‘There are children who lost their father, a wife who lost her husband, and a mother who lost her son,” says author David Harris-Gershon, discussing the consequences of the bomb that ripped through a Hebrew University cafeteria in Jerusalem 11 years ago.
But he is not referring to the relations of his friends Ben and Marla, who were killed, nor to his wife Jamie, who suffered horrific injuries. He is talking about the family of Mohammed Odeh, the Hamas terrorist who carried out the attack, who was “lost” to his family by virtue of his being jailed.
If this comes as a shock, it should at least prepare you for the position Harris-Gershon adopts in his part-memoir, part-investigation, What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?
As his wife recovered from her physical injuries, the American former yeshivah student struggled to come to terms with his own guilt and paranoia at how close he came to losing her.
When doctors handed him the contorted metal nut from the bomb that had ripped through Jamie’s body, he began to wonder what had made the Palestinian perform such an atrocious act. He decided to go and see him in prison.
But he never got to Odeh. The prison authorities ruled against the visit. So, instead, he went to see Odeh’s family, who told him that Odeh would have gladly met him.
“We went back to the States and tried to rebuild our lives,” he recalls. “I became a little bit paralysed by post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms. I started to research the attack as a way to heal, that was it — it was purely selfish, purely emotional.”
And Harris-Gershon — who until that point had no interest in politics — suddenly found himself agonising over the intricacies of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before re-emerging as a budding Palestinian human rights activist.
He has been criticised for his stance ahead of the book’s publication — in Britain this week and in America next month.
“People know about my story,” he says. “I’m also active as a political writer. I have been called antisemitic and a self-hating Jew. They are efforts to delegitimise someone like myself and it’s a way of trying to shut down discussions that would open up dialogue on the situation Palestinians are undergoing.”
He ascribes his activism to “the change that happened. When I was in yeshivah and before the bombing, when it came to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict I was naive and uninformed, like most people. I was typical for an American Jew, looking at the conflict as a struggle between good and evil. Palestinians are painted as a faceless enemy — there’s no humanising. I certainly didn’t care about them at all before the bombing.”
The book reads like a Hollywood thriller as Harris-Gershon races through the Jerusalem streets in the aftermath of the attack to reach his stricken wife in hospital.
But for large tracts, Jamie’s story is overlooked as Harris-Gershon focuses on researching the bombing and recovering from his own severe post-traumatic stress.
“It’s not a typical way to try to move past something like this,” he admits. “I said to myself: ‘You weren’t in the bombing, you have no right [to act like this].’
“It took me a while to accept that I was a victim of trauma. It was selfish to try to meet him and his family. Then it became political as well.
“I have deep sympathy for the family and for his children. They were traumatised [by the attack]. The family was ripped apart to some extent. They didn’t know or approve of what he did.” Harris-Gershon, 39, has maintained contact with the Odeh family and now writes political columns about the plight of Palestinians.
“The more that Israelis and Palestinians are able to meet each other, the more Israelis are able to empathise with Palestinians, then [there is] the greater the chance that public opinion will sway towards compromise and a political solution.”
In addition to aiding his own recovery process, he hopes the book has another function: “It fits into a larger phenomenon of things that have come out, like The Gatekeepers [the film documentary about Shin Bet].
“It perhaps moves people and public opinion closer to understanding more fully what is really going on and the dire need for things to change.”
But Harris-Gershon remains resolute in his view on the punishment for Odeh, who was among the list of prisoners under consideration for release as part of the deal that freed Gilad Shalit. He remains incarcerated and Harris-Gershon is glad.
“He doesn’t deserve to be released. It’s hard to justify in any other context why someone who murdered nine people and injured 81 should be given a shorter prison sentence.”
And what has his wife made of his quest?
“This was not her process,” he accepts. “It’s not something she wanted anything to do with or be engaged in. She was distantly supportive, understood this was something I had to do, and that was it. She loves me, so… it was scary for her.”