Brooklyn BookBeat: New book explores the road to reconciliation
By Samantha Samel
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
When David Harris-Gershon’s wife Jamie was severely injured in the 2002 bombing at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, he was devastated, confused and angry. The two friends with whom his wife had been sitting were killed instantly, and Jamie was thrown across the room, her body burned and sliced with shrapnel. In a desperate attempt to alleviate his secondary trauma, Harris-Gershon resolved to confront the incident by investigating it.
In his new book “What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?” published this past September by Oneworld Publications, Harris-Gershon chronicles his path to reconciliation. The author will appear in Brooklyn to discuss his book on Thursday, Oct. 24 at Park Slope's Congregation Beth Elohim.
Harris-Gershon's path to reconciliation began when he learned about the identity of the Palestinian man who had placed the bomb next to his wife: Mohammed Odeh had been raised in a middle-class family and had two children. He also learned that upon being captured by Israeli police, Odeh uttered the words “I’m sorry.”
Those words – “I’m sorry” – compelled Harris-Gershon to visit Odeh’s family in East Jerusalem. “Not out of revenge,” he explains, but “out of desperation.”
In anticipation of Harris-Gershon's Brooklyn appearance, Brooklyn Eagle spoke to the author. He speaks to us about his experience meeting the Odeh family and his choice to pursue reconciliation rather than revenge.
Was Odeh's family receptive to your visit, and were they ashamed or supportive of Mohammed's actions?
When the Odeh family learned that I wished to meet with them – that I had no desire for revenge, but rather reconciliation – the family invited me to their home, despite being wary about my true intentions. And during our intense meeting, during which I was treated like an honored guest, one of the first things that Mohammad's mother told me was that the family had no idea Mohammad was involved with Hamas, and that they would have done anything to stop him if they had only known.
This is a moderate, middle-class family which was deeply traumatized by Mohammad's actions. Now, some more cynical than I have suggested that the family merely told me what I wanted to hear. However, when I began researching the attack, I found an article in which Odeh family members were interviewed by Israeli reporters in the attack's immediate wake. All of them could not believe Mohammad was involved, and accused Israel of framing Mohammad.
As the victim of a terrorist attack on a close family member, your reaction could have ranged from hatred of Palestinians or Arabs in general to finding common humanity by trying to understand what could have driven someone to commit this act. Were you ever tempted by the former? …Why did you eventually arrive at the latter path?
When we returned to the States, I became paralyzed by PTSD-like symptoms – hyperventilating in public, unable to sleep. When therapy didn't bring relief, I chose to confront the attack as a way to overcome it. And in doing so, I learned in an AP article that Mohammad had unprecedentedly expressed remorse to Israeli authorities upon his capture in 2002. And when I saw those words, "I'm sorry," I knew that I needed to try and procure a meeting with him. Not out of revenge, but out of a desperate attempt to heal. And it was this motivation that originally sparked my intense research – reading about Palestinian history and culture – as a way to understand Mohammad and the context from which he came.
I was never, at any point, tempted by revenge. Indeed, as this personal process for reconciliation stretched on, the personal and political merged together. A merger that I embraced fully.
Do you have any interest in connecting with the families of innocent Palestinians who have been severely injured or lost their lives in the conflict, such as with the organization The Parents Circle-Families Forum (PCFF)?
I have been in touch with some connected to The Bereaved Families Forum (otherwise known as PCFF); however, I am so fortunate in that Jamie miraculously survived. While I suffered in different ways, I did not lose a loved one, as most who meet in this context have.
You have been criticized for "humanizing" the perpetrator of the attack that nearly killed your wife, even being called anti-semitic or a self-hating Jew. Are you personally hurt by such accusations, and do you believe they deserve a response?
I first want to say that the overwhelming majority of responses to my book have been beautiful and positive. However, there have been a vocal, extremist minority who have painted me as anti-Semitic or a self-hating Jew for my journey. Of course, such labels are merely misguided attempts to delegitimize the book and shut down dialogue.
While such accusations don't hurt me personally, they are infuriating for two reasons. First, they are used by those who view the conflict as a zero-sum game – a view which itself is destructive and inhibits political resolutions. Second, calling people like me anti-Semitic dilutes and cheapens what is a very real and, still, very dangerous prejudice.
Did this horrific incident lead you to study the conflict more deeply than you had previously, and what were the most surprising things you discovered?
It did. I'm embarrassed to say that, before the attack, I was like most American Jews in that I knew virtually nothing about Palestinians, other than that they were a caricature of evil. After the attack, I began reading voraciously about the conflict – reading both Palestinian and Jewish historians – to get a fuller understanding of the conflict and the experience of suffering on both sides.
The Oct. 24 event will begin at 7:30 p.m. Congregation Beth Elohim is located at 274 Garfield Place in Park Slope.