Writer David Harris-Gershon began his Washington talk last week about his memoir, What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife, with a nod to what he called the elephant in the room – the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center’s January cancellation of its invitation for him to speak.
“I’m glad to be here,” he told an audience of 75 in the large atrium of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library on April 30. “I wish it could have been earlier.”
The DCJCC revoked Harris-Gershon’s invitation after it learned he publicly supports the boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel movement. His position crosses a red line of belief spelled out by the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and followed by the agencies it supports.
As he did in an earlier book stop at the Northern Virginia Jewish Community Center, before his political views were publicized, Harris-Gershon, a former teacher at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, talked to his Washington audience solely about his book and how his experience led to his belief in reconciliation between Jews and Palestinians.
But Harris-Gershon’s being placed “outside the tent” by much of the organized Jewish community was on the mind of at least one person in the audience, who asked him during the question and answer session if he still supported BDS. His answer was more nuanced than his earlier pronouncements.
“The Palestinians have a legitimate right to nonviolently oppose Israel’s policies through economic sanctions,” he said. At the same time, “I don’t support the implicit goal of the BDS movement for a binational state.”
In the face of Palestinian terrorism, “people always clamored, ‘Where is the strong, nonviolent Palestinian movement?’ You know what? It’s here? This is it.”
Harris-Gershon was a “typical normative American Jew” when he went to Israel with his wife, Jamie, in 2002, where they began graduate work for Jewish studies teachers.
In their second year there, he was alone in their Jerusalem apartment one day when the phone rang. There had been an explosion at Hebrew University. From a second phone call, he learned that Jamie had been injured and he was needed at the hospital.
A bomb had gone off in the university cafeteria, at the table next to where Jamie was sitting with two friends. The friends died instantly. Jamie survived because she happened to be leaning over at the moment of the explosion. A Palestinian from East Jerusalem had been recruited by Hamas to plant the bomb.
The couple eventually returned to the United States and Jamie continued her recovery. She recovered, but Harris-Gershon, who was teaching at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, was having problems of his own.
“I was teaching during this first year with signs of PTSD. I also had a new daughter. I was in bad shape.”
He talks about his symptoms now – he locked the toilet every night so his infant daughter couldn’t fall in – to comic effect. But therapy wasn’t helping him stop “fearing that everything in our apartment was going to kill us.”
“I just wanted to teach 11th grade Jewish studies without hyperventilating,” he said.
In frustration, he decided to find out everything he could about the bombing. “I learned the bomber had been captured by the Israelis and had expressed remorse for what he had done,” Harris-Gershon told his Washington audience. “I felt compelled to ask him why.”
The bomber, Mohammed Odeh, was in prison. But his family lived in Silwan, an
ancient neighborhood near the Western Wall. Harris-Gershon contacted them, and they invited him to visit.
To a person, everyone advised him not to go. Even the Israeli peace activists he was coming into contact with thought the idea was a dangerous mistake.
“When I said, ‘I’m going to visit the family whose son tried to kill my wife,’ everybody told me I was crazy,” he said.
Even the cabdriver who drove Harris-Gershon and an interpreter to the family’s home, had an opinion. The driver, a self-declared expert on the Palestinians, gave Harris-Gershon a warning: “Give a Palestinian your hand and he will shake it. Give him your back and he will kill you.”
Arriving at the Odeh’s front door, “I was scared. They were scared. They were taking a risk that I was coming to take revenge.”
None of anyone’s worst fears came true.
The family made two main points to their visitor: “They would have done anything to prevent what happened” and “they just want everything to end – the checkpoints, the hate.”
“I wanted them to know that there are other people interested in this conflict ending.” Harris-Gershon said. “They didn’t believe me.”
After the visit “my symptoms disappeared completely and I have no idea how.”
Harris-Gershon’s appearance was sponsored by the MLK Jr. Memorial Library, Americans for Peace Now and J Street, the latter which began looking to bring the writer to Washington after the DCJCC cancelled his appearance. He thanked the two liberal pro-Israel groups “for hosting me, despite the fact that we differ on policy.”
Ellie Dugan was one of the Charles E. Smith students who came to hear their former teacher. “He has an important story to tell,” she said.
Pat Baranek said she was on her way to a movie when she heard about Harris-Gershon. She was glad she changed her plans. “He wants people to understand that the Palestinians are people, too,” she said.