The Bus on Jaffa Road: A Story of Middle East Terrorism and the Search for Justice, by Mike Kelly. Lyons Press. 320 pages. Hardcover $26.95.
When two young American Jews living in Israel, Sara Duker and Matthew Eisenfeld, boarded the Number 18 bus in Jerusalem, their immediate plans to visit Petra in Jordan disappeared. Their likely future as husband and wife vanished, as did the careers they were preparing for. Along with twenty-four other passengers, they were killed by a suicide bomber who got on this bus shortly after they did. The tragic, senseless deaths of Sara and Matthew reshaped the lives of their parents and siblings.
Loss and reshaping are central themes in journalist Mike Kelly’s brilliant telling of the short-term and longer-term story: what led to this horror, what were its consequences, what is its meaning, and what hope regarding the possibilities for peace and healing does it destroy or inspire.
Using his wide range of resources and interviews superbly, Mike Kelly provides us with a strong sense of what exceptional people Sara and Matthew were. Matt was taking courses at the Schechter Institute as part of his rabbinical studies. Sara was busy working in a microbiology lab and planning to do graduate studies in environmental science. They were both high-level achievers with much to contribute.
With fewer, and yet abundant resources, Kelly takes us into the actions and mind of Hassan Salameh, the bombmaker and organizer for this and other suicide bombings. Once arrested, Salameh spoke extensively and matter-of-factly about his activities, and his conversations were recorded. He wished to be sentenced to death – a rarity in Israel – but he had to accept the harsher punishment of a life sentence (technically, many many life sentences).
Salameh always claimed his motive was to thwart Israel’s occupation of Palestine, not to murder individual people. It was just their bad luck to be in the way. He believed his actions to be sanctioned by the Koran and Allah.
A major part of the book closely examines the path toward finding some kind of justice for the bereaved. This pursuit was initiated by Stephen Flatow, father of a young woman who perished in a suicide attack almost a year before the number 18 bus incident that killed Sara and Matthew. This story line covers many years, and ends with a victory of sorts in which the absent defendant – Iran – was fined an astronomical sum in a civil trial that tests a very special piece of legislation that come into being during the Clinton administration.
The concept: make the funders and advocates of such terrorist acts suffer financially as a way of discouraging further such acts. Provide those awarded the judgments resources to take further political action.
The problem: enforcing payment, an objective undermined by other political goals of the Clinton White House.
Sara’s mother Arline (her father had died when Sara was eleven with two younger sisters) and the Eisenfelds were already bonded. Stephen Flatow became part of their emotional family and their mentor and exemplary figure through the years of struggling to shape public opinion and government policy to bring about significant action. After Flatow’s case is successful, Arline Duker and the Eisenfelds initiate a similar one that is also successful
Kelly’s exploration of the legal personalities, especially the presiding judge and the lawyers making the cases against Iran, is finely crafted and suspenseful. So is his portrayal of the emotional roller coaster that the plaintiffs endure.
It is inevitable that readers will encounter famous names in a book that uses its key figures to represent important historical dynamics on the bumpy road toward possible peace. Sketches of Yassar Arafat and other Palestinian leaders, Hassan Salameh’s collaborators, and several high profile Israeli leaders amplify the Bus 18 story. So do the appearances of U. S. government leaders like Senator Frank Lautenberg and multi-task upper echelon Clinton official Stuart Eizenstat.
Mike Kelly’s skill, besides digging into so much material and amplifying our knowledge base through his own interviews, is in mastering it all and weaving such a tight fabric of understanding elegantly expressed. One could say that this is just a great book about a suicide bombing. Or one could say this a great book about everything that is touched by a suicide bombing – by all the suicide bombings.
This review appears in the January 2015 issue of the Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte County), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota/Manatee).