On July 31, 2002, a Hamas operative placed a suitcase bomb in a cafeteria in Jerusalem's Hebrew University, killing nine people. The location was chosen because of the school's population of American students. David Harris-Gershon and his wife, Jamie, were two such students. Jamie suffered burns and shrapnel wounds but survived. David wasn't in the cafeteria at the time, but afterward experienced anxiety and insomnia that psychotherapy could not relieve. Desperate and inspired by South Africa's post-apartheid reconciliation process, he took the unusual measure of returning to Jerusalem to meet the family of the bomber.
Now a writer, speaker and private-school teacher who lives in Squirrel Hill, he recounts the process in the new memoir What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife? (Oneworld Publications). Harris-Gershon — who also won last year's Moth GrandSLAM storytelling contest — recently spoke with CP.
You admit there are gaps in your own memories of that time. How did that affect your approach to writing?
I tried to recall everything as best I could. From the moment I saw my wife in the emergency room, I emotionally shut down. Admittedly, there are things that are hazy from everything being surreal and the traumatic impact. I was trying to deal with the after-effects, the PTSD symptoms, when I came back to the States. One of the things I was required to do in therapy was reconstruct every memory I had. While, psychologically, those methods didn't really help, they did reconstruct the chronology.
What role did your research into the attack and Israeli/Palestinian relations play in your healing?
When we came back to the States, I was paralyzed by my PTSD symptoms and the therapy didn't do anything to help, so I decided to learn everything I could about the attack, as a way of trying to move on from it. I found that Mohammed Odeh, the man who had placed the bomb in the cafeteria next to my wife, expressed remorse upon his capture. When I learned that he had done that, it upended everything I suspected or would have thought about the kind of person who would do this. I realized the only possible way I could understand him better, and Palestinians better, was to go back to Israel and perhaps try to confront him about why he had done that.
What impact did your sit-down with Odeh's family have on them long term? Are you still in contact?
Very sporadically, I will send hellos through the translator. We're not in any substantive contact. The children really didn't know who I was when I visited. They were too young. It was more important to both myself and the rest of the family — his wife, mother and brothers, who invited me. This was a middle-class family in East Jerusalem who had no idea what Mohammed was doing [or] that he was involved in Hamas, and would have stopped him if they had known. This was a family who was also traumatized because they had lost a son and a brother. I know we both viewed this as something that was personally important to us, and we understood the small political ramifications of us meeting.
Would you recommend that kind of meeting to victims of violent crime and their families?
I wouldn't tell anyone what they should or shouldn't do. I do think it is important for Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Muslims, to get to know each other. That would help any reconciliation and compromise. There are groups that bring Israelis and Palestinians who lost someone in the conflict together as a way of making something politically productive out of that, and I think that's essential if things are going to change.
You wanted to meet with Odeh himself but he wouldn't see you. Do you still want to meet him?
My original motivation was to relieve the post-traumatic stress I was feeling. My meeting with the family did that. I don't know how and I don't know why, but meeting with the family relieved the symptoms I was feeling. In that sense, I don't have a motivation to meet with him. But if I got word today from the Israeli prison service that I was able to meet Mohammed, I would probably be unable not to go.
You mention in the book being handed a little piece of metal pulled from your wife's intestines. Do you still have it?
I do, and it's in a backpack, in the same pocket I put it in a week after I received it. It's not something I examine or take out regularly, but I have it.
And it's in your home in Squirrel Hill?
It's just in a closet.