When Stephen Flatow was called to the witness stand at a crucial starting point in his courageous battle to make Iran accountable for the sponsorship of terror that cost the life of his beloved daughter, the answer to the first question asked him by his lawyer is actually the raison d'etre of the book he wrote when that fight was over.
"You were the father of Alisa Flatow?" his lawyer, Tom Fay, asked.
"No," answered Flatow.
The lawyer looked lost. A strange expression came to his face.
"I'm still her father," said Flatow.
And in that moment everything became clear…The lawyer suddenly had tears in his eyes, possibly the judge as well when he swiveled his chair around. So did this writer and not for the only time when reading this book.
Because while "A Father's Tale – My Fight for Justice Against Iranian Terror" is a riveting read that can serve as a primer on how to uphold basic principles of the civilized world, among other things, it is first and foremost a testament to a bereaved father's respect and love for his daughter.
Flatow's warm, affectionately humorous way of telling the story of Alisa's too short life, her amazing effect on his entire family, and her radiant smile on the book's cover, engage the reader's heart, bringing home, as no statistics can, the depths of evil wrought by terror in our world. One person is an entire universe, said the Talmudic Sages, writing that the first human was created alone in order to emphasize that fact.
Alisa, gently but tenaciously, changed her family's religious observance level all by herself, beginning at age four when she refused to go to a regular pre-school and insisted on being registered in the local Orthodox educational establishment. She went on to become an honors student at Brandeis, receiving her B.A. in record time so that she could study full time at the Jerusalem Nishmat Advanced Torah Study Institute for Women.
Her love for Israel, a country she visited six times, is what put her on the fatal bus travelling down to Gush Katif on April 9, 1995 to spend what was supposed to be an enjoyable Shabbat in the beautiful, idealistic communities that are no more since Israel's 2005 withdrawal from Gaza. Not that it makes a difference where the vivacious 20-year-old was when a terrorist bomber struck –terror attacks have occurred on buses, at bus stops, walking down the street, praying in the synagogue, in yeshivas, at Seders in a hotel, parties in a discotheque, and while eating a peaceful Sabbath meal in one's own home. They are not aimed at places, but at ordinary people, meant to kill as many as possible and change the lives of those who lose their dear ones.
The terror attacks this past week in Israel have once again brought to the fore the blind Islamist hatred for the Jewish people per se and for its success in rebuilding the one small piece of land it has called home for thousands of years. Leading, directing and funding that hate and terror is the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose mullahs call the US and Israel the "big and little" Satan, respectively.
The landmark lawsuit that Stephen Flatow, "just a real estate lawyer in New Jersey," according to his own self-deprecating description, brought against Iran makes "A Father's Story" an important, enlightening and most interesting book as well. It relates the fascinating history of the mission impossible Flatow set out to accomplish – and in which he succeeded, against all odds. Years of unflagging efforts, thorough research, brilliant legal moves by experts, all motivated by an unwavering sense of justice- not revenge, but justice (although revenge would be quite human) - ended when Iran was made to pay a staggering financial price for its part in Alisa's murder, with the funds coming from Iranian assets in the USA.
Flatow set a precedent. He showed how it can be done, not giving up when he found himself at odds with the interests of powerful US political figures, including then President Clinton and his aides. Attempt to stymie him meant that even obtaining the list of Iranian assets in the US was blocked by those same interests.
For those to whom the world of politics is unfamiliar territory, the book is an eye opener as far as learning how legislation is advanced and how strongly interests, rather than truth and fair play, shape so many decisions. For those who are less than naïve, it is heartening to read how two dedicated US Senators, Frank Lautenberg and Connie Mack, among others, helped Flatow get past the roadblocks placed in his way.
There is a moral lesson here: There has to be accountability, whether or not it has a wide-ranging effect against future acts of the same type. I remember decision makers saying to me that getting rid of Arafat or Sheikh Yassin and their ilk makes no difference, because someone just as murderous if not more so, would take their place. That is not at all the point – people or entities that enable evil must be punished, whether or not that punishment brings perpetrating that evil, in this case terror, to an end.
There are ways to diminish or crush terror, a powerful lesson about the world in which we live that forms a corollary to the book: Stephen Flatow did what the Western powers could do, but did not. He held Iran responsible for terror and made it pay, hitting the mullahs where they hurt. Terror is spiraling upward because no Western power except the United States under Donald Trump is willing to do that and say so out loud. Imagine if all those who signed the ill-conceived Iran Agreement had acted as Flatow did, and instead of giving Iran money, making business deals, and turning a blind eye to its opportunity to go nuclear and sponsor world terror, decided to hit the mullahs harder than a lone US citizen ever could.
Flatow, though he received a massive amount of Iranian money, – most of which he gave to charity – can never be compensated for his daughter's death. But the West could prevent other parents from suffering such grief and that it does not do so, is unforgivable.
If that ever happens, of course, it would be a different story.