Ten years later, mothers of Hebrew U. bombing victims look back
The explosion killed nine people - four Israelis and five foreign nationals - and injured 85.
It was a brazen attack that reverberated throughout Israel and struck deep into the heart of Israel's English-speaking community. On July 31, 2002, a bomb packed with shrapnel was placed in a bag in a crowded Hebrew University cafeteria on its Mt. Scopus campus. The explosion killed nine people - four Israelis and five foreign nationals - and injured 85. Hamas claimed responsibility.
Among the victims were Benjamin Blutstein, 25, of Harrisburg, PA; Marla Bennett, 24, from San Diego, CA; Dina Carter, 37, a dual Israeli-U.S. citizen originally from North Carolina who converted to Judaism after moving to Israel; Janis Ruth Coulter, 36, a native of Boston, Massachusetts who also converted; and David Gritz, 24, of Massachusetts, who held dual U.S.-French citizenship.
Much like the horizontal "tilted tree" memorial that stands outside the university's Frank Sinatra Cafeteria, where the bomb went off, the lives of the victims' families were upended.
"I don't think time ever heals this kind of loss," said Dr. Katherine Baker, a Penn State University microbiologist whose son, Benjamim Blutstein, was one of the victims. "There are days I can't get through the day without crying, there are a couple of days in a row I can do it. But it's extremely hard."
Blutstein and his classmate Marla Bennett were both enrolled at Hebrew University's Rothberg International School and at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. "These were two wonderful young people, preparing for a career as teachers of Jewish studies in North America. I can't believe how many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of students would have benefited from their passion for Torah learning and Jewish life, their openness to all Jews," said Dr. David Bernstein, dean of Pardes, which will be holding a Tisha B'av memorial for Blutstein, Bennett, and two other Pardes students who were killed in a 1996 terror attack. Aside from staff, students, and friends, U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro will be at the memorial to pay tribute to the victims.
'She was so happy being in Israel'
For Linda Bennett, a San Diego-based columnist and communal leader, the last decade without her daughter Marla has passed in stages, at varying speeds.
"I find it hard to believe that it has been ten years," said Bennett, who noted that 16 newborns in Israel and the U.S. have been given variations of Marla's name since she was killed. "In one way it seems longer, and in another, it seems like less time because I can remember the last time I saw her. She was so happy being in Israel."
While visitors to the university have to pass through security checks before entering the campus, there are no noticeable security guards at the cafeteria entrance. "Like the rest of the country, the university increased its level of security and made changes to its procedures," said spokesman Dov Smith.
"For obvious reasons, we're not going to comment publicly on specific operational details."
The university will hold an outdoor ceremony on July 31 in the plaza outside of the cafeteria, where there are several memorials to the victims. The student administration will conduct a memorial of its own an hour later.
Both the Bennett and Blutstein families understand that their personal tragedies are the result of deep-seated attitudes rooted within the Arab-Israel conflict. Several projects dedicated to Marla's memory have been launched in both the United States and Israel, and Bennett wishes that at the very least, her loss could have led to advances in peace negotiations. "But I just don't think the other side is ready," she said.
Baker, too, is frustrated and disappointed by the lack of advancement in the peace process, and said the U.S. government has shirked its responsibilities. "In the United States there's this tone that says 'all of this is just working our way toward a peace, toward an ultimate settlement.' I don't see that alternate settlement coming, and I see tremendous cynicism, particularly on the part of the American government in not acknowledging its responsibility toward Israel nor to American citizens," said Baker.
An example, she explained, can be seen on her son's death certificate. "It sounds terribly minor, but it really gets to me this time every year. Ben's death certificate says that he died in Jerusalem, blank. The United States refuses to write that he died in Jerusalem, Israel. Well, the United States acknowledges that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. So, put it on your documents, because my son died because he was in Israel, not because he was in the 'ethereal Jerusalem.'"
A U.S. Consulate General spokesman in Jerusalem said that it is a well-known U.S. policy that Jerusalem is a final status issue, that "must be resolved through negotiations between the parties."
The year after her son's murder, Baker, 60, spent a Sabbatical year in Israel, and her daughter - 11 years younger than Ben - completed her high school studies here before enrolling at Pardes. "I was concerned about her going to Israel. She told me, 'I need to know why Israel was so important to Ben that he would die for it," Baker recalled, choking back tears.
Bennett has visited Israel five times since Marla's murder. As a member of Hebrew University's Board of Governors, she comes here once a year. She went to the site of the blast "because I had to see where it happened."
"Marla loved Israel. She never wanted me to turn my back on Israel, and I haven't," said Bennett, who last month attended the dedication of a cabin in her daughter's memory at The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp in the Galilee. "People say to me, 'You're going back?' I will not be scared away from Israel. That's precisely what the terrorists want."
The bombing, said Baker, "taught me for the first time that there really, truly, is evil in the world and that evil will not be appeased." But what remains in her heart are her son's last words to her.
"Ben turned 25 years old on July 25, before this pigua," said Baker, using the Hebrew word for a terrorist attack. "And in the last conversation I had with him, on that day, one thing he said to me that will always stay with me: 'You know, Ima [the Hebrew term for mother], I finally know what I want to do with my life. I'm where I'm supposed to be. And I'm happier than I have ever been.'"
'You have to move on'
Rabbi Yossie Goldman remembers precisely where he was a decade ago when an explosion ripped through a cafeteria on Hebrew University’s Mt. Scopus campus in Jerusalem.
“We were holding a staff meeting in my office,” recalls Goldman, 67, the founder and outgoing CEO of Hillel Israel. “We heard a very loud explosion and we rushed out from the office and saw smoke coming out of the cafeteria. There was a strange, eerie silence.”
Goldman and others rushed toward the bloody scene, which was right near the Hillel.
“As we approached, I could see people lying on the ground, bleeding,” says Goldman, a native Israeli who lived in California for nearly three decades. “We rushed in and started to pull people out.”
Goldman remembers pulling one man from the wreckage. “He had a large piece of glass sticking out of his stomach,” Goldman remembers. “He just looked at me. I grabbed him by the arm and dragged him out of the cafeteria.”
The bomb, left in “an innocent looking bag packed with shrapnel,” according to the website of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, gutted the cafeteria. It would be three months before it would reopen.
“I don’t think I went in for another year at least,” said Goldman, who, until the explosion, had routinely picked up his morning coffee there. “I couldn’t do it. I stayed away.” But in time, he said, he returned. “It was very strange to go in there. But life goes on. You have to move on.”
Yet, Goldman remains haunted by what he saw a decade ago. “I try not to think about it,” said Goldman, a father of four. “But sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and the memories flash before my eyes − people bleeding, the havoc.