The author of What Do You Buy The Children of the Terrorist Who Tried To Kill Your Wife? tells Francine Wolfisz how his wife, Jamie, narrowly avoided being killed in the 2002 bombing at Hebrew University – and why he wanted to meet the man behind the deadly attack
“I have never forgiven and I never will – but I’m not angry. The best emotion I can attach to everything now is sadness,” confesses David Harris-Gershon, whose life changed irrevocably after a terrorist bombing in Jerusalem more than a decade ago.
The American-Jewish author is referring to that fateful day in 2002 when a bomb ripped through a cafeteria at Hebrew University and killed his friends, Ben and Marla.
Remarkably his wife Jamie, who was with them at a table right next to where the bomb was placed, just happened to reach down into her backpack at the precise moment the bomb went off. She survived – albeit after suffering horrific burns and shrapnel embedded in her abdomen.
But little did Harris-Gershon realise that he too would need to embark on a process of recovery – even though he was not caught up in the bombing.
In fact, his personal journey would lead him back to East Jerusalem and into the family home of Mohammed Odeh, the Hamas terrorist who carried out the deadly attack.
It was not an act of “forgiveness”, he explains to me, merely one of trying to understand what drove Odeh to carry out such an atrocity in the first place – and an attempt to finally reconcile his own feelings about what had happened.
Now his experience has been turned into part-memoir, part-investigation in his recently-released book, What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?
Evocative and honest, Harris-Gershon recalls in detail the events leading up to the fatal bombing, which claimed the lives of nine people and injured more than 100.
The 39-year-old author tells me: “We had been living in Israel for around two years before it happened. When we had arrived in 2000, we thought peace might be imminent following the negotiated talks between Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat, but that fell apart and instead we found ourselves living through the Second Intifada.
“We used to hear that phrase, ‘Yihyeh Beseder’, or ‘everything will be fine’ – but when you hear people saying that it usually means you need to start worrying.
“Jamie and I made a conscious decision to be as safe as possible, meaning we would not travel on buses, we would only frequent restaurants and cafes that had an armed guard out front and we would not go to large, public places. It was really something on our minds on a daily basis.”
While taking these measures to ensure their safety, Harris-Gershon admits in his book that everyone also “pretended the university was off limits” and that it was instead, “an oasis of integrated study outside of the greater conflict. An agreed-upon no-fire zone.”
He adds: “I think that’s one of the main reasons why the bombing was so shocking, because there was an unwritten understanding this was a place that would not be targeted, because there were so many Palestinian students there as well. But I was not unaware of the dangers.”
In fact, the political columnist recalls in the weeks leading up to the bombing, newspapers had highlighted the seemingly relaxed security at Hebrew University.
“In reality it was a place that was quite vulnerable”, he acknowledges.
Those fears came to fruition all too powerfully on the day Mohammed Odeh simply flashed his Jerusalem identity card at security, retrieved a backpack stuffed with explosives, nails and bolts that he had hidden under some bushes close to the university’s barrier fences on the previous day, and then made his way, unsuspected, towards the Frank Sinatra cafeteria.
Jamie, then aged 26, was caught up in the terrifying explosion while revising with friends for a Hebrew exam. The only reason she survived, her husband tells me, is that she bent underneath the table to get something from her bag just as the explosion ripped through the room.
When he arrived at the hospital, Harris-Gershon pushed his way through the crowds of terrified relatives until he finally found his wife.
“I didn’t recognise her at first, because her face was bloated, her neck had first degree burns and her hair was singed. I didn’t know it was her, but I knew it was because the doctors told me it was her.”
Jamie had also undergone surgery to remove a metal nut embedded in her stomach – and while he was surprised when the doctor then gave it to him, Harris-Gershon tells me that it is still in his possession today.
He reveals: “I keep it in a backpack at home. I don’t take it out very often, but it is the only tangible thing I have to say this is something that she experienced, that we experienced.”
As the weeks passed, Jamie finally grew strong enough to fly to the United States – and have never returned as a couple to Israel. The father-of-two admits that more than ten years after the bombing, that still remains a “theoretical desire”.
Once back home in Pittsburgh, the couple began to rebuild their lives, but a year after the terrorist attack that shattered their life in Israel, Harris-Gershon began to experience the symptoms of post-traumatic stress in response to what had happened to his wife, including anxiety and insomnia.
He tried therapy, but when this does not work he decided to confront the traumatic event head-on.
“I began to research what had happened and learnt that Odeh had expressed remorse for what he had done. I knew instinctively the only way I could move forward was to meet Odeh. To try and understand why and who he was and how this had happened.”
After four years of research and with the help of Palestinian and Israeli advocates from the non-profit organisation, The Compassionate Listening Project, the determined journalist finally tracked down Odeh’s family and arranged a meeting.
He had wanted to meet the Hamas terrorist, who was jailed for life, but from what he understands, the Israeli government did not want the meeting to take place.
“It was quite unprecedented for someone like him to express remorse, so they didn’t want me talking to Odeh because of the possibility of him being ‘humanised’”, says Harris-Gershon.
But in 2007 he did return to Israel and received “a very warm welcome” from the Hamas terrorist’s family.
He continues: “I met a family who had also been traumatised. They had no idea he was involved and expressed how they would have done anything possible to try and stop this. Their family had been ripped apart, because they no longer have a father, a son, a brother who is available to them anymore. He will spend the rest of his life in prison.”
The meeting had a profound effect on Harris-Gershon – even though for wife Jamie it was “something she did not want to be a part of.”
Today, Harris-Gershon feels he is in a good place and that he has gained “a greater understanding of the historical context from which Odeh came.”
The author, who still maintains contact with the family, concludes: “I do not justify, nor legitimise what he did – because there is no justification for murder – and I never will.
“But I am also willing to understand the very real traumas he grew up with as a Palestinian.
“It’s important to think about the context from which this came, while also being wise enough not to justify his response. That I could never do.”
What Do You Buy The Children of the Terrorist Who Tried To Kill Your Wife? by David Harris-Gershon is published by Oneworld, priced £12.99.