Remembering the Sbarro Massacre

In my previous blog I wrote incorrectly that 16 Israelis were murdered in the 2001 Sbarro Restaurant bombing, with one victim remaining unconscious only to die later.

The truth is that 15 died in the explosion or immediately after, and 130 were injured, some of them very seriously. A 31-year old woman named Chana Nachenberg, who was there with Sarah, her toddler daughter, suffered a traumatic brain injury from one of the pieces of shrapnel in the bomb, and entered what doctors call a “persistent vegetative state.” Chana is still alive 20 years later, and still unresponsive. Her daughter Sarah was one of the few at the location who escaped unhurt.

A person in a vegetative state has some brain function, but is not able to communicate. Sometimes they recover, but the longer they have been in this condition, the less likely it becomes. Are they in any sense aware? Nobody knows, but I hope not. Here is something Sarah wrote about her mother some years ago. Twenty years is a long time, the length of a generation. Think about what happened in your life in the past 20 years. Today Sarah has a daughter of her own.

I was informed of my error by Arnold Roth, who lost his daughter Malki in the bombing. Malki was 15, and had gone to Sbarro’s for pizza with a friend, Michal Raziel. Both girls were among the murder victims. Several years ago I met Arnold for lunch in Jerusalem, and as we walked back along Jaffa Road toward his car and the bus station, I suddenly realized that we were at the corner with King George St. where the Sbarro restaurant had been. There is a plaque at the location with the names of the victims on it. I could only imagine what Arnold was feeling.

Since Malki’s death, Arnold and his wife Frimet have taken on two tasks. One is to help provide home care alternatives for disabled children, and to this end they established the Keren Malki Foundation in her name. The other is to get justice for their daughter, one of whose murderers walks free.

The Sbarro bombing was one of the most horrifying episodes of the Second Intifada, when Palestinian suicide bombers exploded on almost a daily basis in buses, restaurants, markets, and railroad and bus stations. The attack was planned by Ahlam Tamimi, then a 20-year old journalism student who chose the location and accompanied a suicide bomber, Izz al-Din Shuheil al-Masri to the restaurant. Al-Masri carried a guitar case containing 5-10 kg. of explosive and hundreds of nails and other shrapnel. Tamimi left him there and returned to Ramallah, where she had a part-time job as a TV news presenter, and reported on the attack to her Palestinian audience. A remarkably cold killer, Tamimi later smiled broadly and thanked Allah when an interviewer noted that she had killed seven children, and not just three as she had thought. She has said that she is not sorry for what she did and would do it again.

Tamimi was sentenced to 16 consecutive life sentences, and the bomb-maker, Hamas commander Abdullah Barghouti, to 67 (!) of them for his role in multiple murders. But in 2011 when the Israeli government foolishly agreed to trade 1027 convicted terrorists for kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit, Tamimi was among them. She was released and deported to Jordan, where she was given a job on Jordanian TV and became a media celebrity. Frimet Roth wrote then that the release and hero’s welcome of Ahlam Tamimi made her feel as though her daughter were being murdered a second time.

Chana Nachenberg, Malki Roth, and another victim, Shoshana Hayman Greenbaum – who was pregnant – all had American citizenship, and the US has demanded Tamimi’s extradition, in part due to the efforts of Arnold and Frimet Roth. But Jordan refuses to honor its extradition treaty, probably because the king fears the reaction of his subjects. Apparently American officials agree with him, because they haven’t tried to force him to give her up, despite her position on the FBI’s list of most wanted terrorists.

In the last few weeks there has been an uptick in Palestinian terrorism against Israelis. There have been stabbings, car rammings, an attempted mass shooting (only one death, thanks to quick police reaction), and the recent ambush of a car carrying yeshiva students, which resulted in the death of one of them. And of course, there is also the “background noise” of daily rock-throwing and firebomb attacks which don’t make the news, even in Israel, unless a terrorist gets lucky and kills someone. We get used to all of this, and perhaps don’t think about the suffering of the terror victims and their families. And we don’t dare ask ourselves what it must be like to be as full of hate as Ahlam Tamimi.

One thing that we do know is that Palestinian terrorism is more than just an expression of rage; it is a targeted act with a specific objective. Terrorists and their supporters believe that they can make life here unbearable for Jews, who will pack up and “go back where they came from.”

This is a remarkable mistake for Palestinians, who are usually relatively clever and resourceful. Very few Israeli Jews have a place to go “back” to; certainly Mizrachi Jews are not welcome in North Africa, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and so on. Nor do the descendants of Jews displaced or murdered in the Holocaust, nor the children of those who came from Eastern Europe and the Russian Empire prior to WWII. I doubt that Russia would welcome former Soviet Jews, either. But even those from Western countries, like the Roths, are not going anywhere, despite the pain, sometimes felt very personally, of terrorism.

Israel is not a colony, and it is not a temporary arrangement. The land is soaked in Jewish blood, and the Jewish people have taken root in it. The idea that they can be dislodged by Palestinian terrorism, either the organized kind coming from Hamas or the random acts of hatred by “lone wolf terrorists” is ludicrous. All the terrorists can do is provoke a reaction – one that may ultimately lead to their expulsion in a second Nakba.

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3 Responses to Remembering the Sbarro Massacre

  1. Esther Feiga says:

    Why aren’t these evil people targeted for justice? There are certainly people who would make themselves available to do the targeting, don’t you think?

  2. nanhum says:

    Well said. And Esther has a point.

  3. Leon Kushner says:

    I sure hope that you have a very large readership. I recently forwarded your previous blog to a friend of mine from Toronto who made aliyah years ago. He more or less laughed it off and invited me to come see Israel for myself. Too bad he and so many others are missing the point. (and he’s a right wing guy)

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