In December 2021, Lili Ben Ami sat in Jerusalem District Court awaiting the the sentencing of Eliran Malul, convicted in the aggravated murder of Ben Ami’s sister and his wife, Michal Sela, in 2019. After arguments were presented, the judges announced their verdict: Life in prison.
“I can’t say that I’m breathing easily now, but at least I’m breathing,” recounts Ben Ami. “I feel like I’ve just completed a grueling two-year journey that was rife with upheaval and unknowns.
“There were so many unrelentingly difficult moments, and each time we would learn a painful bit of information, it was like we were being punched in the stomach. My mother had to testify in court, and the children would ask me all sorts of questions that I had no idea how to answer.
“We’ve survived the first chapter, but there is so much we’ll need to overcome in the future, such as the possibility that the perpetrator might appeal the verdict. Most people convicted of murder appeal in an attempt to shorten their prison term, since they have nothing to lose by trying. Right now, we need to focus on taking care of their daughter.”
According to the indictment against Malul, on October 3, 2019, while at their residence in Ramat Motza, he hit Sela, then dragged her from their baby daughter’s room and stabbed her 11 times with a knife. Malul then remained at the scene of the murder with his daughter and his wife’s body for 17 hours. In addition to a sentence of life imprisonment, Malul was ordered to pay NIS 258,000 – the maximum compensation – to his daughter.
In an effort to memorialize her sister, Ben Ami founded a nonprofit called the Michal Sela Forum, whose aim is to save lives and prevent domestic violence through technological means. Ben Ami is currently serving as CEO of the forum.
“I would like to thank all the people who supported us through this challenging period from the bottom of my heart,” said Ben Ami, “including the Office of the State Attorney, the Justice Department, Attorney Ruti Eldar, as well as all the volunteers from the Michal Sela Forum.
“There’s no way we would have been able to get through this difficult time without their endless support. They’ve helped us keep our heads high, stand up straight, and also lend a hand to other women who have also been subjected to domestic violence.”
During the evidence hearing, Ben Ami was asked to describe what it has been like for her and the rest of the family – including Michal’s daughter – since the murder took place.
“I was asked to put into words the pain and hardships we’ve faced since Michal was murdered,” Ben Ami explains. “I read out the statement I’d written, which recounted a few moments of what our lives have been like, including the many times when her daughter wakes up in the middle of the night calling ‘Mommy! Mommy!.’
“My sister Liat, who is raising her now, gets up and goes to her, hugging her and trying to calm her down. But the poor girl just wants her mother. During the day she has no problem calling Liat ‘mommy’ and Yarden ‘daddy,’ but when she wakes up in the middle of the night, they cannot replace her real mother.”
BEN AMI recalls how she took advantage of the setting in the courthouse to share some of her thoughts with and speak directly to Malul. “Your entire being reeks of desolation. Just because your soul is vile, why did you have to take such a pure soul away from us? You are weak and I will never forgive you.”
She describes how surreal it felt to be standing just two meters from Malul in the small courtroom. “This was the first time I was able to speak directly to him since the murder took place,” Ben Ami recalls.
“The judges had exited the room, and we remained there, with the policemen and the attorneys. At first, I just sat there quietly. But then I decided to tell him what I felt. His lawyer told him not to respond to me. I felt a tiny bit of relief after telling him what had been bottled up inside of me for so long.
“I feel so much pain. There are still mornings when I wake up and cannot believe that I have to go on living without Michal. After I was brought into the little room to view her body before the burial, I was led to a Zaka car where a haredi man handed me a gold ring and told me, ‘Here, take this – it was Michal’s.’
“I felt so conflicted holding it. On the one hand it was Michal’s, and I wanted to feel close to her, but it was given to her by him.
“On the one hand, when I think about Michal and what a good person she was, my heart feels like bursting. Then my brain takes me back to what that evil man did to her. It’s like there are these two extremes. We need to be strong and healthy and not let that snake of a man get under our skin.
“We are a very close family, and we all support each other, especially Liat and Yarden who’ve taken it upon themselves to raise Michal’s daughter – she has become their fourth child. Some families fall apart when tragedies like this befall them. We’ve chosen to become even closer one to another.
“We understand all too well how fragile life is, and how important it is to be there for each other. Michal would not want us to cry for her – she would want us to smile and be happy and have good lives. In the forum, we’re always telling each other, ‘Michal is with us now, Michal is helping us remain strong.’ When something goes well, we say, ‘Michal helped arrange this positive outcome.’”
MICHAL’S DAUGHTER, who is almost three, recently visited her mother’s grave.
“The kids in our family have asked us how Michal died, and it just breaks my heart trying to figure out an age-appropriate way to explain that she was murdered,” Ben Ami says sadly.
“So, we sat down with the kids to talk about it, and decided that we’d bring them – including Michal’s daughter – to the cemetery for the first time. We helped them pick out a stone they thought was pretty or a branch to lay down on the gravestone. Michal’s daughter also brought a drawing she’d made, and a toy she’d chosen to place on the grave.”
Ben Ami uses all her energy to run the Michal Sela Forum. “My father sometimes says that none of this activity will bring her back to us, but he also sees how wonderful it is to help other people. This activity helps my parents gain the strength to go on.
“I was invited to speak at the UN in Geneva on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, and also in Belgrade. This was the first time that my mother asked to join our public activism efforts.
“At the UN, they were very interested in hearing about Israel’s Guardianship Law [the law that was enacted in Israel a year ago that denies guardianship to a parent accused of violence and sexual offenses against family members] and the Michal Sela Forum. The meeting we had in Belgrade was with a hi-tech company, where we discussed how various technological advances could be utilized by the forum.
“Upon returning home, my mother told me, ‘This is the first time I’ve felt a moment of happiness since Michal was murdered.’ Carrying out this public service has added meaning to our lives, which I thought were ruined forever.
“It’s very therapeutic. I’ve received hundreds of messages from women telling me that we’ve saved their lives. I forward these messages to my family WhatsApp group so everyone can see how we are having an impact on other women who’ve also fallen on hard times.”
If Michal could hear you now, what would you say to her?
“Well, actually, I still talk to Michal all the time. She is always with me. If she were here, I’d hug her and tell her that we’re all fine, and that we’re taking good care of her daughter, that she should rest in peace and not worry about us.
“I’d tell her how wonderful her daughter is, and what a beautiful, smart and loving young girl she is turning into. That she is loved and is having a happy childhood just like Michal had.
“I would hug her again and tell her that we are strong and love her very much, and that we know she had no idea that something so awful could ever occur.” ■
Translated by Hannah Hochner.