David Harris-Gershon’s memoir What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife? pivots around a deadly bombing at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University in 2002 where the author and his wife, Jamie, both Americans, were then studying ancient Jewish texts.
Jamie was at the university’s cafeteria with two of their friends when the bomb went off. Her life was spared as she happened to reach down to pick up a book from the floor when the bomb went off, the formica tabletop shielding her from the force that killed her friends.
Though the book may appear to be about Israel and the Palestinians or Jewish identity and the conflict (and indeed these are major themes of the book), the heart of Harris-Gershon’s memoir is his processing of the traumatic event.
In the months immediately after the bombing, Harris-Gershon’s auto-pilot focus was on his wife’s excruciatingly painful recovery (30 percent of her body was covered in second- and third-degree burns). The bombing was something that “just happened,” causing neither grief nor anger, but only guilt as Harris-Gershon “knew about the dangers all along” but had withheld them from Jamie, not wanting to disrupt their graduate studies.
Once the pair were able to return to the US, where they started a family, Jamie embarked on her own psychological recovery and moved on with her life. Meanwhile, Harris-Gershon became ruled by his own severely disruptive symptoms.
The psychotherapy techniques that worked for Jamie were not enough for Harris-Gershon. He eventually realized that he had to write about what happened: “This was all I had left — a sense that only through storytelling, I could reclaim myself.”
During his research of the bombing, Harris-Gershon came across an Associated Press report stating that the bomber, a Palestinian from the Silwan neighborhood of occupied East Jerusalem named Mohammed Odeh, had expressed remorse for the deaths of those he killed.
This, coupled with news reports that Odeh’s horrified family expressed disbelief that he had committed the act, compelled Harris-Gershon to acknowledge Odeh’s humanity, and that of the Palestinian people as a whole, whom he came to recognize that he had only viewed as the enemy in a zero-sum game.
Earlier in his memoir Harris-Gershon gives an anecdote illustrating the inhumanity of this viewpoint. While walking to the hospital where Jamie was being treated, he callously walked by a Palestinian man who had collapsed and obviously needed medical attention.
Harris-Gershon writes: “And so the irony: being personally affected by the inhumane brutality of Palestinian terror — of this murderous element woven into the outer fringes of their social fabric by ideological extremists — forced me to consider Palestinians’ humanity.”
This led Harris-Gershon to the history stacks at the library, where he read about the Palestinian narrative of Israel’s founding in 1948, coming to the understanding that the Palestinians were the victims of colonization and occupation for more than a hundred years.
Harris-Gershon eventually sets out to meet Odeh in an Israeli prison, but is frustrated by dishonest and uncooperative Israeli authorities, and so his moment of reconciliation would come during a meeting with Odeh’s family in Silwan.
Throughout the book, Harris-Gershon weaves his personal experience with political analysis; the political theater leading up to the Hebrew University bombing aptly presented as a play in five acts.
However, the enlightened Harris-Gershon’s analysis is still plagued by mythology, often discussing what he acknowledges to be a settler-colonial conflict as a religious one. When the author conflates the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians as “a bloody sibling rivalry” between Muslims and Jews, one gets the impression that Harris-Gershon knows his audience of fellow liberal Jews, and has watered down his analysis for their sake.
Harris-Gershon’s morally inconsistent use of the term “terrorist” is also worth mentioning; Palestinians who target Israeli civilians are labeled as such but not Israeli commanders like Ariel Sharon, who was Israel’s defense minister during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon which claimed the lives of 20,000 Lebanese and Palestinans (mostly civilians), and whose forces looked on as their Lebanese proxies butchered 2,000 defenseless Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.
This is certainly not the book for political analysis on Israel and the Palestinians, yet Harris-Gershon does offer a keen insight. He writes about psychological studies of Israelis and Palestinians which demonstrate a “zero-sum game perception — the perception that each side can profit only to the extent that the other side loses, that there is no possibility of an agreement that would leave both sides better off.”
Harris-Gershon adds: “When there was a fear that Israel could be destroyed, when the threat-perception was near zero-sum regarding the group, there was little motivation for compromise with Palestinians. However, and this is the really interesting part, fear for personal safety had absolutely no relationship to such resistance in our study. Israeli Jews who expressed fear for personal safety were just as likely to support compromise solutions.”
In other words, there was a correlation between the ideological construct of the state and uncompromising fear which impedes the possibility to “envision a situation in which both sides can reconcile for the good of everyone,” dependent on “the perception that there is a possible future in which both groups are better off.”
This zero-sum perception is seemingly manifested in the attitudes Harris-Gershon meets when he returns to Jerusalem to meet the Odeh family. He is warned by Israeli Jews who boast expertise on Palestinian society who say that no good could possibly come out of the meeting, and a rabbi who actually issues a religious decree that Harris-Gershon may break the Sabbath by using a phone after the meeting so his friends know he wasn’t harmed.
Meanwhile, the Odeh family, though nervous, welcome him into their home and would repeatedly ask their peace activist intermediary about Harris-Gershon, extending an open invitation for him to visit again.
There is plenty of beauty and humor in Harris-Gershon’s brisk page-turner, as well as some brutal confessions; prior to his process, he had thought of Palestinians as monsters, something to be feared.
It is incredibly sad that it was only after a major trauma that scarred his wife and killed his friends that Harris-Gershon questioned his assumptions about Palestinians and was able to overcome his fears and prejudices.
But What Do You Buy doesn’t claim to make any prescription toward wider reconciliation between Palestinians and Israeli Jews, nor is it an interrogation of Zionism; this book’s value is in Harris-Gershon’s personal experience demonstrating humanity’s capacity for reconciliation, despite its extreme flaws.
Maureen Clare Murphy is managing editor of The Electronic Intifada.