By: Prof. Livia Bitton-Jackson
Published: March 28th, 2014 – Jewish Press
I remember when it happened. March 1, 1994. I remember the horror and sense of devastation. Jewish children targeted once again! A van filled with yeshiva students on the Brooklyn Bridge sprayed with bullets… four were shot and one died as a result of his injuries – sixteen-year-old Ari Halberstam.
All I remember thinking is “How is his mother coping with her devastating tragedy and wondering if she had collapsed under the horrific blow, unable to face life in its aftermath, in the absence of her beloved firstborn.”
Over the years there has been no shortage of reporting about Devorah Halberstam, Ari’s mother. Even in Israel, thousands of miles from the Halberstam home, there have been frequent references in the media to Ari’s mother. Do you know why?
Because Devorah Halberstam, the beautiful young Jewish mother, did not collapse. On the contrary, she rose like a phoenix from the fire. She accurately identified the shooting as a terrorist act and criticized the authorities for treating it as an ordinary homicide. She fought – the police, the FBI and the U.S. Congress – to have Ari’s death investigated as a politically-motivated act of terrorism.
In the process she developed relationships with law enforcement officials at the highest levels. With rare insight and determination, she cut through political correctness during the pre-September-11 era, an unheard of accomplishment. Former New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly credits Devorah Halberstam with being a “a major force in the political world” and having a powerful impact on the creation of anti-terrorism laws in New York State, among them “Ari’s Law,” a comprehensive New York State law controlling gun trafficking across state lines.
Mrs. Halberstam admits that she never dreamed her efforts would affect this type of outcome. Initially her aim was to fight for the truth and have the shooting recognized as a terrorist act. She has fought to have the authorities pursue other avenues of investigation: Who helped to inspire the attack, plan it, and conspire to shelter the attacker in the hours after the shooting? An insightful, sensible approach. Why did it take a young Jewish woman without any training in criminal investigation to promote it?
Even when they finally accepted that the shooting was nationalistically motivated, the authorities insisted the attack was an Arab gunman’s angry response to the massacre in Hebron several days earlier, when Dr. Baruch Goldstein, a Kiryat Arba physician, shot 29 Palestinians.
Ari Halberstam had been a passenger in a car full of Chabad students following the Lubavticher Rebbe’s motorcade as he returned to Crown Heights after eye surgery. Mrs. Halberstam has always maintained that the van was a target of convenience for the Arab terrorist.
She reached out to powerful politicians and collected letters of support to have a Brooklyn Bridge ramp named for her son. What’s more, she succeeded in raising millions of dollars for the construction of a Jewish children’s museum in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn dedicated to his memory. She sued the companies that manufactured the guns used in her son’s killing. She pressured the state to pass Ari’s Law, which requires a license to possess a gun kit and is meant to curtail interstate gun trafficking.
A turning point was reached in 1999, when New York’s governor as well as U.S. senators and congressmen renewed calls for a reassessment of the case. The FBI finally responded, describing the shooting as an act of terror.
In June 2000, then-Governor George Pataki, appointed Devorah Halberstam to serve on New York State’s first Commission on Terrorism. Can you fathom this accomplishment? Now she was directly involved in her campaign to have authorities deal differently with terrorist crimes, to scrutinize the milieu from which terrorists came, map their networks and monitor their associates.
Currently this amazing woman instructs local, state and federal law enforcement agencies around the country, including the FBI, the NYPD, State Troopers, Chiefs of Police, Military and District Attorneys on the nature of terrorism. Her talks educate the public about the threat of terrorism in New York and around the globe. Presently, she is the Director of Foundation and Government Services for the Jewish Children’s Museum, where she works to spread Judaism’s love of fairness and equality to every child who visits the Museum.
Recently, Devorah Halberstam was presented the Outstanding Jewish Heroine of Today Award for dedicating her life to the fight against terrorism.
And she has my admiration.