Terrorism and Hope

09.11.13

Seeking Reconciliation with a Terrorist: A Jewish Journey

Twelve years ago, David Harris-Gershon's young wife, Jamie, was having lunch at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Frank Sinatra cafeteria when a remote-controlled bomb exploded near her table, killing two of their friends. Harris-Gershon was at home when an acquaintance called to inform him that Jamie had been “lightly injured.” Panicked, the young American careened in a taxi to Hadassah Hospital and discovered that “lightly injured” meant, in Jamie's case, a familiar face that had been rendered unrecognizable. She had second- and third-degree burns over 30 percent of her body, and internal injuries that required emergency surgery, followed by more surgeries for skin grafts.

This is the central event in Harris-Gershon's memoir, What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife? It is a story about how a great personal trauma can lead to a journey that upends long-held beliefs and ideas. The terrific thing about this book is that the author manages to tell his story without sentimentality, grandiose pronouncements, or false humility. He pulls the reader in with his unpretentious, laconic style, and with his refusal to shy away from acknowledging his own flaws.

The first half of the book deals with the physical wounds that heal and the psychic wounds that do not. It is also about two normative American Jews who grew up in a liberal suburban milieu, met at a university Hillel event, married and, in a search of a deeper understanding of their identities, came to Jerusalem to study at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies. The second half is about the author's search for reconciliation and psychic healing, culminating in a meeting in the East Jerusalem home of the family of the man who had planted the bomb that nearly killed his wife.

Written a decade after the event, Harris-Gershon's descriptions of the guilt, rage and grief he feels as he watches Jamie endure her excruciating recovery are still very immediate. As is the author's rage at those who want a piece of his grief, like the visiting American Jews on an Israel advocacy tour who show up at the hospital (he throws them out), or the landlady who offers sentimental cliches that mimic genuine feeling.

Jamie's physical wounds heal within months, but the psychic trauma takes much longer. After her release from the hospital, she cannot walk the streets of Jerusalem without flinching at every perceived danger—a municipal bus that might explode, for example. Life in the holy city has become unsustainable, so the couple returns to the United States and builds a life there. But even as Jamie actively seeks emotional recovery, Harris-Gershon becomes increasingly disturbed. He suffers from insomnia and difficulty in breathing, rage and survivor's guilt.

The catalyst for the journey to reconciliation is Harris-Gershon's discovery that Mohammad Odeh, the now-jailed man responsible for planting the bomb in the cafeteria, was the only member of his Hamas cell to express remorse. The terrorist has a name, and he has told Israeli investigators that he is sorry for what he has done. He is, realizes Harris-Gershon, a human being. The author emphasizes several times that recognizing the humanity of the terrorist does not mean he accepts the context of his crime. But he is intrigued and feels instinctively that restorative justice, which post-apartheid South Africa pioneered with its truth and reconciliation committees, is a way for him to gain some closure and healing.

The deeper he delves into research, the more Harris-Gershon finds that his generally progressive views clash with what he has been taught about Palestinians. Reading the websites of Israeli human rights NGOs like B'Tselem, he realizes that “there was a time...when I would have viewed such organizations as anti-Israel, anti-Semitic.” He did not see “Palestinians as human—they taught their children to champion martyrdom and spilled blood joyfully...” He is very aware of the supreme irony: He has come to consider Palestinian humanity because he was directly affected by Palestinian terror.

Harris-Gershon's inner journey leads to his physical journey back to Jerusalem, where he ultimately meets with the family of Muhammad Odeh after his repeated requests to visit the jailed Palestinian bomber are stonewalled by Israeli prison authorities. Many people, from a taxi driver who says he “knows the Palestinians better than they know themselves” to prominent reconciliation activists like Robi Damelin of The Forgiveness Project, warn him vociferously against meeting the family. There could be a horrible confrontation, they say. Political anger. Physical violence. Who knows?

The meeting with the family comes at the very end of the book. It is somewhat anti-climactic in its lack of drama, yet also deeply moving in its matter-of-fact description of ordinary human beings connecting over glasses of tea and affection for children. It is easy to picture the scene, as Odeh offspring tumble about playing with a plastic ball found in Harris-Gershon's bag, and the adults smile over photos of his two little girls.

This deeply moving book is not without its flaws. The transliterated Hebrew terms sprinkled here and there are often incorrect, or the pronunciation badly rendered. The device of reconstructing internal dialogues sometimes feels a bit forced or superfluous. Occasionally, I found myself skimming those italicized “Me and I” conversations. But these are minor quibbles that do not detract from an engaging reading experience that had me carrying the book with me everywhere I went until I reached the last page.

David Harris-Gershon's memoir might unsettle some, because his background is so recognizable and familiar, while the journey he chooses to take is so radical. But his self-effacing, self-aware and humble style makes it accessible and real—and thus particularly valuable. One can only hope that his book will be widely read.