On March 1, 1994, an Arab gunman opened fire on 15 yeshiva bachurim returning from a visit to the Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital where the Lubavitcher Rebbe had undergone minor surgery. Three boys were wounded; a fourth, 16-year-old Ari Halberstam, died from a bullet to the head five days later on the 23nd of Adar (which falls out on Shabbos this year).
On the 25th anniversary of his murder, The Jewish Press spoke with Ari’s mother, Devorah, who has since become a political activist and a counter-terrorism expert.
The Jewish Press: What are your thoughts at this time of year?
Halberstam: Every day, my son is the first thing I think about when I wake up and the last thing I think about before I go to sleep. But anniversaries are still anniversaries. You spend time thinking about what could have been. Ari will always be 16 years old in my heart and mind. He was my firstborn child.
My heart hurts knowing that he never had a chance [to live a full life]. He was six feet tall, had blue eyes, and was a beautiful boy inside and out. He was very frum. He was a basketball player. He loved [the Lubavitcher] Rebbe. He was certified in first aid and CPR. I remember thinking shortly before he died how proud I was of him. I could never have imagined I would get that call one day.
Where were you when it came?
I was in my office working, speaking to a colleague. My brother walked in, and the first thing he said was, “Where’s Ari?” His face was white as a sheet. I said, “He went to the Rebbe” – because Ari was in a motorcade that went to the hospital where the Rebbe was having surgery.
My brother said, “Come with me.” We walked two blocks, and I just was screaming in the street, “Tell me what happened to Ari!” But he wouldn’t say anything until I was home and the Hatzolah ambulance was right in front of my house – and I just knew. Something terrible had happened.
At that point, they told me he was in the hospital on life support. And of course, the doctor told me he was shot in the head and was brain dead. The doctor said Ari would live a maximum of five days; his wounds were too great. But as Jews, we have emunah, so it’s not over till it’s over. We stood by Ari and never left his side.
Over 10,000 people attended his funeral procession in Crown Heights five days later. Why do you think so many people came?
It was interesting because the Sefer Torah in 770 [the headquarters of Lubavitch] had a defect that Shabbos in the word “echad,” which is an acrostic for me (Devorah), Ari’s father (whose name is Chesed), and Ari. It probably was the only time that happened in the main shul of 770. They stopped reading and had to replace the Sefer Torah.
Clearly [the shooting] was not just about Ari. Rashid Baz shot at the van in revenge for what was taking place in Israel. When [the detectives] asked Baz who was in the van, he replied, “Chassids.” His intention was to kill every boy in the van. His intention was to kill Jews.
I understand your son shared a special relationship with the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
That’s correct. Ari’s father worked in the Rebbe’s private home. Ari was there regularly. He saw the Rebbe as a mentor and teacher – but also as family. The Rebbe had a second stroke immediately after Ari died. It was ultimately the one [from which he passed away].
You declared your son’s murder an act of terrorism long before law enforcement did. What made you so certain?
First, the president of the United States called while Ari was dying in the hospital and issues about the Middle East were raised. Second, the night before the Rebbe went to the hospital, a group from One Police Plaza asked everyone going to the hospital not to follow directly behind the Rebbe’s vehicle for security reasons.
Baruch Goldstein had just shot up a mosque [in Hevron], which was on a Friday and the following Tuesday was when Ari was shot. There had been attempts on the Rebbe’s life in the past, so when they were looking at who needed special protection after what happened in Israel, the Rebbe was very high on the list.
Some people speculate that Rashid Baz’s real target was the Rebbe.
He was. I know it. Let me tell you [what happened]. Ari had been in the [hospital] chapel, putting on tefillin. It was the last mitzvah he did in this world. They gave me his tefillin unraveled because he was running to the van to catch it to go back to Brooklyn. He banged on the door and said, “Let me in!”
The van was rolling along the FDR Drive southbound to Brooklyn. The Rebbe was in the ambulance with a security detail directly behind him. No one knew which exit the Rebbe’s ambulance would take. It [wound up taking] the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel exit, which was then closed off by the security detail.
The boys in the van came a few minutes later and they were told they couldn’t follow the Rebbe’s ambulance. So they decided to exit onto the Brooklyn Bridge and were on the ramp [now called the Ari Halberstam Memorial Ramp] waiting to merge with traffic.
Rashid Baz was also following, and he too couldn’t go into the Battery Tunnel because of the security detail. So he turned around and decided to take the Brooklyn Bridge and met [the van] at the merging point. He was fully loaded.
Baz got 141 years in prison, but many of his accomplices received paltry sentences. Were you surprised?
They got a $1,000 fine and five years probation. But I went after them in immigration court.
How did that turn out?
Well, I got them deported out of the country. But it took seven years since they used our system. Every one of them was an illegal alien and they got all the way to the Supreme Court. They were deported three days before 9/11.
Do you believe anyone got away that should have been held accountable?
Without a doubt. This was a cell operation. And Rashi Baz had his guns at his uncle’s house in the closet. The police never arrested anyone in his family, and the guns were in the house! The one who gave him the guns, who went with him to the mosque – all these people were party [to the murder].
It took a long time for law enforcement to declare your son’s murder an act of terrorism. As late as 1999, the FBI was still calling it a “road rage” incident. Do you think the authorities knew and were just prevaricating for public consumption? Or were they just naïve in those pre-9/11 days?
Before 9/11, terrorism was not on anyone’s radar screen. It wasn’t even a word used among law enforcement. Narcotics, yes. Murder, yes. But terrorism was not happening in this country. It happened overseas. So initially, I don’t believe [anyone was acting] maliciously.
Having said that, President Clinton had just facilitated a peace deal with Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn, and nobody wanted this [attack by an Arab] to mess up anything.
Was there pushback against your efforts to get the government to call it a terrorist act?
Yes. You have to realize we didn’t have laws on terrorism in the federal government till 1996. The federal government didn’t take this case, which is where it should have gone. When Rashid Baz was asked who was in the van, he said, “Chassids,” which means there were civil right violations against every boy in the van. Civil rights is under the federal government’s jurisdiction, so there was reason for the federal government to take it.
Would it have made a difference? Yes, a huge difference. The federal government has much broader capabilities. The charges would not have been the same.
If [Baz had committed his crime] today, he would be in lockdown in Colorado, where all terrorists are. Instead, the case went to state court and he was tried for murder. Rashid Baz today is sitting in state jail, which means he’s mainstreamed in the state population. That’s very different than 24-hour lockdown in Colorado.
We know that in prison populations, certain religions flourish, and Baz theoretically could…
…influence others. Which is why he was called a martyr among his people. He was visited by people involved in the World Trade Center bombings of 1993.
I was the first person to speak to 500 police chiefs after 9/11 about all the conversions taking place in the prison system. Baz was appointed by the chief prison chaplain to be his assistant! A reporter alerted me to this. He had special privileges. It was unbelievable.
It took me six-and-a-half years, and for the most part I fought single-handedly. I knocked on every door and wrote to everyone. Senator [Daniel Patrick] Moynihan was the first person to recognize the severity of it. [The charge of] murder was just not enough. We need to send a message that in this country we don’t tolerate terrorism nor do we cover up what really is terrorism.