On a hot Wednesday morning in Jerusalem 12 years ago this summer, three Jewish American graduate students sat down to eat in a cafeteria at Hebrew University. One of the women happened to bend down, her head beneath the Formica tabletop, as she reached for her workbook to do one last study session before an afternoon Hebrew class.
The bomb that went off at that moment instantly killed her two friends and seven other people (and wounded more than 80). The woman saved by that Formica table, Jamie Harris-Gershon, suffered burns over one-third of her body and spent more than a month in a burn unit in Jerusalem and an additional six months in attendant care.
David Harris-Gershon, Jamie’s husband, was at home in the couple’s Jerusalem apartment when the blast went off. Last year, he published a book about the bombing, “What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?” The onetime D.C. resident will be in Washington on Wednesday evening, talking about the book at D.C.’s Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library — his first planned public forum in the District fell through after an invitation to speak at the D.C. Jewish Community Center this year was withdrawn.
The book chronicles David
Harris-Gershon’s search for psychological closure after the bomb blast. But, more controversially, it also includes his attempt to humanize the Palestinians.
“What he chose to do is so important, which is to understand what the Palestinian narrative is here, and how such an horrific event happened,” says Rebecca Kirzner, the mid-Atlantic regional director for J Street, the grass-roots Jewish lobbying group that is bringing Harris-Gershon to Washington to speak.
Harris-Gershon tells a tale that ultimately leads to a meeting with the family of the imprisoned bomber, Mohammad Odeh, which almost everyone had told him would be not just pointless but also potentially deadly. The meeting goes off without a hitch, despite the Swiss army knife that Harris-Gershon slipped into his pocket in case his life was “on the line,” as he puts it, the sort of illogical, emotion-
laden decision that could stand as a metaphor for the entire Israeli-Arab relationship.
To get to that meeting the book ranges over a great deal of ground: Middle East history; infant sleep techniques; the psychology of guilt; and the family’s move to Adams Morgan, with both working at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, after the bombing. It also includes a taut description of anxiety (as in “an internal drawstring was suddenly pulled, and in a beat my lungs constricted”) and a poignant and cheeky description of Israel (“in essence, one large, dysfunctional family — for Jews, at least — the family that survived Nazi Germany, pogroms, and global anti-Semitism to arrive on a sliver of land where they now fight simultaneously for survival and the right to a good wireless plan.”)
Since the book’s publication last summer, however, it’s Harris-
Gershon who has become the story, a proxy for the Jewish community’s internal struggle over the meaning of free speech and three words: boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS). In a July 2012 blog post in the magazine Tikkun, which represents the “religious and spiritual Left,” Harris-Gershon announced that he had chosen to “formally endorse and embrace BDS” as the only way to stop the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.
When his book appeared 15 months later, he dutifully started making the rounds of various Jewish book festivals and literary programs, and he had been scheduled to speak at the Washington, D.C. Jewish Community Center (DCJCC) in March. That never happened.
Unknowingly, says Harris-
Gershon, he had waded into the highly charged waters of an entire movement, the BDS Movement, whose goal, most analysts believe, is the end of Israel as a majority-Jewish state. “I was ignorant about whether you could use initials to signify a concept and not a movement,” he said in a telephone interview from his home in Pittsburgh, where he teaches at a Jewish day school.
On Jan. 5, Harris-Gershon tried to clarify his original 2012 BDS post, explicitly noting that he did not “subscribe to the BDS movement or its implicit vision of a single, bi-national state.”
On Jan. 28, the head of the Washington office of the Jewish Federations of North America, William Daroff, posted on Facebook the message that “BDSers” were “outside the boundaries of legitimate discourse.” Two days later, Harris-Gershon received word from Carole Zawatsky, DCJCC’s executive director, that his invitation to speak had been withdrawn. “Maybe it’s a coincidence,” said Harris-Gershon. “But I’d be surprised. The D.C. Federation is one of the principal funders of the DCJCC.”
Daroff did not return calls seeking comment; Zawatsky offered a statement that noted the diversity of the DCJCC’s Israel-related programing, with this caveat: “[W]e are a mission-driven institution, and our community has decided that support for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel is outside the bounds of what is acceptable.”
Harris-Gershon has not been mollified.
“Nobody,” he says, “talks about the Palestinians as a people with actual feelings and struggles. . . . The DCJCC invited me explicitly because they were interested in the importance of my narrative about dialogue, and when they didn’t agree with my political views, they decided that dialogue wasn’t that important.”
T.R. Goldman is a freelance writer.