The Legacy of Alisa Flatow

CEP Research Analyst


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In the spring of 1995, 20-year old Alisa Flatow, an American student at Brandeis University, was in the middle of her semester in Israel studying at a women’s seminary. Alisa boarded a bus on April 10 bound for the beach, but never reached her destination. A suicide bomber from the Iranian sponsored group Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) drove up next to the bus and blew up his car.

Alisa’s father, Stephen, flew from his New Jersey home to Israel’s Soroka Medical Center, where his daughter was on life support. He recalled holding Alisa’s hand as doctors declared her brain dead. She was taken off of life support a half hour after he arrived. In total, eight people died in the PIJ attack.

Alisa was the oldest of Stephen and Rosalyn Flatow’s five children. She majored in sociology at Brandeis and planned to become a physical therapist. According to a statement released by her family shortly after her death, Alisa “believed in the good inherent in all people. She believed she was safe in Israel and no one could dissuade her from that belief.”

This month marks 20 years since Alisa’s untimely death. Iran’s connections to global terrorism are well documented. Alisa’s memory lives on in multiple institutions in New Jersey and Israel since dedicated to her.

Her tragedy is also the inspiration behind a landmark legal case in the fight against global extremism, as Alisa’s father turned his family’s tragedy into a call to arms against state sponsors of terrorism, notably Iran.

The 1996 Antiterrorism Amendment to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act removed legal immunity from foreign governments that sponsor terrorism. Later that year, Congress created what is commonly called the Flatow Amendment, which allowed U.S. citizens to file for damages from countries that sponsor terrorist acts. Stephen Flatow used his new legal rights to file suit against Iran for sponsoring the attack that killed his daughter. In 1998, he won a $248 million judgment against Iran. Flatow has collected only a fraction of that amount, but he opened the door for other U.S. victims of terror to seek a small measure of justice.

Matthew Eisenfeld, a 25-year-old rabbinical student from Hartford, Conn., and 22-year-old Sara Duker of Teaneck, N.J., were among the 24 people killed in a February 25, 1996, Hamas bus bombing in Jerusalem. Their families won a $327 million judgment against Iran in 2000 for sponsoring the attack. A U.S. court held Iran liable in 2006 for the 1996 bombing of an American military dormitory in Saudi Arabia and ordered the country to pay $254 million to the families of 17 victims. The courts have also held Iran liable for the 1983 Marine Barracks bombing in Beirut, Lebanon, and awarded more than $10 billion to its victims. Most recently, a U.S. court in September 2014 ruled in favor of some 300 terror victims who alleged that Jordan’s Arab Bank had facilitated payments to Hamas and other terrorist groups.

In a recent article on the anniversary of Alisa’s death, Stephen Flatow said that his daughter still “plays a big role” in his life “as if she is still here.” The Flatows and other families have struggled to collect their settlements over the years but the case set an important precedent in the fight to hold accountable sponsors of terrorism.