Instead of letting the man who nearly murdered his wife languish in an Israeli prison, David Harris-Gershon set out to meet him.
He needed to know why a man he would have once dismissed as a ruthless Palestinian terrorist would express remorse for his crime.
His journey ultimately led him to a profoundly new understanding of the people commonly regarded as Israel’s enemies.
It also compelled the Pittsburgh resident and Jewish studies teacher at Community Day School to write a book, “What do you Buy the Children of the Terrorist who Tried to Kill Your Wife?” — slated for general release in September.
The 313-page memoir traces Harris-Gershon’s life from his marriage to his wife, Jamie, to their time studying at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem and, tragically, to the July 31, 2002, bombing of the cafeteria in the Hebrew University student union, which killed nine people, including American students, and seriously injured 85 — 14 seriously, including Jamie.
Police later arrested an east Jerusalem man, Mohammad Odeh who was linked to a Hamas cell, for planting the shrapnel-packed bomb bag in the cafeteria.
It follows their road to recovery — not just Jamie, but Harris-Gershon. He came to realize he, too, was a victim of the attack, even though he wasn’t in the cafeteria.
Struggling with the traumatic impact of the bombing long after the couple’s return to the States, Harris-Gershon read in an Associated Press story about its perpetrator — Odeh — in which he reportedly said he was sorry for what he did.
It was that revelation that led Harris-Gershon back to Israel to try to meet Odeh, who was already serving his sentence, and to visit Odeh’s family in East Jerusalem.
He made the journey to seek, not revenge for the attack, but understanding — and reconciliation.
His meeting with Odeh never happened (Israeli officials claimed Odeh refused to meet, though his family said he wanted to), but his visit with Odeh’s family is the compelling climax to the story.
Harris-Gershon who gave an exclusive interview to the Chronicle, examines the concept of reconciliation in the book. He writes of post-Apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa in which victims put aside any desire for justice or revenge for the chance to testify about their experiences and for the perpetrators of crimes, under general amnesty, could admit what happened.
He made clear he wasn’t comparing Israel to South Africa, but he suggested that if Jews and Palestinians come together to meet and talk, then that, too, is groundwork for an eventual peace.
“For the book itself I had two dual hopes,” Harris-Gershon said. “One is just personal: It reveals how a secondary victim such as myself might confront and overcome this trauma; and the secondary is the political idea of reconciliation of Palestinians and Jews — how this type of engagement might move public opinion to peaceful reconciliation.”
In a small way, he believes that’s what happened when he met the Odehs.
“It’s clear from the meeting and dialogue that what occurred was important to both of us,” Harris-Gershon, said. “It’s important personally for healing and moving beyond this, and also from a political perspective because we share a desire for people coming together to be a more Main Street, more normative — and not a rare — occurrence.”
Odeh’s family did not know what he was planning in 2002, Harris-Gershon said.
“They’re a pretty moderate, middle class family in east Jerusalem and they would have stopped him if they had any way to know what was going on.”
In the book, he described his meeting with Odeh’s mother and brother at a comfortable home in the Silwan neighborhood. He described bringing presents to Odeh’s two young children, which provided the basis for the title.
Harris-Gershon didn’t travel to Silwan with the purpose of writing a book.
“The decision to write about it was probably something that developed in full six months after my trip to the Odeh family in east Jerusalem,” he said. “In terms of long-form narrative, it’s something that organically developed afterwards. That act of writing the book wasn’t an act of therapy, it was an act to create something beautiful out of something tragic.”
While his book has only had a limited release, Gershon-Harris, a 39-year-old Atlanta native, who has lived in Pittsburgh for four years, said the initial response to it is encouraging.
“Overwhelmingly, the responses from either side of the political spectrum have been positive — even from people with much different politics than myself,” the self-described “progressive” said.
“That’s the good part,” he continued. “The unfortunate part is the vocal minority can be very vocal. So there has been a vocal minority that has tried to delegitimize me or my politics or my book by painting them in rather unflattering lights that are baseless and unfortunate.”
Nevertheless, Harris-Gershon continues to write. He covers the Israeli-Palestinian situation, as well as other issues for in his columns for Tikkun and the Daily Klos. He also has an unpublished novel, on which he is still work
“So far, “What do you Buy the Children of the Terrorist who Tried to Kill Your Wife?” is out only in English, but Harris-Gershon hopes it will eventually find an Israeli audience.
As or the impact the book would have there, he can’t say.
“We’re exploring the possibility of a Hebrew translation and a Hebrew publisher, [so] I wouldn’t pretend to know what reaction it would get in Israel. … That’s a hard one to call.”
“What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist who Tried to Kill Your Wife,” by David Harris-Gershon, One World Publications, 2013, 313 pages, $17.95.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at email@example.com.)
SPTSD is just as real as PTSD
Before the Hebrew University bombing, which changed the life of Pittsburgh author and teacher David Harris-Gershon, and his wife Jamie — a survivor of the attack — he hadn’t heard of a disorder that affects the families of trauma victims.
Psychological trauma that debilitates victims of war and terrorist attacks — better known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — was well known, but not its cousin — secondary post- traumatic stress disorder (SPTSD).
“It wasn’t something I had any knowledge of,” Harris-Gershon said. After the bombing, one of the reasons I refused any kind of therapy to help for so long is because I didn’t view it as legitimate that I could be a victim. I didn’t give myself license to do that because I wasn’t in the bombing.
“It wasn’t untiI I started researching that I realized that journalists and spouses and secondary people involved in this can exhibit the same PTSD responses,” he added.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, post-traumatic stress disorder is “a serious potentially debilitating condition that can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a natural disaster[s], serious accident[s], terrorist incident[s], sudden death of a loved one, war, violent personal assault such as rape, or other life-threatening events.”
PTSD is commonly associated with those who directly experienced the trauma, such as soldiers in combat or, in this case, the victims, of a terrorist attack.
But there are several articles by people who say those who experience the trauma in a secondary fashion — spouses and children of victims, physicians who treat them, journalists who write about them — also display symptoms of the trauma.
“Secondary PTSD is not a psychological disorder recognized within the Diagnostics and Statistics Manual of Mental Disorders as of edition four,” reported Victoria Bass, who writes about anxiety and depression for Examiner.com. “This is not to negate from the legitimacy of Secondary PTSD or how it affects one’s life.”
Dr. Charles Figley, a psychologist and professor of social work at Tulane University, wrote in his 1995 book, “Compassion Fatigue, Coping with Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder,” that secondary traumatic stress is “the natural consequent behaviors resulting from knowledge about a traumatizing event experienced by a significant other. It is the stress resulting from helping or wanting to help a traumatized or suffering person.”
Harris-Gershon said his is probably one of the few books for general audiences that addresses SPTSD, which could help raise awareness of the disorder.
“There are very few books … in which that victimhood is explored and legitimized as part of the narrative itself,” he said. “I’m sure there are others, but I’m not aware of them.”
— By Lee Chottiner