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Devorah Halberstam: From Bereaved Mother To Counterterrorism Authority

The imprudence of the designation ultimately led to Halberstam’s triumph: Under public pressure, the FBI assigned an agent in May 1999 to review the case, and in December 2000 the agency officially conceded that the shooting indeed had been an act of terrorism.

But Halberstam’s campaign was not over.

She kept pushing for the investigation of unfollowed leads, arguing that counterterrorism required a different approach to law enforcement. In June 2000, New York’s then governor, George Pataki, appointed her to serve on the state’s first Commission on Terrorism. For Halberstam, the idea wasn’t just to make sure that those who aided Baz were punished – though it was that, too. Hers was a campaign to have authorities deal differently with terrorist crimes, to scrutinize the milieu from which terrorists came, map their networks and monitor their associates.

“Now we can clearly see that it was part of a whole pattern of terrorist activity that keeps repeating itself,” former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani said in 2009 of the Halberstam shooting.

“In a way, the attacks of 9/11 have really validated her position and given her increased credibility,” Kelly said of Halberstam. “Her stressing this issue before 9/11 was important, but clearly the horrific events of 9/11 really galvanized the law enforcement community, and she’s been a player in it.”

Halberstam’s own public profile changed in tandem with the new prioritization of counterterrorism. In 2009, in a sign of how dramatically Halberstam had gone from victim to authority, she received a community leadership award from the office of the FBI director, which hailed her as a “vital asset in our fight against terrorism.”

Over the years, Halberstam also found validation of some of her suspicions in Ari’s case.

In 2007, Baz in a confession corroborated Halberstam’s longtime contention that his real target had been the Lubavitcher rebbe. Last year, the Palestinian uncle who Halberstam long had claimed provided Baz with the weapons he used in the shooting was arrested for allegedly being part of a multistate cigarette-smuggling ring with terrorist ties.

Today, Halberstam isn’t only concerned with terrorism. She organizes meetings in Crown Heights to help tamp down tensions between blacks and Jews and continues to raise money for the Jewish Children’s Museum, where many of her community encounter programs take place. And she spends time, when she can, with her grandchildren, three of whom are named for Ari.

What drives her to do all this, Halberstam says, isn’t just justice. It’s about trying to make sure other mothers don’t have to endure the loss and pain that was thrust upon her 20 years ago and remains with her every day.

“I feel like I have an obligation to my child,” she said. “Somebody else stole his life. And I don’t think just somebody else; it’s a system that was in place. And I believe no matter how long it will take, I will not stop.

“It’s like breaking up a gang, and we have to fight this. I don’t know if I’ll see it in my lifetime, but I sure as hell am going to continue doing it until the day I die, as long as I live on this earth.”

(JTA)

About the Author: Uriel Heilman is managing editor of JTA. An award-winning journalist, he has worked in a variety of positions for publications in the United States and in Israel, including as New York bureau chief of the Jerusalem Post.


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