On Tuesday, I got an e-mail from the Washington DC Jewish Community Center: The JCC was refunding me for a ticket I had purchased to an event in its “Authors Out Loud” series. I had paid to hear David Harris-Gershon, whose memoir, “What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?,” traces his emotional journey following his wife’s serious injury in a Jerusalem bombing. Ultimately, Harris-Gershon sought reconciliation with Mohammad Odeh, the imprisoned Palestinian man responsible for the remote-controlled bomb, and his memoir describes his experience meeting the Odeh family.
I was moved by the story — mostly because, as one review noted, Harris-Gershon’s “background is so recognizable and familiar, while the journey he chooses to take is so radical.” I bought a ticket to the talk because I wanted to learn more about this journey. I wanted to ask whether Harris-Gershon’s mind-set about Palestinian society had changed gradually or all at once. I wanted to hear about what sort of resistance he encountered from his Jewish community as his perspective changed and he began to seek reconciliation with the perpetrator of such a bloody attack.
Thanks to the JCC, I know what Jewish resistance to Harris-Gershon looks like. And it’s ostensibly unrelated to his memoir. Instead, the resistance focuses on a blog post Harris-Gershon wrote advocating boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel.
When I called the JCC to ask why I was getting a refund, I was told Harris-Gershon’s talk had been canceled. “The DC JCC has a policy that we do not do events with people who have endorsed BDS,” associate executive director Joshua Ford told me. Apparently the JCC had wanted to hear about Harris-Gershon’s harrowing experience in Israel — until it found out that he had drawn the wrong conclusions from it.
The University of California at Santa Barbara’s chapter of the Jewish campus organization Hillel also canceled a talk by Harris-Gershon last month because of his political views: “The notion of bringing a speaker . . . who had prominently connected himself with boycotting or divesting or sanctioning Israel was disturbing to our students,” its executive director told the newspaper Forward.
(In his initial post, Harris-Gershon did a poor job of distinguishing between BDS as a tactic and BDS as a movement. He later clarified that he supports the strategy of BDS but self-identifies as a progressive Zionist who does not “subscribe to the BDS movement or its implicit vision of a single, bi-national state as a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”)
Ford told me the JCC’s decision was made “with all due respect.” Okay, but why would a Jewish group that respects Harris-Gershon refuse to let him speak? It seems JCC leaders haven’t considered the unique perspective that Harris-Gershon can bring in speaking not only of his own experience but also of what he’s learned from it.
I don’t think American Jews — privileged to be able to reflect on Harris-Gershon’s experience and to think about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from afar — can take our privilege and then hide our heads in the sand, refusing to look at the ugly mechanics of conflict and resistance. We can’t read this memoir as a nice little story about a guy who fostered peace in a faraway place and then disengage.
Harris-Gershon met the family of a man who chose violence as a path toward resistance: “He broke,” one of Odeh’s brothers tells the author during their climactic meeting. “We would have stopped him if we knew,” Odeh’s mother says. The members of the Odeh family whom Harris-Gershon meets reject violence. Yet they, too, must be subjected to the pressures that “broke” their son, brother, father. What are they to do?
Among us, Harris-Gershon — a man whose family survived a Palestinian terrorist bombing — is uniquely qualified to discuss nonviolent resistance as an alternative to bloody attacks. Finding peace will be ugly because war is ugly. David Harris-Gershon knows this; he has experienced it firsthand. And it’s our privilege and our responsibility to hear him out.
We need writers like Harris-Gershon at our Jewish community centers to tell us what life is like beyond the Green Line, in the areas Israel controls but doesn’t quite claim as its own. We also need to discuss how we might fix the problems inherent in such a situation. The D.C. JCC has an obligation to me, to my peers and to my entire community to let all kinds of Jews in, especially those who challenge us with informed perspectives.
Sharon Jacobs is a journalist who lives in the District.