What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist
Who Tried to Kill Your Wife? A Memoir
By David Harris-Gershon
Every once in a while, a book comes along that captures the personal and emotional side of politics with the raw honesty that makes politics worth fighting for – or worth making peace for.
David Harris-Gershon’s What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife? A Memoir is not for the faint of heart. Nor is it for cynics. Though, perhaps, paradoxically, it is precisely for both.
Harris-Gershon takes us through the horrifying weeks following the 2002 bombing of the cafeteria in the Frank Sinatra International Student Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where his wife, Jamie, was lunching with friends before an exam. The American Jewish couple had arrived in Israel two years earlier to study at Pardes, the liberal Yeshiva in Jerusalem, before going on to pursue graduate studies at the Hebrew University.
As the second intifada was heating up, David and Jamie had made a conscious decision to avoid taking buses. They lived in a state of alert, a state of mind which ultimately could not inure them to the will of a lone, murderous bomber – a Palestinian from East Jerusalem.
Harris-Gershon’s detailing of the events is both above politics – his detailing of the capri pants Jamie was wearing is searing – and very much wrapped up in it. He lingers on the ceasefire agreement that nearly took hold before Israel allegedly launched a targeted assassination in the days leading up to the Hebrew University attack.
The act of terrorism, the fear it engenders, and the grieving it forces – two of their friends were among the nine killed in the blast – is only the beginning of David’s journey. Back at home in the United States, David begins to research the bombing. His discovery of a reported statement of contrition by the bomber puts him on an obsessive search to meet the man who tried to murder his wife.
David’s search leads him into the maze of Israel Prison Service bureaucracy, through to peace activists, and well-meaning academics. Ottawa readers who happened to attend the talk some months ago by Mordechai Kedar at Agudath Israel Congregation will be intrigued to discover that he, too, ends up playing a role.
Harris-Gershon reveals that a personal search such as this one is intrinsically embedded in a larger story.
“And here then was the definition of irony: becoming a victim, becoming a footnote to a footnote in the history of Jewish suffering, led me to consider for the first time the history of Palestinians, the history of those who were ostensibly responsible for our becoming footnotes,” he writes.
The writing is crisp, honest and vulnerable, with the personal narrative interwoven with a decent degree of overview into some of the issues animating Israeli-Palestinian relations. (There are endnotes for those who are inclined.) A particularly illuminating segment involves Harris-Gershon engaging an article on the psychological dynamics of fear and reconciliation as he flies overseas to pursue his mission of trying to meet the family. One realizes that the role of an outsider – a Diaspora Jew who becomes an unwitting insider due to an act of violence – is a precarious place indeed, if one hopes to enact political change.
Is this a book about peace? Certainly, it is a book about possibilities. David is realistic that his quest to encounter the Other is an act of activism that sits on the margins, at best, of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Ultimately, it is a book about human experience, about the transformative possibilities of empathy, about trauma and identity, about seeking normalcy out of shock and about perceptions and misconceptions.