The government’s lawyers finally responded to our lawyers some days after we filed the legal papers. But to our dismay it was to say: Oops, he left for Jordan three days ago, and we let him. I think of this a great deal when my thoughts go back to those messages of solidarity and support that officials sent us during the shiva.
DN: I cannot begin to understand why Israel is releasing these terrorists. Do you have any theories as to what is motivating the government? And recently, it seems rather crazy to release all of these murderers just to sit down to a table … and frankly sit down with little hope of anything being even accomplished. Why are they really doing this?
AR: If they have a master plan, they are being careful not to share it. My impression is the government of Israel’s calculations have more to do with keeping the Abbas regime in place and in power (the devil we know, certain shared interests etc) than with anything broader or more strategic than that. Israeli thinking seems to focus a great deal on keeping Hamas and its influence away from our cities and borders to the extent possible.
The Abbas circle has a similar strategy though naturally they do it for their own very different reasons and in their own way. What follows is that the Netanyahu government evidently sees a payoff in accommodating the passions of the Arab street to see their prisoners go free. Giving in to them is a disastrous miscalculation in my opinion. But disastrous miscalculations are not unknown in governments and public life.
And by the way, to no one’s surprise, there are also Jewish voices both here and in Hutz L’aretz, demanding that we be more ‘understanding’ of this Arab passion. Here is how one particularly loathsome Israeli voice put it, during a meeting at which I was present earlier this month. She was speaking as an Israeli and a bereaved mother about the Arab pressure to see their prisoners – the killers who are now being regaled in Ramallah and Gaza City – released:
“You know, we were willing to give 1,000 prisoners for Gilad Shalit. Why can we not understand that the prisoners mean exactly the same to the Palestinian people… Until we realize what the Palestinian prisoners mean to the Palestinian people, we will not move forward with the peace process. You have to talk, you have to understand what that is in that society… It’s just as important as Jerusalem, it’s just as important as the right of return to them. There’s no difference. These are their soldiers no matter how you may see them or what you think about them…”
By the way, the woman who said this is a key figure in an organization that has received lavish funding for the past decade. It lets them propagate a message that fits well with the Palestinian Authority’s winning strategy of demanding prisoners, up front and for no discernible benefit to the Israel side, as a precondition for agreeing to sit down at the negotiating table. Much of that financial support comes from US sources, by the way, including US government channels.
DN: I understand a group of bereaved families have joined together. Tell me a bit about this group. Who are they? What do they do?
AR: The Bereaved Families for Peace and Justice group is an ad hoc collective of concerned individuals. Four of us, friends and acquaintances from past years, formed it in the last few weeks to give a voice to the immense frustrations that welled up when we saw with horror that the decision to free the terrorists into the arms of the Abbas people looked it was becoming real. We only managed to reach out to a relative handful of other bereaved families in the short time between deciding to write to Secretary Kerry and the delivery of that letter to the State Department. I think we will have many more families, victims of the terrorists, when we do this again in the future.
I don’t know how it appears to people looking on from afar. But all of us are ordinary people with lives, with families, with jobs, with the usual problems and challenges. What brings us together is not politics, not a shared outlook on religion, not a common mission to solve the Arab/Israel conflict. We share a deep pain, each in our own individual ways, and a deep sense that injustice is being done over our heads and if we don’t speak out, then no one else will.
I keep discovering again and again when I meet with individuals in different countries who have had to confront life after terrorism burst into their lives… Your readers might be surprised to know how much I have discovered that I share with an Irish Catholic father whose son was murdered. Or with a Basque woman whose brother ‘s life ended in a car bombing. I don’t mean this figuratively, by the way. It’s literally true that we share so much, to our mutual surprise. The language and religious and cultural and age barriers matter less, it turns out, than the struggle to cope with living after a terrorist picked out your son or daughter or brother and pulled the trigger.
My sense is that if you had to distill a single shared sentiment out of all the pain and anguish of terrorism’s global victims, it would be something like the following imagined message:
This happened to me, and until we all learn to identify the terrorists and their supporters ahead of time, it’s going to happen to you too, and yes, I know you don’t want to hear this from me. Terrorism is not just a crime or an accident. It’s a social pathology that is growing more powerful every day.
DN: Is this terrorist release different than the times before, i.e. releasing terrorists for Gilad Shalit?
AR: The Shalit transaction, including its long prelude and its aftermath, constituted a trauma for my wife and me that even people close to us cannot adequately interpret. Once it became official Israeli policy, which happened just before Sukkot in 2011, we set out to do everything in our power to take the name of the woman, a Hamas agent, who engineered the Sbarro massacre off the walk-free list.
We did dozens of media interviews with some of the most important and influential news channels, in those few days. We wrote, we blogged, we spoke, we uploaded a petition and attracted nearly ten thousand signatures in three days. The message at the heart of our actions was a simple one. Releasing this particular woman will be a catastrophe, literally a cause of b’chiya ledorot [בכייה לדורות], deep painful regret for generations to come. We said this because that woman is determined, ideological and unbowed. In the eyes of the Arab and Islamic worlds, she was and is a heroine with a powerful message which I paraphrase this way:
She saw herself as the embodiment of divinely-commanded terrorism, and her freedom as a vindication from above.
That is certainly the way it was understood throughout the Arabic-speaking world; even more so in view of the fact that she was very quickly given a weekly television platform via the Hamas-owned Al Quds satellite television network to spread the hatred and zealotry that her life’s actions expressed. Because her venom is disseminated in a language that is foreign to most people outside the Islamic world, she is less well known than her influence and momentum would warrant. Today, she is almost at the end of a pregnancy that will be celebrated throughout the Middle East and Asia, just as her release in 2011 and her wedding, broadcast live on Jordanian television, was.
DN: What can you say about the world’s reaction and reporting on the Palestinian terrorists recent release?
AR: I want to urge your readers to pause for a moment and ask themselves why so few voices – other than those of the victims of terrorism like our group – are currently being heard, either in Israel or outside it, opposing the deal to let the convicted and unrepentant terrorists go free.
The confusion and befuddlement in our own ranks stems from a subtle kind of attack that scholars and thinkers are coming to recognize as a cognitive war. One of its key goals is to enable weak aggressors to disarm and eventually defeat a more powerful enemy – not conceptually but on the actual battlefield and in the cities and villages. To put this another way, cognitive warfare is about convincing your enemies to be pacifists and your own side to be patriots. And when done well, the enemy does not even know that war had been declared.
In a world of rational action, the decision to free more than 100 unrepentant terrorist convicts would have caused a firestorm of outrage and protest. Tragically, that is not what we are seeing, even here in Israel. I think this is because terrorists who kill and maim are seen as somehow posing a lesser threat than the ‘regular’ criminals who kill and maim. Because their actions are said to be politically driven, those ‘political’ terrorists are placed in our morals-based value system at a higher level. Doing political deals in which they get to walk free becomes thinkable and even do-able.
DN: What’s the feeling in Israel with regard to the terrorists being released?
AR: There is a scattering of voices calling rather superfluously and I would say artificially for understanding and reconciliation, but they are in a small minority. If I were to speak in the name of an Israeli consensus, I would say that we Israelis don’t need any advice on doing what it takes to bring peace. Israelis don’t have an abiding hatred for the Arabs in general, not for the Palestinian Arabs, not for the Hamas and Fatah and other segments. It’s nothing to do with hatred. What we do have is a deep and well-founded desire to keep our families and ourselves safe from the hatred that is so central to the lives lived in their societies.
Among all Israelis, I have not met anyone who wants peace more passionately and sincerely than the terror victims. We know how much it hurts to lose your loved one to someone else’s jihad. Whatever it takes to stop that hatred, we support, but first – above all and before everything else – we have to do what it takes to protect our own families, lives, communities. Everything else comes afterwards.
DN: Do you think the Jews of Europe, North America, Australia, etc… have an action to take with regard to Israel in general and with regard to this specific terrorist release? What should they do? What is your impression of them?
AR: Just as I avoided telling the Jews of Israel how to do the important things in life before I made aliyah and brought my family to Jerusalem, so too I feel reluctant to give mussar (ethical advice) to the Jews of the diaspora over the important things in their lives. It’s enough if all of us focus on ahavat Yisrael, the recognition that we share so much with each other and depend on each other. Most things work well once we have that part taken care of.
DN: I want to meet Malki. Introduce me to her please.
AR: Malki’s love of Israel owed nothing to her views about the Palestinians, the Middle East conflict, or Islam, because for the most part she had none. We do know from the diary in which she daily recorded her most private thoughts and fears, and which Frimet and I began reading only during the Shiva, that she was deeply agitated by Arab terror. It was on her mind a great deal. Her notes told us what she always kept private: that each loss of life in a piguah (terrorist outrage) brought her literally to tears, made it near impossible to focus on her studies. She was simply incapable of comprehending the fanatical hatred behind the horrifying acts, which have become so much a part of our lives in these last nineteen months.
Malki was a powerfully, unstoppably optimistic 15 year-old. We know from her friends that her wonderful smile almost never left her face, that her love and affection for friends and strangers were inspirational and infectious.
Malki loved Israel, and especially Jerusalem, with a pure and passionate love. Born in Melbourne, this was the home to which she was brought before she was three years old. This was the land which the Almighty had promised to the Jewish people and to which she felt a powerful connection.
DN: Please tell me about the Malki Foundation?
AR: After Malki’s murder, we were left during the shiva, in the grip of our grief, wondering what to do in Malki’s memory. The details are too many – I will say it simply. We decided to establish in her memory a fund, a not-for-profit that would benefit children with severe disabilities and help their families. Malki’s exceptional devotion to every disabled child she encountered in her brief life, and her love of chesed, were our inspiration.
She had volunteered to care for, befriend and nurture disabled children everywhere: at home with her own profoundly affected sister Haya; at the home of a neighbor, a single mother raising a dying disabled son; in school with learning disabled girls; at the Etgarim camp with special-needs youngsters where she spent her last week in this world, and in her beloved youth movement, Ezra.
We prepared the papers to establish an Israeli not-for-profit in her name and the registration papers came out on September 11, 2001. We collected them an hour before the events of 9/11 happened. We have always understood that the work of Keren Malki and the phenomenon of global terrorism, what we call this ongoing war (that’s the name of the blog my wife and I write) are tightly connected. Keren Malki has been operating now for 12 years, and has helped thousands of families who care for a special-needs child.
Malki’s love of chesed is honored every single day by the work done in her name. It’s not a comfort (in case anyone is wondering) but it is one of the things that keeps us focused on life and the future.
Dr. David Nesenoff is a rabbi, author and filmmaker who is noted for his viral video of White House journalist Helen Thomas when she said the Jews should leave Israel and go back to Germany and Poland. He currently lectures around the world to Jewish communities and campuses. Email: Nesenoff@Gmail.com.