An interview with Rachel Alon-Margalit
By: Micha Keynan
On a pleasant summer night, as he was driving back to his home on Trent Street in Bethesda with his wife Dvora after a lovely evening at the Schulman’s family residence, Joe Alon could not have imagined these were the last moments of his life. When they reached home, he parked the car just as he had done every evening in the last three years. Dvora came out of the car first and approached the door. While Joe was still seated behind the wheel, an unknown assassin shot him. One of the bullets pierced his heart and ended his life. This is not another fictional story by a crafty author of detective novels. It is the true story of his family as told by Rachel, the youngest daughter of Dvora and Joe
Colonel Joe Alon was the Israeli Air Force Attaché at the Israeli Embassy in Washington from 1970 to 1973. One of the founders of the Israeli Air Force, he was a fighter pilot who established the Hazerim Air Force Base in the Negev and served as its first commander. On the night between the 30th of June and the first of July, 1973, he returned home with his wife from a farewell party for Colonel Stella Levi at another Israeli residence in Washington and was shot to death outside his house.
It is difficult to describe Dvora’s shock as she came back from the hospital without her beloved husband, knowing that her partner, the father of her daughters, will never return. Dvora was the wife of a fighter pilot who participated in perilous operations behind enemy lines, who commanded soldiers at war and was a model of courage to his men. She waited for him in different air force bases across Israel as he left for death-defying training flights and for battles. She also witnessed several times commanders knocking on other families’ doors to deliver the most devastating news to pilots’ wives. She was familiar with the sense of dread, a constant presence in the life of a fighter pilot’s wife. But even in her worst nightmares, she could not have imagined that it would be at the doorstep of her home in a quiet, pastoral American suburb, where her and her daughters’ lives would be changed forever.
On that very night, a family friend and Joe’s colleague graciously and against all odds pleaded with President Nixon to provide a plane to take the family to Israel, so that Joe could be brought to his final rest in his homeland. Following a military farewell ceremony at Andrews Air Force Base, the family, accompanied by a few representatives from the Embassy and the Pentagon, left for Israel. Rachel was not even five and a half years old when she asked her mother in wonder, “Why isn’t daddy sitting with us?”His casket, draped with the Israeli flag, was placed between the seats in the presidential plane.
When the American plane entered Israeli airspace, they could see two Israeli Phantom Jets on each side, an appropriate, dignified escort for Colonel Joe Alon’s final return home. Flying one of the jets was Avi Lanir, a war hero who soon after died in Syrian captivity.
Joe was buried in Kiryat Shaul. Eulogies were delivered by Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, the IDF Chief of Staff David Elazar and other dignitaries. In the great crowd that gathered at the funeral, many officers and generals shed tears of pain. When he delivered his eulogy, Moshe Dayan vowed that Israel would tirelessly pursue Joe’s murderers and that his sacrifice would not be in vain.
The mourning Alon family settled as planned in their home in Ramat Hasharon and tried to rebuild a normal, routine life. Rachel started first grade, Yael entered the ninth grade and Dalia, who was eighteen, joined the Air Force. She was an operations secretary in Hazerim Air Force Base, where we had lived only three years before. Dvora began volunteering in the maternity ward of a nearby hospital.
A few months after the family returned to Israel, in October 1973, the Yom Kippur War broke out. Dvora mentioned on several occasions that she felt Joe was murdered because he knew too much. What did he know? She could not tell. A few times in the US she saw him burn notes over the kitchen sink. She asked him what he was doing and he replied affectionately that it would be better for her not to know. Dvora was a strong, practical and rational woman. Rachel remembers her repeatedly saying that nothing could bring father back and that he would not have wanted them to lead unhappy lives.
Dvora tried, as much as she could, to learn about the progress of the investigation from her many acquaintances in key leadership positions in Israel. She was certain that the Israelis were doing their utmost to reach the truth of the matter. Her inquiries were gently but assertively refused again and again. Every door she tried to open was shut close. In 1974, Dvora went to the US hoping to follow the investigation there but she returned to Israel empty handed. She realized that the Israeli state and its institutions did not want to share the details of the investigation with her. Just as she had learned to accept the gaping hole in her heart left by her husband’s loss, she also learned to accept the fact that she might never know who killed Joe and why. Dvora died of cancer in 1995. After her death her daughters found a box hidden in her basement. The box contained articles from the Israeli press documenting Henry Kissinger’s numerous diplomatic visits to the Middle East in the early 1970s.
In 2004, 30 years after their father’s murder, Alon’s daughters, submitted a petition to the Israeli High Court of Justice with the help of attorney Eliad Shraga. In the petition they demanded to be granted access to all the investigation material from Israel and the US. They decided on this move only after their repeated letters, meetings with former and current officials and other efforts to learn about the progress of the investigation had been frustrated. No one would tell them about the results of the investigation, whether the Israeli and the American authorities coordinated their efforts or whether there were any leads on possible motives or suspects. Only after countless rejections, excuses and unsatisfactory answers, the family decided to seek legal action.
This was not an easy step. The Israeli Air Force family embraced and supported Dvora and her daughters since Joe’s murder. Past and present Air Force commanders were close friends of the family, people who later became ministers and heads of ministries were frequent, welcome guests in their home over the years. During Dvora’s last years, as she was dying of cancer, they nursed her and devoted all of their time and strength to help her fight her last battle against the disease.. After she passed away and following a long process of recuperation, They felt that they were strong enough to wage a new battle. They were united in their conviction, which they had received from their mother, that it was better to know the truth and try to uncover why Joe was murdered and who killed him, than to continue to live in the dark.
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All three of the girls had by now academic degrees, they were married, had children, and led very busy lives. But the open questions about their father’s death did not relent. They believed that they deserved to know the details of the investigation, that it was their fundamental right and that the state should not withhold this information. Worried that people might think they were simply looking for publicity, they decided to pursue a legal recourse only after all their other efforts had been frustrated. It was no surprise to them that some thought their pursuit of the truth so many years after the murder was odd, but even some of their family friends wondered why they wanted to dig up answers that could potentially compromise Joe’s legacy.
The High Court of Justice ruled in their favor. The Israeli authorities were required to provide them with all the investigation material and to request from the American authorities any documents they had from their own investigation of the murder. The Israeli records that were given to them, however, were scant. They fitted into one brown folder that they were permitted to view at the IDF archive but could not take out due to concerns about information security. When they saw the file, they were deeply saddened but also angry and frustrated by how little information the authorities had compiled.
Many months after the Court’s decision, they were invited to the Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv where they were handed five brown boxes with photocopied documents. For the first time, they had in their hands all the information from the FBI investigation. Anxious, they began to read the documents. There were pages upon pages of type-written documents but many of the paragraphs were covered with white rectangular blocks and next to them the numbers of the US law articles justifying their censoring. As they were not experts on international investigations but rather the daughters of the victim, trying to uncover the truth about the most tragic event of their lives, they could not process the information themselves. They could not make out what was important and what was not; they could not guess why some parts were censored while others appeared in great detail. They felt that they did not have the tools to study the material they had. Even though they felt a great satisfaction, having realized a part of their mother’s unwritten will to them, they still wanted to take the information to someone who could help them decipher it and perhaps finally give them some answers.
They were suspicious of the Israeli authorities that had done so much to discourage their pursuit of the truth. Who could they turn to? They sought the advice of professional investigators but they could not afford the fees they requested.
In the meantime, the pile of FBI boxes was a constant testament to their helplessness.
Shortly after they received the boxes, Aharon Klein, the TIME reporter in Israel, gave Rachel a call. He was writing a book about the Munich Olympics massacre and the subsequent reprisals by the Israeli secret service and Palestinian terrorist organizations. He wanted to interview Rachel because he was certain Joe’s murder was a part of that tumultuous period. Like many others, he also subscribed to the theory that Joe was murdered by Arab terrorists in the US. Following several meetings, Klein told Rachel that an investigator had contacted him through his US based publishers and had asked if he knew Joe Alon’s story and his family members. That investigator was Fred Burton.
Fred called the daughters a few days later. Slowly, they developed a genuine, strong and warm bond of friendship and trust with this man who they at first thought was a strange American “obsessed” with the case. It was a privilege to help Fred as much as they could with family details and information about the man whose murder changed the trajectory of Fred’s life.
The findings of Fred Burton’s inquiry appear in his book Chasing Shadows. The book follows the murder and the mystery surrounding its investigation and will be published by Palgrave Macmillan on April 12, 2011.
In July 1973, Burton was 16 years old. The murder that took place in his peaceful neighborhood, where the Alon family lived at the time, unsettled him and changed the course of his life. The book tells not only of Joe Alon the pilot and family man, but also of Joe the high ranking Israeli military official with intelligence ties. Despite the FBI investigation, his murderer was never found and the case was closed. In 2007, the case was reopened by a State Department special agent for counterterrorism, Fred Burton. The book describes his pursuit of the murderer as he tries to give answers to a family tormented by three decades of uncertainty. The reading experience leaves one breathless. It is a thriller rich in details, theories, and unsettling descriptions of the abuse of power around the globe. It is a fascinating tale of agents, double agents, terrorists and heroes that Burton chases across the world in his efforts to solve the decades old murder mystery. It is not another imaginative, fictional thriller; this is the true story of the Alon family.
Fred Burton’s book Chasing Shadows
Rachel was not even five and a half years old when her father was murdered, loss and longing have been a part of her life ever since. Her father was different from other fathers, he was absent. Since she can remember herself, she has always felt like she was missed out. Everyone who knew him would always say, “What a wonderful father he was, it is a shame you never knew him.” He was never there on important days - when Rachel started the first grade or when she celebrated her elementary school graduation, her bat mitzvah, joining the army, finishing officers’ training, college graduation, her wedding, her first child’s birth, the baby’s first tooth – but he was painfully missed during these milestone occasions. From 1973 and until her last day, his death anniversary will always be a part of Rachel calendar; there will always be this one sad day on the calendar. It would have been so wonderful to sit together with her Dad, share a beer, have a father-daughter dance, instead of this painful story she carry with her.