In the beginning, everybody told them they were wasting their time. "You're crazy," Vicki Eisenfeld recalls being warned, over and over. "Nothing will come of it."
But 10 years after Vicki and Leonard Eisenfeld's son Matt, 25, a Yale graduate and rabbinical student, was murdered along with his fiancée Sara Duker in a No. 18 bus on Jerusalem's Jaffa Road, their dogged struggle against the Hamas terror group that killed him, and against the Iranian government that trained and financed those behind this and so many bombings, doesn't look quite so foolhardy anymore. There are even those who wonder whether it might help expedite regime change in Tehran.
"We had the choice of doing nothing or doing something," says Leonard simply, sitting alongside his wife on the sofa of their home in West Hartford, Conn. And that was no choice at all. So they set out to create what Leonard calls "a financial deterrent to terrorism."
Adds Vicki: "We were looking for a civil way" to take on the bombers and their sponsors. "No physical aggression. Using the law the way it is meant to be used."
The words and the way she delivers them are strikingly gentle, determinedly civilized – and thus make all the more resounding a contrast to the death-cult aggression that stole away their son and his wife-to-be, and plunged the family into this unholy maelstrom.
The extraordinary progress the Eisenfelds have made has its roots in the garrulousness of Hassan Salameh, the Hamas operative who organized the Feb. 25, 1996 attack.
Not long after the blast, Salameh was shot by an Israeli soldier and arrested as he attempted to flee from a West Bank roadblock. Now serving 46 life terms in a Negev jail, Salameh explained every aspect of the bombing and its planning – from the time he joined Hamas, through his terror training, to the logistics of the attack and the recruitment of the bomber.
Crucially for the purposes of the Eisenfelds' legal action, Salameh conclusively described Iran's direct role, detailing how he was smuggled out of Gaza into Egypt, to Sudan, and, via an Iranian army plane, onto a terror training base outside Tehran and back again with instructions for his bombing campaign. In Iran, "We trained in weapons, setting explosives, ambush," Salameh is quoted as having said under questioning. "We had 10 instructors, all Iranian."
"Hamas claimed responsibility for the bombing," says Leonard Eisenfeld. But through Salameh, "we were able to demonstrate that he was trained, armed and funded by Iran."
Former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had been killed less than four months before the bombing, which was one of four attacks in little more than a week, which took some 60 innocent lives. Says Leonard Eisenfeld: "Shimon Peres told me that the Iranians had set out to destabilize Israel in the wake of the assassination."
The information Salameh volunteered ultimately helped the Eisenfelds' legal team obtain a judgment in the U.S. courts for both punitive and compensatory damages against the Iranian government. Collection however was a whole other story.
Along with the Dukers and the Flatow family – Alisa Flatow, a Brandeis student from New Jersey, was murdered in a bus bombing in the Gaza Strip in 1995 – the Eisenfelds received a relatively small proportion of the sums awarded, with those moneys raised against Iranian assets that have been frozen by the U.S. government. They've used some of that payment for charitable contributions and to fund various scholarship programs. But the three families' efforts to obtain what may now total up to $900 million in outstanding damages has been hampered in the United States, again ironically, by the State Department.
Would even a series of massive damages awards – and a proven international legal route for collecting them – truly serve as the Eisenfelds' hoped-for deterrent to terror? Might it conceivably impact on Iranian funding for Hamas? Might it, as Vicki Eisenfeld puts it, "spare other families the kind of anguish that we've been through, of losing our son and his fiancée"?
Perhaps. And perhaps not. But blazing the legal trail certainly beats doing nothing.
"Hamas says it's not going to quit," notes Vicki. "Well, neither will we. And I don't mean in the financial, legal battle. I mean in the war for our culture – for who we are."
David Horowitz is editor of The Jerusalem Post.