What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Aaron Schachter: In 2002, a Palestinian man walked into a Hebrew University cafeteria in Jerusalem and left a backpack stuffed with explosive nails and bolts on a table. The explosion that ripped through the building killed nine people. David Harris-Gershon's wife Jamie, then a graduate student, was among those severely injured. After months of care, she recovered and the couple returned to the US where they tried to grapple with what had happened to them. David Harris-Gershon has written a book about the experience. It's called "What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife." In the first chapter he describes his struggle to reunite with his wife at a Jerusalem hospital on the day of the bombing.

David Harris-Gershon: I was able to somehow push through the emergency doors where a lot of family members were trying to reach loved ones who'd been injured. And I was brought before my wife, who when I saw her, I did not recognize her. And then the moment she spoke I realized that it was her.

Schachter: You didn't recognize her because of her injuries.

Gershon: That's correct. She had first degree burns and I just didn't recognize her at the moment.

Schachter: Two of your wife's friends who were sitting with her at the table in the cafeteria at Hebrew University were killed instantly. Any indication of your wife survived?

Gershon: The bomb was placed in a backpack right on the table next to them. And my wife apparently was reaching below the table trying to get something out of her backpack to study for a test and it was at that moment that the bomb went off, so we believe that just be pure chance this is how she survived.

Schachter: After what must have felt like a long time, your wife recovers from her wounds. You both come back to the United States to settle down. You move on with your life. You have two kids, you get a teaching job, then all the sudden, or so it seems, you make the decision to meet the bomber, Mohamed Odeh.

Gershon: When I came back to the states I actually began suffering from PTSD-like symptoms. I was hyperventilating in the classroom while I was teaching and I was an insomniac at night. I tried therapy and it didn't help and I tried compartmentalizing it and it didn't help, so I decided to confront the attack in order to overcome it psychologically. And when I did, I learned that the terrorist, Mohamed Odeh, he had expressed remorse to the Israeli police. When I saw those words "I'm sorry" instinctively I understood that I needed to go back and try to either meet him or try to understand why or how this could have happened.

Schachter: Was there a period of time when you were just plain angry?

Gershon: The only moment when I was angry was the moment when I read in the AP article that Mohamed Odeh has expressed remorse to the Israeli authorities. And I don't know where the anger came from, but it was the first moment where I put a face to what happened. And it was in that moment where I think I was just enraged that somebody could do something like this and then express remorse. It was confusing and it was difficult to reconcile personally.

Schachter: And what did you make of Palestinians and their cause before the bombing?

Gershon: Well, I'm embarrassed to admit that before the attack I really viewed Palestinians as nothing but a caricature of evil. This is basically what I was taught growing up and what American media I think has really portrayed Palestinians as. Ironically, this encounter with this terrorist attack actually opened me up to understanding the full realities of both sides.

Schachter: Okay, so you try to meet Mohamed Odeh. He's in prison, but his parents and his siblings respond to a letter that you write, and they invite you to their residence in Silwan, which is a neighborhood of Jerusalem. And what was that like for you going into their home?

Gershon: I was frightened. I mean it was brave I think on their part to invite me. They didn't know exactly what my intentions were. I had a letter that was delivered to them by human rights activists. And when they read that I just wanted to come, and understand them and meet them, they invited me, but I had to go with somebody who they knew really well, who they trusted to make sure that I didn't have ill intentions. And I myself was terrified, to be quite honest. I had never done anything like this before. When I met them, the moment that I stepped into their home I felt nothing but relief because it was warm. They were friendly. They sat me down, served me tea and it was clear that they were treating me as an honored guess and this was important to them meeting me as it was to me meeting them.

Schachter: Okay, so you go the home of the Odeh family. Describe for us if you would, the moment of meeting Mohamed Odeh's children, the boy and the girl of the man who killed so many in the Hebrew University cafeteria that day and as you say, tried to murder your wife. What was that like?

Gershon: Well, you know, I had gone to Toys-R-Us in Jerusalem to buy them presents, you know, that I could give them upon my arrival at their home. And it was just something that I could do that would immediately show my intentions were good. And when I walked in and I sat down, I brought the presents out and looked at the Palestinian translator and asked the translator to tell them that you know, I had gifts that I would like to give to the children. They immediately called out to the courtyard and these children scampered in. And my first impression was that they were beautiful. I mean they were just nice children who had nothing to do with anything. And I gave the little girl a stencil set and the older boy a Rubic's Cube. And you know, both were just sweet and took the toys. And all I thought was they are nothing but normal.

Schachter: Have you gotten any closer do you think to understanding Mohamed Odeh and why he did what he did, and then ultimately expressed remorse?

Gershon: This meeting and this reconciliation with the family was able to bring me personally a measure of healing that nothing else was able to accomplish. And so while I can't say that that understanding has crystalized for me, something personally did that was helpful for me and also I think for the family as well. Can I get inside his head and understand fully why he would have done something like this? Obviously not. Do I justify it? Absolutely not.

Schachter: So you've been trying to meet him, but the prison officials from what I understand, won't let you in. If you were to meet Mohamed Odeh, what would you tell him?

Gershon: I think my first question would be why? Why did you do what you did? And then my second question would probably be are you really sorry? And after that I think the conversation, if it ever materialized, would have to go from there.

Schachter: Maybe you could talk about his kids and your kids.

Gershon: Certainly, I mean if such a meeting ever were to take place, if the Israeli authorities were to allow me to meet with him, it would be a conversation that I would like to have. And people have asked me, you know, why did I forgive him. I want to make clear that I didn't forgive him. I haven't forgiven him. I haven't met with him and I don't know if I would be capable of doing such a thing, even if such a meeting were to materialize.

Schachter: You can read more about David Harris-Gershon's experience in his book. It's called "What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife." David, thank you for the time.

Gershon: Hey, thanks, I appreciate it.