Malki with her father Arnold. Detail from a family group photo taken on Arnold’s birthday in January 2001
The faces of some terror victims stay in your mind and in your heart, for instance the face of Malki Roth. In part it’s the outrage of the act: that someone could steal away a beautiful young girl with so much promise and talent. But it’s also her smile in the photos, with that soft sweetness, radiating what you’re positive was an inner beauty to match the exterior.
What happened on August 9, 2001, at the Sbarro restaurant in Jerusalem, was and remains unspeakable.
But what is truly unbearable is this: Ahlam Tamimi, the woman behind the murder of Malki Roth and so many others, lives free and clear in Jordan. Tamimi was released from an Israeli prison in the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange in 2011. Since that time she has married, raised a family, and built a career on her status as a hero for masterminding the murder of Jewish children. Of this she is proud. Of this she brags.
Here is an interview with Malki’s father, Arnold Roth:
Varda Epstein: Tell us about that day. How did you find out? How long until you knew?
Arnold Roth: Most people know that the truly life-changing things that happen to us come when we least expect them. This was a hot August Thursday at a busy time for me. I was chief executive of a drug technology company based in one of Jerusalem’s science and technology campuses and we had a lot on our plates, most of it very good.
I went to lunch with the same friends as usual and got back just in time to receive a frantic call from Frimet, my wife. “There’s been a pigua and I can’t reach the children.” I went directly into calm-husband-and-father mode, trying to say what I really believed: “Don’t reach for the worst. Give the kids time to call in and reassure us.” But the call ended while I was in mid-sentence.
Jerusalem had been free of major terrorist attacks for years at that point and the grim reality of armed guards emplaced outside supermarkets and restaurants had not yet been instituted. But the massacre at Tel Aviv’s Dolphinariumhad happened in June and the raging terrorism that the more ideological parts of the media repulsively called the Second Intifada had gotten started almost a year before. In the capital, we were living on borrowed time but we didn’t realize it.
Frimet and I phoned back and forth several times over the next two years. Malki was the fourth of our children, the oldest of our daughters, and at 15 busy, energetic and independent. Her older brothers all checked in by phone during the early afternoon.
As a rising sense of something awful started settling in, I phoned Malki’s cell a couple of times, begging her to call back as soon as she could. I imagine Frimet did the same.
Around 4:00 pm, and although I had a string of meetings and conference calls to deal with, I left my desk to go home. Frimet called me just before that to say she couldn’t bear waiting at home, was going mad from the worry and stress and needed to do something, go somewhere. We have a very disabled youngest child who needs constant care so Frimet leaving the house meant I needed to be there in her place.
I think of myself as religiously observant and believe hashgacha pratit—divine providence at the personal, individual level—is a real thing. I was trying to negotiate private deals with the Almighty as I walked to the bus.
Let her phone be broken. Please let her be in an area where there is no reception. Let her be mildly concussed. I no longer remember the scenarios. But I was hoping desperately that I could offer something that, if it were only accepted above, would let us off the hook that started to feel more and more real.
There was no relief at home. At first, I was alone with our daughter whose disabilities are extreme and profound. We didn’t know how to communicate with her at that stage in her life. So she was not part of the anxieties; rather she was part of the normalcy.
One by one, the children arrived home and then so did Frimet, accompanied by one of our sons who had started his compulsory military service the previous day and was sent home to help with the emerging crisis. He and Frimet, it turned out, had been at one of Jerusalem’s hospitals looking for whatever there was to look for. But before Frimet left our street to get there, she encountered Avivah, our neighbor. Avivah’s daughter Michal, it turned out, was with our Malki from early that morning. The mothers went to the hospital together and then split up to search. Frimet and our son found no sign or word of Malki and came home.
We all, in our separate private nightmares, did our praying and hoping and deal-making in the ensuing hours. As night fell, a neighbor struggled up the stairs, ashen-faced, to tell me at the open door that Michal’s name had just been reported on the news as one of those killed at Sbarro five hours earlier. The world, already deeply grim, now looked a lot blacker.
Malki and the girl next door, Michal Raziel, 2001. The closest of friends from when we moved into the building in 1993. The girls were standing side by side when the Hamas human bomb–a young religious zealot with an explosive-packed guitar case on his back–walked unchallenged into Sbarro and exploded next to them. This photo shows the two girls a few weeks before they were murdered. They are buried in adjoining graves in Jerusalem.
Another neighbor, at the time a department head at Hadassah Ein Karem who had been working the phones to tap into his network of doctor contacts, walked in and told me to get ready to go with him. “I was told there’s a teenage girl on the operating table. I’ll drive you there.”
It turned out not to be Malki. But as we stood there in the miyun (emergency room) area, surrounded by people who looked like I felt, a medical colleague of his took in the situation and as he rushed to deal with yet another emergency case, he may have said to my friend: “I don’t know what to tell you” or something else guarded and careful. But in the memory of the man I now am, nearly eighteen years later, what I remember him saying is: “Check over there in that cubicle. There’s a girl we’re about to operate on and another one who’s dead. One might be yours.”
That’s how one of life’s hardest moments is engraved in my memory.
We didn’t find Malki anywhere. A hospital social worker having what was surely one of her own most challenging days, walked over to me and, under huge stress herself, said without much ceremony: “If you’re looking for a child here and can’t find her, and it’s now nine hours after the bombing, you need to go to Abu Kabir. Now.”
I understood what she meant but demurred. “I will ask one of my sons to go. At this point, it will be better if I go back and stay with my wife at home.” As I left, the social worker calmly did exactly what was needed: arranged for a taxi and a social worker to collect two of my sons and bring them to Israel’s only center for performing autopsies and identifying terror victims. It’s known as Abu Kabir after the Jaffa neighborhood where it is located.
My two older sons phoned from there at two on Friday morning, exactly twelve hours after the Battle of Sbarro Pizzeria started and ended. They had found their sister. I recited the brief and awful prayer that’s said on learning of a death and was aware of my wife starting to scream as she ran out the front door and into the night.
April 2001: Malki with her mother Frimet
Varda Epstein: For many years now, you and your wife Frimet have been raising awareness of what happened to your daughter, and the injustice of subsequent events regarding her murderer. But what was it like in the early days, after the shiva was over? What was it like waking up in the morning and just getting through the days? How long was it before you found a way forward?
Arnold Roth: The first seven days are a blur. Many people—a thousand, maybe more—passed through our hot and bustling apartment to observe the shiva with us, to bring us comfort and distraction. Many were people who didn’t know us at all—just reaching out because of the enormity of the tragedy and a sense of what else is there I can do?
Almost all the interactions that were important to me during the first year were within the family and are intimate to the point where I believe there’s nothing I can or want to share. Except to observe something quite uncomfortable: that we lost friends during this period—people whose social circle we felt ourselves to be part of and who now, in some cases, crossed the street as we got closer or whose small talk steered carefully away from any mention of Malki and the murder that took her from us. I can’t say I don’t judge people. But I believe we’re all to blame for how ill-prepared most of us are for comforting others in the wake of a violent, terror-driven death of a loved one and especially, especially, especially (no other way to make the point) of a child.
One aspect of this sticks out in particular and because something constructive eventually emerged, I want to touch on it here. Schools, even in Israel, even in Jerusalem which was Ground Zero for murderous terror attacks during the ensuing few years, were absolutely unprepared for dealing with the impact on school mates and especially on siblings. This caused very considerable personal suffering for thousands of individuals and families—almost all of it unnecessary and avoidable. Too many people were asleep at the wheel. Things are better now (and I credit my wife’s activism for some of why it’s better). But my impression remains that at least some of those who were ill-equipped to deal with it remain just as ill-equipped today. Let’s hope they’re never put to the test again.
Malki and her family, June 2001: The scene is at the batmitzvah of her younger sister Rivka, the last family celebration before Malki was killed two months later.
Varda Epstein:What do you think Malki would be doing today, had she lived to fulfill her potential?
Arnold Roth: Because she was taken from us with such sudden finality and trauma, it’s always been hard to think of Malki grown up. She packed an amazing amount of goodness into her life, much of it unobserved or barely known to us. Since we modeled the Malki Foundation on those parts of her life that we wanted very much to be remembered, I will mention that she was always ready to help people who are struggling with challenges; that she approached practically every situation in life with a smile; that she felt especially close to her own catastrophically-disabled little sister and did things for her when it was clear she would get nothing back, other than satisfaction and contentment.
Malki was modest and friendly. The positive impact of her life is reinforced by the messages we got then and over the years since from age-mates, from friends in the community, from little girls who are grown up now and who were in her charge when she was a youth leader (madricha) in Israel’s Ezra youth movement.
So what would she be doing if she had been spared? She would be making herself helpful and well-loved wherever she would be and in whatever she would be doing.
Malki adored her catastrophically disabled, blind and brain-damaged little sister Haya Elisheva. This was taken in April 2001.
Varda Epstein:What does it feel like to have Jordan refuse to extradite the murderer? What does it say about Jordanian values, about Jordanian society?
Arnold Roth: The appalling woman, a barbarian in every sense of the word, who masterminded the Sbarro massacre is living a fabulous life. The government of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan has put its strategic ties with the United States at risk by pretending, via its highest court, that it doesn’t have to extradite her to Washington.
Malki had American citizenship and we have made serious, little-publicized efforts to bring Ahlam Tamimi before a US Federal court to face terrorism charges. This is not going well for us but it’s far from over.
Varda Epstein:Do you have reason to hope that if you keep up the fight, Tamimi will be brought to justice?
Arnold Roth: At this point, as well as the challenges, we have some concrete achievements: Tamimi has been charged under US law; there is a $5 million reward for information leading to her arrest and conviction; the US has invoked its 1995 extradition treaty with Jordan and says it expects her to be handed over. There is a wealth of detail and complexity behind each of these ‘achievements’ and far more to tell than an interview like this can bear.
I will only add that I think there will be wide surprise and disappointment among those reading this once they know who is with us in this pursuit of justice and who is blocking the process. Since it’s very much a work in progress, I will say no more—other than to observe that Ahlam Tamimi does not live in hiding today, has never been in hiding for a single hour since she was freed—over our vociferous objections—from her Israeli prison cell and from her 16 life terms, and sent back to her homeland, Jordan. She lives free as a bird in Amman today.
Tamimi may be the first mass murderer in history to be given her own television program, to have operated freely for years under her own name on Facebook and Twitter, and to be interviewed regularly in the Arabic media—special mention here of the Aljazeera Network—without her crimes, the people she killed, ever being mentioned.
FBI wanted poster of Ahlam Tamimi
Varda Epstein: Tamimi is someone who takes joy in murdering children. How can this be, that she roams the streets of Jordan, free?
Arnold Roth: The question is a cornerstone for understanding the vast gulf between the two sides of the global debate over terrorism. One of the many professional consultants who has traveled to Jordan on behalf of the US government (there are far more of them than most people would guess) helped me understand this. Though we were strangers when I reached out to her, she was kind enough to provide me with real-time feedback during her time in Amman.
She told me the Jordanians with whom she was conferring and working—high-achievers, intelligent and well-educated people, movers, shakers, up-and-comers in Jordanian society—see Tamimi as a national hero. You won’t find this is in any English-language publication or in anything directly controlled by the Jordanian government. But black-and-white evidence of the sentiment is only too easy to find even if you don’t go there.
They utterly reject the notion, she told me, that just because Tamimi blew up a pizzeria and all the children and families inside that they ought to think of her as a terrorist. She’s doing resistance. She’s a figure of wide admiration.
If Tamimi, as I believe, is a litmus test of Arab society’s willingness to come to terms with the reality of Israel and with the challenge of living at peace with Israelis at some future point… well, you don’t need me to finish the sentence.
Varda Epstein: You showed me a blog you wrote about your Aunt Feige. Can you tell the readers about her, the photo you received, and Malki’s reaction to that photo?
Arnold Roth: I was born in Melbourne. It’s an unusual and very special place to be from for several reasons.
The one I want to emphasize is that almost all my friends, growing up, were just like me: children of “refos”—European Jews, by far most of them from Poland, who were issued papers in and after 1947 (a change of government led to a major turn-around in Australia’s notoriously closed approach to immigration) to come as refugees and rebuild their lives as far away from the European killing fields as you could go.
Almost none of us had any grandparents. Few of us had more than one sibling. All of us had parents who shared some major dimensions: working hard, getting ahead, making a good life, giving their children the best, and having frequent and noisy nightmares of the Holocaust years that stole their youth, their schooling, their families, their health.
My father’s life, the details of which are still in some ways a mystery to me, included some special drama. Dad was one of seventeen children, a Hassidic family from a small town in Galicia, of whom only two, maybe three, survived the Nazi genocide of the Jews. That sentence contains practically everything I knew up to when Dad passed away in 1982.
Among the many stunning discoveries that came after Dad was no longer available for me to consult him was a cluster of four photocopies of Nazi census forms. They are from the Krakow Ghetto, all dated August 1940, all filled in by handwriting (my father’s was familiar to me), all with passport-style photos. Up until these papers came into my hands, which was in 2000, I had never seen a portrait of my father as he looked before ending up as a survivor.
The other three were of women, one of them a sister of my father, the sum total of whose existence until that moment was a name on a family tree that I made after holding Dad down long enough to disclose things he was never comfortable disclosing.
The sister’s name was Feiga; she did not survive. The census picture shows a woman of 26, a striking beauty with distinctive eyes and eyebrows.
Malki’s eyes and eyebrows.
Malki noticed the resemblance immediately. It triggered some discussion, and perhaps some deeper thoughts, about Jewish history, about irreparable loss, about family. Malki was taken from us a little more than a year later.
Feiga (Malki’s aunt whom she never knew–she perished at the hands of the Nazis) and Malki
Varda Epstein: What should we learn as Jews from the story of Malka Chana Roth, HY”D?
Arnold Roth: It was always clear to us that if we didn’t take steps to preserve a memory of Malki’s beautiful life, that in the nature of things her murder would be reduced to a statistic. Sounds cruel but from the perspective of Israeli society, it’s far truer than not.
As a family, we took a few minutes during the shiva, after the last of the visitors had departed on one of the evenings, to consider our options. We decided to create a charity that would give practical expression to Malki’s passion for helping children with extreme special needs. This of course was something that fit well with the wonderful devotion she showed for the very challenging needs of her own little sister. But it went beyond that.
The anecdotes are many but two stand out.
One—in the summer of 2000, a year before she was taken from us—Malki decided to apply what she had learned in helping her mother look after Haya, our youngest, by knocking on nearby doors to see if there was someone else’s mother who needed a volunteer helper with her skills. She found Ro’ei and his mother Devorah just a few streets away.
Ro’ei, confined to a wheelchair, non-verbal, fed by tube, a gorgeous little boy with a smiley face—had the version of Canavan Disease whose outcome is depressingly known well in advance. Malki loved being with him daily, cleaning him up, cheering him up, sharing some of the overwhelmed young single mother’s load, making herself helpful. She embraced the self-imposed mission like others of her age embrace going to the beach. (Ro’ei outlived Malki by a few months.)
In August 2001, partnered by Rachel, a school-friend, she insisted her way into the annual summer camp held by Etgarim, a wonderful nonprofit that provides summer sports, camping and the best of outdoors activity for youngsters with special needs, both cognitive and physical. Malki told us that Etgarim wasn’t geared up to take volunteers but that somehow the girls broke through the resistance and became part of the team. The photos we later saw show Malki smiling from ear to ear as she poses with campers.
We found an old disposable 35 mm film camera in the house about 2 years ago. It turned out to be Malki’s. We developed and printed the photos and this one turned out one of the loveliest we have. Malki went on a walking tiyul around the Old City she so loved.
Most of what we know about those few days we learned after the Sbarro bombing which happened just a couple of days after Malki came home from the north. The stories they shared with us are unbearably touching.
We named the new entity the Malki Foundation: in Hebrew, Keren Malki [www.malkifoundation.org]. Almost eighteen years on, it has a terrific record of quiet, modest achievement, empowering thousands of parents of children with extreme special needs—children from every part of Israeli society without regard for religion, political outlook, national identification or economic capability—who have made the decision to embrace the challenge of raising their child with special needs at home and withstanding the pressure to institutionalize the child.
We avoid intruding into the family’s life or second-guessing them on decisions about which non-medical therapies they feel will most benefit their child. We support physical therapy, speech therapy, hydrotherapy, therapeutic horse riding and occupational therapy. They choose the therapist and the times and the frequency; we pay. We want them to feel empowered. It’s a successful model.
We also provide home-care and mobility equipment, and for families living in the periphery—Israel’s far north and far south—we send our own therapists right into the home. For many of them, we could provide an open check for therapy services and they would be unable to spend the money. Israel seriously lets such families down.
Associating tragedy, personal loss, grief and pain with good, constructive deeds is a respected and time-honored Jewish response. We call those deeds hesed. I don’t intend to wax poetical in explaining why the family created the Malki Foundation but want simply to say: it gives me the opportunity, often and before audiences I would not otherwise reach, of saying: There was a very special young woman called Malki and we are all poorer for her having been taken from us.
Malki will never be a statistic but an inspiration. And in remembering her, we also realize that she and the savage who engineered her death are not—as several dull journalists said to me at various points in the weeks after the massacre—two sides of the same coin. Quite the opposite: their ways will never be and never were our ways. Sounds simple but surprisingly few public figures—diplomats, politicians, editors, religious leaders—seem to actually understand it.
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