It’s no surprise that Time magazine voted the climate activist Greta Thunberg as Person of the Year. She is a prophet of our time of sorts. Devorah Halberstam does not have the same international brand recognition as the young Swede. Still, in 1994 the native New Yorker foresaw the rise of global terrorism due to a tragedy that propelled her, with the same passion that fuels Thunberg, to uncovering the truth about her sixteen-year-old son’s murder.
While riding in a van full of obviously Orthodox young Jewish men, an obsessed killer shot Ari Halberstam in the back of the head as they crossed Brooklyn Bridge. The man was Rashid Baz, a cab driver, who wounded three others in what he claimed was a traffic disagreement. The police put the crime down to road rage. Halberstam knew different.
She was determined to uncover the truth and intent on proving that Baz, a Lebanese immigrant, had wanted to kill Jews, the only explanation for his car full of military-style weapons.
This lead the mother of five on a journey of counter-terror discovery, at a time when no-one was interested, concerned or knew much about the field — until September 11th, 2001, that is, when her reputation changed.
Halberstam was correct. Baz, it turned out, “was motivated by Islamist political ideology and a strong desire to kill Jews — both of which were amplified in his Brooklyn mosque,” wrote Jacob Siegal in his current article about her in the American Tablet magazine. “Within a short while, she had intuited that Ari’s murder, far from being an arbitrary local crime, was, in fact, an early expression of a growing global political movement looking to make itself felt through acts of violence both inside and outside New York City.” She had understood the intersection of terrorist ideology and violence.
There were 15 boys in the van. They had gone to a Manhattan hospital to pray for Menachem Schneerson, the ailing 92-year old spiritual leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch community who was undergoing minor surgery.
When the case went to trial, the judge jailed Baz for 141 years although it was only in 2007 that Baz confessed to following the van with the intent of killing them “because they were Jewish”. The southbound ramp was named after her son in 1995. The Justice Department eventually reclassified the crime as an act of terrorism, which had been in retaliation for the Cave of the Patriarchs massacre in Hebron four days earlier. American-Israeli fanatic Baruch Goldstein, a member of the far-right Israeli Kach movement, had killed 29 Muslim worshippers.
While Jews are the primary target of New York’s dramatic increase in hate crimes, Halberstam sees recent developments as, “a societal problem. It’s not a Jewish problem in particular. We’re just victim number one.” There has been a spike in overall hate crimes in New York with a record 229 anti-Semitic cases in 2019.
After the December 2019 massacre at a kosher grocery store in Jersey City, Halberstram stood beside the mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, at a press conference. “I want to thank Devorah Halberstam… there are people out there who think they can act with impunity or don’t even understand their actions. But once it is clear there are consequences, it changes the whole discussion.”
Halberstam has proved prescient before, and anti-Semitism is that dark fore-shadow that indicates fault-lines that need to be dealt with, not just for Jews but for society in general.